Monday, December 11, 2017

Military Seeks to Learn Lessons of 2017 Hurricane Season

By Jim Garamone DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, Dec. 11, 2017 — The most recent hurricane season was not unprecedented in terms of the number of storms, but it was unprecedented in terms of damage, the commander of U.S. Army North said in a recent interview.

Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria delivered a combination of blows that caused great damage in Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and the military learned a great deal about defense support to civil authorities in the process.

Thousands of military personnel from all components mobilized and deployed to help the affected areas, and Buchanan -- as the Joint Force Land Component commander -- was in the thick of it.

U.S. Army North is the Army component for U.S. Northern Command. It works hand in glove with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the three storms were the largest domestic incident response in the history of that agency. “It was much larger than Katrina [in 2005],” Buchanan said. “It was many more days and from the total response of the government aspect, it was much larger.”

The swath covered by the storms contributed to the response.


Hurricane Harvey -- a Category 4 hurricane when it hit the Texas coast -- dropped record amounts of rain on Houston. Parts of the fourth largest city in the United States received more than 60 inches of rain.

Hurricane Irma -- a Category 5 storm -- hit the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Florida and Georgia.

Hurricane Maria -- a second Category 5 storm -- caused catastrophic damage in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

The storms hit close together, with Harvey lasting from Aug. 17 to Sept. 1, Irma lasting from Aug. 30 to Sept. 12, and Maria forming Sept. 16 and finally dissipating Sept. 30.

Officials said Harvey killed 82 people, Irma claimed 134 and the official death toll from Maria is 52.

The extent of the damage from all three storms was substantial and some officials estimate it could cost up to $200 billion.

The military response matched the size of the disasters. Thousands of National Guardsmen, reservists and active-duty personnel took part in search and rescue recovery operations.

Define the Problem

There were a lot of lessons learned from the response and defense support of civil authorities, Buchanan said, adding that he is putting them together for next year. “I believe that at the operational level you have to define the problem,” he said. “At the operational level the guidance is usually broad. If you spend your energy solving a problem, but you don’t really know what the problem is you may be off to the races in the wrong direction.

“I should have involved my staff more in this process," he continued. “I internally defined the problem and I got a quicker answer, but I am not sure I couldn’t have gotten a better, more informed position.”

The three storms required different responses. The state emergency management agencies had different capacities, equipment and personnel. Texas and Florida have large emergency management agencies and large National Guard forces and the capacity to cover large incidents.

“In Texas, we sent a forward command post with about 28 guys, which we beefed up to about 80,” he said. With the main headquarters for U.S. Army North in San Antonio, this acted as an extension of the command nearer the disaster area.

“In Florida, I had an even smaller footprint,” he said. “We sent about 10 guys with a lot of communications capability to link in with the dual-status commander and be essentially a liaison cell.”

Puerto Rico

But Puerto Rico really required something different, Buchanan said, including personal presence. He had to go to San Juan and had a much more robust headquarters.

In Puerto Rico, the island was completely overwhelmed. “It was overwhelmed first because it had weak infrastructure, it was vulnerable,” he said. “There were no underground power cables, for example, it was aboveground and it was old.”

The island was overwhelmed because of its small capacity and because it is isolated, the general said. “You can’t drive down I-10 or I-35 to bring in a bunch of stuff or people,” he said.

Finally, the power of the storms was extraordinary -- two Category 5 hurricanes separated by just 10 days. “[Maria] was a devastating storm and it didn’t just glance off the island, it hit on the southeast corner and went across the island and exited on the northwest,” Buchanan said. “It affected literally every part of the island. If we had the same storm in Texas or Florida, the effects would have been the same.”

Puerto Rico was a mammoth effort, he said. “We flew 2,200 sorties of strategic lift flying in [Puerto Rico],” the general said. “There was more than 2,300 rotary wing flight hours.”

National Guardsmen immediately responded and a Navy group centered around the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp sailed to the island as soon as it was safe enough to do so. National Guardsmen, sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen launched immediate search and rescue operations.

The hurricane cut the island off from its lifelines, so among the first tasks was reopening the airports and seaports.

Role of Culture in Recovery

The relief effort was initially a maritime command, but it switched to Buchanan's command. He said his initial lesson was that he needed to understand the culture. “Except for an overnight years before, I had never been in Puerto Rico,” he said. “We really have to understand what is going on with people if we want to be effective. In the end, it is all about dealing with people. As an outsider to Puerto Rico … it is easy to make judgments and snap decisions and that is dangerous.”

