Florida Guard Able to Cope with Record-Setting Storms
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer
Even with a significant chunk of its National Guard troops deployed overseas, Florida was able to muster enough soldiers and military equipment to provide emergency assistance after the worst series of hurricanes to hit any state in more than a century, state officials say.
Florida's storms provided a major test of the ability of state-based National Guard troops to fulfill their principal domestic mission to respond to natural and local disasters even as significant numbers of units have been called up by the Pentagon and deployed overseas.
Not since Texas was hit by four hurricanes in 1886 has a single state been struck so many times in a single hurricane season, triggering widespread destruction and electricity outages.
Since the start of the war in Iraq, where National Guard and reservists provide about 40 percent of U.S. military might, state officials have expressed concerns that they might be left shorthanded in the event of hurricanes, floods, wildfires or domestic terrorist attacks. National Guard troops, made up of part-time citizen soldiers, serve at the discretion of the governor unless called to federal active duty.
"We like to have at least at least 50 percent available to the governor of every state to respond to any kind of emergency," said Scott Woodham, spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, the federal agency that oversees Guard activities.
Florida's wild weather hit as almost one-fifth or about 2,400 of its 12,000 Guard members were stationed overseas.
The quadruple pounding from hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne led Florida to activate more than 7,000 guardsmen at varying times over the two-month onslaught of storms, according to Guard officials. At one point during Hurricane Frances, which made landfall over Labor Day weekend, 5,700 Florida Guard troops were activated at once almost half of the state's total force.
Luckily for residents of the Southeast, hurricane-stricken states such as Florida have lower percentages of their total Guard force mobilized for overseas duty right now than states in other parts of the country.
Four states -- Hawaii, Indiana, New Hampshire and Washington currently have more than half of their Guard members mobilized for federal service, down from nine states in August.
Although the lion's share of Guard members assisting in Florida were from state units, Florida also brought in several hundred more guardsmen from other states to help.
Florida took advantage of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), an agreement that routinely enables states to share emergency resources and to bring in troops with special expertise and equipment such as aircraft from other states.
At least nine states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas) have assisted Florida through EMAC. The troops' tasks have included helping coordinate the distribution of emergency supplies such as food and ice water and directing traffic in places without power.
Florida officials say its Guard deployments overseas have not resulted in personnel or equipment shortages.
"Not all of our pilots are gone, not all of our vehicles are gone and not all of our infantry is gone," said Capt. Diana Travis, spokeswoman for the Florida National Guard. "So we still have the assets available to respond to emergencies in our homeland."
Besides Florida, tropical weather and flooding this season have prompted significant call-ups of guardsmen in several other states, including Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Guard officials say all of those states had enough troops available to cope with the storms.
Luckily, in spite of a continuing drought, most of the western United States has dodged major wildfires so far this year, alleviating demands on National Guard units. Although Alaska faced record fires, the area in the lower 48 states affected by wildfires this year so far is about half the average for the past 10 years.