Virginia Guard personnel support Hurricane Irene recovery operations

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Virginia National Guard Soldiers from the West Point-based 237th Engineer Company use chain saws to clear a fallen tree near Onancock Aug. 28 after having been staged in on the Eastern Shore Region of Virginia since Aug. 26. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Owen, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

SANDSTON, Va. — The Virginia National Guard brought more than 350 personnel on state active duty to assist in the Commonwealth’s response to Hurricane Irene from Aug. 27 to 31, 2011. The Guard began staging forces Aug. 26 at readiness centers in Bowling Green, Emporia and Sandston as well as co-locating with Virginia State Police personnel in the Eastern Shore Region of Virginia near Onancock, and from there Soldiers worked with the VSP to clear nearly 350 fallen trees during the hurricane as well as in the immediate response after the storm had passed.

Virginia Guard engineers from the Bowling Green-based 189th Engineer Company, the West Point-based 237th Engineer Company and the Powhatan-based 180th Engineer Company cleared debris fields along the I-64, I-81 and I-95 corridors and in the Eastern Shore area, and transporters from the 1173rd Transportation Company performed commodity distribution and were on standby for possible high-water transport. Soldiers from the 189th and 237th used chain saws to clear trees that had trapped 10 motorists for more than seven hours on Route 5 near the Richmond National Battlefield Park, and Soldiers from 1173rd delivered sandbags in Franklin and moved commodity items in Suffolk.

“We were mobilized, staged and ready to do what we were asked to do,” said Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Long, Jr., the Adjutant General of  Virginia. “The hurricane impact was less than what we expected, and the local governments did a great job with their response, so it made our job much easier.”

Long credited months of training and preparation with the Guard’s interagency partners like the Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management with the rapid and well-coordinated response.

“Our Guardsmen certainly were happy to do the job, and I think Virginia should be proud of how well they did,” Long said.

The Virginia Guard continued the practice of staging forces at readiness centers in advance of the severe weather, but there were some new strategies implemented for this response that helped improve the organization’s performance, explained Col. Gerald T. Catrett, Joint Operations Officer for the Virginia Guard.

“We positioned forces rapidly in advance of the storm so we were prepared to respond,” Catrett said. “I think the Soldiers did remarkably well late Saturday night and early Sunday responding in the midst of storm surge winds. They went out at moderate risk to themselves to assist the citizens of the Commonwealth and did what they were asked to do. The next day when the storm had passed, they were out again working with our agency partners to clear debris fields.”

Linking up Virginia Guard chain saw teams with the Virginia State Police proved to be a very effective strategy, he said. “The troopers would guide our Soldiers to where the trees had fallen, and then provided support to make sure that they were protected from oncoming motorists while they worked. This enhanced the ability of our Soldiers to reduce the debris fields quickly and open up roadways.”

Catrett said that the VSP provide a liaison officer to work in the Virginia Guard’s Joint Operations Center, and that was a tremendous help in making effective coordination between the two agencies.The Virginia Defense Force provided Incident Management Assistance Teams using special communication packages that helped   provide critical communication capability during the response.

“We used the Virginia Defense Force in a different role,” Catrett said. “The IMATs allowed us to maintain contact with units that were deployed forward. Without the support from the VDF, interoperable communications would have been a huge challenge for us. With them, it was seamless. We never lost communication with our forces in the Eastern Shore area, and that enabled us to stay in contact with the unit commander to maintain situational awareness and provide them with mission taskings.”

Personnel were also on duty at the Virginia Guard Joint Operations Center in Sandston, at the Virginia Emergency Operations Center in Midlothian and at Fort Pickett providing command and control and logistical support. The Virginia Guard was authorized to bring as many as 500 personnel on state active duty to support Hurricane Irene operations and additional forces had been alerted for possible duty but were not needed.

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