One aspect of the culture that jumped out to him was the power of community and the power of family. “It is far more important than it is in other areas of the United States,” the general said. “Once I recognized this, I was able to provide positive reinforcement when I saw neighbors helping neighbors, and then use that as a means to understand what was important to their culture.”

Buchanan said he learned that communicating with the community is an important aspect of the recovery process. “We were clearing the roads, but we were leaving the debris by the side of the road, and people wondered why,” he said. “Hauling the debris away would take time from the clearance operations. Hiring a local firm to haul away the debris is cheaper, and it pumps money into the economy. We had to communicate that.”

The work that followed the storms was led by Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello, who was in charge on the island, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which worked with Puerto Rican officials to determine what needed to be done. The military worked through those civilian agencies, and Buchanan said he sees no need for that to change.

A full after action report is working through the system now, the general said. He wants any recommendations made in place well before hurricane season begins in the spring.

Marshall Center, Munich Security Conference Host Russia-Focused Policy Discussions

By Christine June and Josh Southworth George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany, Dec. 11, 2017 — The George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and the Munich Security Conference’s Loisach Group met here Dec. 5-7 to discuss transatlantic policy solutions focused on Russia.

Invited national security experts and Marshall Center faculty evaluated the extent to which current U.S. and German policies toward Russia are coherent and structured to reduce tension between Russia and the West, officials said.

The group looked to identify U.S. and German collaborative approaches to diverse challenges such as the Ukraine, cybersecurity and Arctic security, officials explained, as well as ways to overcome or mitigate current disagreements among the transatlantic partners.

Foundation of the Loisach Group

The Marshall Center and the Munich Security Conference created a partnership in August to commit to mutual cooperation in the European security dialogue, leading to establishment of the Loisach Group, which seeks to provide U.S. and German defense policymakers with sound recommendations on deterring Russian aggression and building a constructive relationship with Moscow.

“The Loisach Group is the perfect platform for German and the U.S. to come together and speak frankly to one another on these issues,” said Ian Brzezinski, senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security’s Atlantic Council. “I think it is part of the process that German Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis wanted to create.”

This process was further strengthened in June, when Mattis and von der Leyen visited the Marshall Center on the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Marshall Plan, officials said, noting that both defense leaders stated the need to establish a strategic dialogue between their countries.

Wide Circulation of Recommendations

The policy ideas produced in the upcoming papers will be published through collaboration between the Marshall Center and Munich Security Conference to give the recommendations the widest possible circulation, officials said. 

“We think that the Loisach Group is the ideal platform for making a reality out of the concepts developed during a strategic dialogue.” said Jack Clarke, the Marshall Center’s lead professor for the Loisach Group.

The group will publish its findings in three separate papers at the end of the Munich Security Conference in February, bringing together conference speakers, Marshall Center faculty and other strategic policy experts to summarize what was accomplished during the conference and how to best use those findings in the future. The group will host a similar joint event with the Munich Security Conference during July’s NATO summit in Brussels, with the goal of addressing emerging security challenges. 

DoD Complying with Court Orders to Access Transgender Persons into the Military

As required by recent federal district court orders, the Department of Defense recently announced it will begin processing transgender applicants for military service on January 1, 2018. This policy will be implemented while the Department of Justice appeals those court orders.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia ordered DoD to implement, effective January 1, 2018, the accession policy issued by former Secretary Carter in 2016. DoD and the Department of Justice are actively pursuing relief from those court orders in order to allow an ongoing policy review scheduled to be completed before the end of March.

Under the 2016 Carter policy, a history of gender dysphoria is disqualifying unless, as certified by a licensed medical provider, the applicant has been stable without clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning for 18 months. Additionally, a history of medical treatment associated with gender transition is disqualifying unless, as certified by a licensed medical provider, the applicant has completed all medical treatment associated with the applicant’s gender transition, the applicant has been stable in the preferred gender for 18 months, and if presently receiving cross-sex hormone therapy post-gender transition, the individual has been stable on such hormones for 18 months.

Guidance also includes specific details for recruits with a history of sex reassignment or genital reconstruction surgery. Under the updated standards, these procedures would be disqualifying unless, as certified by a licensed medical provider, a period of 18 months has elapsed since the date of the most recent surgery, no functional limitations or complications persist, and no additional surgeries are required.