I send my best wishes to those in South Carolina who have been affected by Hurricane Matthew and its aftermath. I was in Charleston, SC, the week before last, and I will do a separate post about my presentation at the Citadel.
No-one expects a hurricane or other natural disaster. But we prepare knowing that one day, there will be one, and we will be ready to respond and to aid others when it does. Training others in this kind of readiness has been my goal in holding a weekend field training exercise (FTX) each Fall for the past six or seven years. We had planned for months to hold this year’s Operation Lost in the Woods on the second weekend in October, at a farm in Rockmart in northwest Georgia.
The advance party arrived Friday and set up camp, and the main task force arrived on Saturday. We had members of the U.S. Army 5th Special Forces from Fort Campell, KY; B Company SAR TEAM 1, Young Marines from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia; northwest Georgia units from Civil Air Patrol and Bartow County EMA and CERT teams, as well as local Boy Scout support. The training included field preparation and field survival, operations communications, first aid, search and rescue, and the process for medical extraction. During these exercises, the coordination and cooperation between these different organizations is perhaps as valuable as the disaster response training itself, with Scout masters leading the Scouts, Ground Team Leaders directing the CERT teams, and the Young Marines had their own instructors and support staff. As the Officer in Charge, it was my responsibility to make sure they all worked together toward a common goal.
Also that weekend, Hurricane Matthew arrived in Florida and marched up the Atlantic coast. While our teams honed their disaster response skills at the FTX, those evacuating from the low-lying areas from Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina were streaming inland, many of them headed for shelters being set up in designated schools. In search and rescue training, there is a code for when something happens that is outside of the regular training, that it is no longer just an exercise. That code is the phrase “real world.” On Saturday afternoon, I was notified that the unit training at the farm (B Company SAR Team 1) was likely to be activated on Sunday morning for supporting hurricane recovery efforts, to support and reinforce National Guard units already deployed in our own state.
The initial call from headquarters directed us to Hard Labor Creek State Park in Rutledge, about 50 miles east of Atlanta, where we would establish another evacuation shelter and maintain it until relieved. Due to changing conditions, that mission was canceled while we were in route. The Red Cross was scrambling to find shelter assistance for the shelters, who would coordinate the shifts of personnel overseeing health services, distribution of the food and bedding, communication with family members, provide security, and all the paperwork. Our group joined the mission and we were re-routed to support shelters in Augusta. Everywhere there was a gap in their operations, we filled in as needed. I served as an Field Officer for the mission, and worked with Red Cross and EMS in the shelters.
As the hurricane past and the danger of flooding subsided and the citizens were being returned to their home towns, we worked to close down the shelters. This next phase was called Operation Bail Out and I was assigned be the Officer in Charge. After waving goodbye to the families and closed out all the shelters for the Red Cross, and then I dismissed all the soldiers, mine were the last boots on the ground for this mission. Other units still remain in support of ongoing recovery activities.
The disaster recovery is still in progress in North and South Carolina and there are still shelters in operation in South Carolina, but this Georgia mission is done. I am honored to be a part of it, and I’m glad we made a difference. It was a long weekend, to say the least: in the past 7 days, I watched 3 operations. But a few positive things emerged from this natural disaster. For trainers, conceiving training that will support the need of the disaster can be hard to design, but this year it was done for us. We got some good trained personnel who can handle a lot of stuff and now have a real understanding disaster recovery. In the shelter situations we supported in Augusta, it was understood this is a disaster and we have to get through it together. We were working with families that had to evacuate, and also with homeless persons who had to evacuate – everyone was equal in the disaster, and all were taken care of. This created an appreciation that is unusual. We often fall short of this awareness in our everyday lives, but in a disaster, we are able to excel.