EXCLUSIVE -- Dual-Status, Single Purpose: A Unified Military Response to Hurricane Sandy
March 11, 2013
By: Gen. Charles H. Jacoby, Jr., and Gen. Frank J. Grass
On the evening of October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy roared ashore and wreaked devastation upon the people and infrastructure of New York and New Jersey. It was the worst natural disaster to strike our shores since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. And while destructive, Sandy’s effects could have been much worse if not for the cooperative efforts of local leaders and first responders, the National Guard, the Department of Defense (DoD), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other state and federal agencies.
Even as long-term recovery efforts continue in the hardest hit communities of the Northeast, it is worth pausing to reflect on how our military forces performed in the response to Sandy, and in particular noting the success of the Dual-Status Commander concept that aligns both National Guard and federal military forces under a single leader.
To begin, Sandy reinforced a basic principle of domestic disaster response, and that is local civilian first responders remain the fastest and most effective forces available. Local police, firefighters, paramedics and government officials have the extraordinary responsibility to protect life and meet the immediate needs of its citizens while setting the stage for a long-term community recovery. Volunteers, non-profits, corporations and faith-based organizations also fill a critical role in helping people who have been impacted. These first responders and local volunteers may suffice in routine emergencies. However, in complex disasters like Hurricane Sandy, which may span multiple states and municipalities, the demands of the crisis have the potential to exceed local capacity to meet those needs. This is when our military must be ready to respond.
The National Guard, as the military’s first responders in most domestic disasters, provides the next layer of response, offering the governor a robust response force. National Guard forces enjoy tremendous acceptance and trust within their communities and are empowered by emergency management assistance compacts and other agreements that enable rapid sharing of capabilities between states. Finally, upon the governor’s request and approval of the President or Secretary of Defense, DoD forces operating under Title 10 may be introduced as an additional layer of response capabilities -- a “strategic reserve” to support lead federal agencies supporting state and local authorities.
This tiered and scalable response construct, as described in the National Response Framework, has served us well through several emergencies. But its bottom-up process for requesting military support can be too cumbersome and time-consuming in a large-scale, complex disaster. Which brings us to the second lesson: we simply cannot be late to respond when our citizens are in danger.
If we wait until we receive a request before we start identifying and preparing our forces, they may not arrive in time to help. In a complex catastrophe, response time equates to potential human suffering. Yet, we also must respect the sovereignty and responsibility of state and local authorities. A top-down analysis of potential requests must be conducted and assets staged ahead of time so that we can respond quickly with relationships already built; processes practiced and honed by training and exercising together to save lives; and to help our communities get back to normal.
Even before Sandy made landfall, as states prepositioned first responders and National Guard forces -- and FEMA readied its assets -- thousands of active-duty and reserve DoD forces were placed on standby, positioned to rapidly respond when called. DoD coordinating officers were deployed to FEMA’s joint field offices to facilitate requests for federal military assistance. A joint support element was established at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey to serve as a forward staging point for relief supplies and personnel, and the USS Wasp Amphibious Ready Group began steaming towards the area to render assistance. Thanks to this forward-leaning stance, DoD forces stood ready to quickly assist National Guard forces in helping those who lay in Sandy’s destructive path.
The complexity of the Sandy relief efforts highlights a third lesson: the importance of establishing a clear chain of command that ensures operational unity of effort that achieves the balance between timeliness and respect for civil authority. In the midst of a complex catastrophe, with Title 32 National Guard forces from multiple states working alongside Title 10 active duty and reserve forces, there is a potential for confusion in the chain of command, which risks undermining unity of effort -- a key principle of military operational effectiveness. We simply cannot afford to have our military forces working at cross-purposes without effective coordination and synergy that could hamper time-critical search and rescue and lifesaving operations. Nor can we impose multiple uniformed voices on stressed federal, state and local civilian agencies.
Last year, Congress took a bold step to prevent such an occurrence. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act built upon earlier legislation to enable individual states and DoD to coordinate their efforts through a single commander, usually a National Guard officer, who is given tactical control of both state-controlled National Guard forces and DoD military forces. While state and federal military forces maintain separate and distinct chains of command, this Dual-Status Commander leads all military forces and directs their response efforts, achieving a level of unity of effort that was unachievable or difficult prior to implementation of this construct.
During Hurricane Sandy, this unity of effort enabled much-needed assistance from DoD to move quickly to support states. For example, with the US Transportation Command we were able to move 262 power restoration vehicles and 429 support personnel from western states to New York and New Jersey. With the US Army Corps of Engineers we contributed 100 large pumps that were able to remove 475 million gallons of flood water from tunnels and basements. And with the Defense Logistics Agency, we helped distribute six million meals and 8.1 million gallons of unleaded and diesel fuel to the people of both states.
While the Dual-Status Commander construct was put in place for several small-scale emergencies such as the Colorado and California wildfires, and for key national-level events including the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, Hurricane Sandy marked the first time that actual tactical control of National Guard and DoD active and reserve forces was given to Dual-Status Commanders for a major, multi-state natural disaster. While this inaugural use of Dual-Status Commanders wasn’t flawless, in the end we can say with conviction that the concept works. It is simply the best command and control construct that exists for responding effectively and efficiently to complex disasters, because it can bring the full weight of the DoD response to the worst man-made or natural disasters while maintaining the authority of state and local governments.
Nobody knows a state better than its governor, the individual elected by the people and accountable to them during their time of greatest need. The governor, working with the National Guard adjutant general, will continue to lead disaster response and recovery efforts within their state. A Dual-Status Commander allows them to do it better by ensuring all types of DoD support work together within the governor’s intent. It allows the President and Secretary of Defense to bring the weight of unique DoD capabilities and national capacity to bear when our citizens most need it, and when the interests of the entire country are at stake. And, it allows US Northern Command to achieve its vision of working with partners to outpace threats and support the American people in their times of greatest need.
Although the Dual-Status Commander concept is relatively new, it has already proven itself to be a powerful tool for improving responsiveness, command and control, continuity of operations and unity of effort. Together, we will maintain an open dialog with the Council of Governors and state adjutants general to ensure the many lessons from Hurricane Sandy are indeed learned, incorporated into our planning, and battle-tested during complex disaster exercises.
When the next major disaster strikes, we will be even better prepared to serve the American people.