By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 4, 2008 - If the Southeast is taking a one-two-three combination punch from tropical storms this month, then Florida is the boxer in the middle trying to dodge the destructive swings. As Tropical Storm Hanna set its sights on the mid-Atlantic coastline, the Florida National Guard continued what has become weeks of ongoing vigilance during the peak of the 2008 hurricane season.
After wrapping up recovery efforts for flooding from Tropical Storm Fay in late August, the Florida National Guard immediately sent aircraft and communications equipment -- along with the personnel to operate them -- to Louisiana to assist with Hurricane Gustav missions.
Florida dispatched a C-23 Sherpa airplane to southern Louisiana on Aug. 31 to help with medical evacuations of special-needs patients, and deployed four of its Regional Emergency Response Network trailers to the area to help first responders communicate after the storm, Army Maj. Gen. Douglas Burnett, Florida's adjutant general, said during a state-level news conference Sept. 1.
But as the central Gulf Coast began to clean up after the Category 2 Hurricane Gustav struck, all eyes were on three other storms churning their way through the Atlantic: Hanna, Ike and Josephine.
Full-time Guard personnel across the state ensured plans, equipment and personnel were ready if any of the storms strengthened and threatened Florida. If needed, more than 9,000 members of the Florida National Guard could immediately be called for disaster recovery missions.
Yesterday morning in West Palm Beach, soldiers from the 254th Transportation Battalion tracked Hanna's progress and made sure their equipment – including high-water military vehicles – was ready for action.
"In the last four years, we've supported at least eight hurricanes throughout the whole state," Army Maj. Jeffrey Strickle, 254th Battalion executive officer, said in his office at the Callaway Armory in West Palm Beach.
Strickle and his administration staff were checking the latest update of Hanna's track on the National Hurricane Center's Web site. By comparing the newest update to previous models, they noted the storm appeared to be veering east and farther away from Florida's coastline.
That updated path prediction was good news for Florida, but Strickle noted Tropical Storm Ike was not far behind, and its track put it as a strengthening hurricane moving toward Florida's southern tip. And beyond Ike on the Atlantic weather chart was Tropical Storm Josephine.
The 254th Transportation Battalion was ready and waiting regardless of what's coming, Strickle said. He explained that although the unit has more than 150 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, it could call up more than 220 soldiers immediately for storm recovery missions.
military police from the battalion are available for security assistance missions, the transportation companies have military tractor trucks ready for hauling supplies such as ice or water, and the entire battalion is "well versed" in operating distribution points during emergencies.
The battalion's contingent of high-water vehicles – including light medium tactical vehicles, or LMTVs – are prepared for driving through flooded areas if needed after a storm passes.
After Tropical Storm Fay brought heavy rain to much of Florida, members of the 254th used the high-water vehicles in four South Florida counties to help emergency first responders perform damage and flood assessment. One of their missions – along with soldiers from the Guard's 116th Field Artillery Regiment – was to help evacuate flood victims in Okeechobee County.
"Overall, it wasn't bad, but there certainly was a need in certain remote areas in each county," Strickle said, noting the local emergency operations centers were reassured by the Guard's presence.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Talent, truckmaster for the battalion's 218th Transportation Company, helped with the assessment missions and noted the LMTVs can traverse areas flooded with several feet of water. The battalion's new vehicles are perfect for storm recovery in Florida, he said.
"The LMTV is very useful, because it is so versatile," he explained, pointing out the five high-water trucks in the motor pool behind the West Palm Beach armory. "It can haul cargo and hold passengers. Everything is already prepared. They are ready. These are brand-new vehicles. These are ready to go at all times. Everything is 'green status.'"
Army Staff Sgt. Mike Neal, a West Palm Beach resident, acts as the unofficial "stormtracker" for the unit. He follows the tracks of the storms on the Internet several times each day, and provides updates to senior leadership at the armory.
Although he has no meteorological training, Neal said that like many Floridians, he follows storm formation in the tropics throughout hurricane season and prepares his family in case he has to leave for disaster recovery with the National Guard.
"Basically, from June until the end of October, you have to be ready for anything," Neal explained. "My wife and I stock up on supplies and water. If you've been down here for a long time, it's just second-nature. You just have to have a bag packed and be ready to go at any time."
By this morning, Tropical Storm Hanna was projected to pass to the east of Florida and head north toward North Carolina, but Ike, now a hurricane, was moving west toward the Bahamas, according to the National Hurricane Center.
(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa serves in the Florida National Guard Public Affairs Office.)