By Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Florida National Guard Public Affairs
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (09/03/2008) - If the southeast U.S. 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 her 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 was to southern Louisiana on Sunday to help with medical evacuations of special needs patients, and deployed four of its Regional Emergency Response Network (RERN) trailers to the area to help first responders communicate after the storm, explained Maj. Gen. Douglas Burnett, adjutant general of Florida Monday morning during a state-level press conference.
But as the central Gulf Coast began to clean up after the Category 2 Hurricane Gustav struck, all eyes were on three other tropical 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.
On Wednesday morning in West Palm Beach, Soldiers from the 254th Transportation Battalion tracked the progress of Tropical Storm Hanna and made sure their equipment – including high-water military vehicles – were ready for action.
“In the last four years we’ve supported at least eight hurricanes throughout the whole state,” said 254th Battalion executive officer, Maj. Jeffrey Strickle, in his office at the Callaway Armory in West Palm Beach.
Strickle and his administration staff were checking the latest update of Tropical Storm Hanna’s track on the National Hurricane Center’s website. By comparing the newest update to previous models, they noted the storm appeared to be veering east and farther way from Florida’s coastline. That update path was potential good news for Florida, but Strickle noted Tropical Storm Ike was not far behind and its track put it as a strengthening hurricane moving towards Florida’s southern tip. And beyond that on the Atlantic weather chart was Tropical Storm Josephine.
The 254th Transportation Battalion was ready and waiting regardless of what was coming, Strickle said. He explained that although the unit had more than 150 Soldiers currently deployed to Afghanistan they could call up more than 220 Soldiers immediately for any storm recovery missions. Military police from the battalion were available for security assistance missions, the transportation companies had military tractor trucks ready for hauling supplies like ice or water, and the entire battalion was “well versed” in operating Points of Distribution (PODs) during emergencies. The battalion’s contingent of high-water vehicles – including Light Medium Tactical Vehicles (LMTV) – were prepared for driving through flooded areas if needed after a storm passed.
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.
Truckmaster for the battalion’s 218th Transportation Company Sgt. 1st Class Robert Talent, who helped with the assessment missions, noted the LMTVs can traverse areas flooded with several feet of water and since the battalion has new vehicles they are perfect for storm recovery in Florida.
“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.’”
Another battalion member closely monitoring the Atlantic storms was Staff Sgt. Mike Neal, a resident of West Palm Beach who 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 5 p.m. on Wednesday Tropical Storm Hanna was projected to pass to the east of Florida and head north towards North Carolina, but Tropical Storm Ike was upgraded to a hurricane moving west towards the Bahamas, according to the National Hurricane Center.