National Guard: Ready for the storm

Jun 6, 2008

Orlando Sentinel--June 6, 2008

Darryl E. Owens
Sentinel Staff Writer

A year ago, state and federal officials worried about whether the war-stressed Florida National Guard was ready to handle the aftermath of a major hurricane at home.

Now, Guard leaders say their troops are in the best shape in four years for storm duty, thanks to an infusion of equipment and more soldiers on hand. Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, spokesman for the Florida Army National Guard, said the Guard has enough resources to respond to “even back-to-back [major hurricanes] and we will conduct an effective response to support our local and state leadership in the event of a natural disaster.”

By the numbers

In 2008, with fewer troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 11,000 soldiers and airmen can be mustered for hurricane duty. In 2007, it was about 10,500. The most Florida Guard troops ever marshaled for hurricane duty were the 6,500 soldiers in 1992 for Hurricane Andrew. Four years ago, 4,500 troops responded to that year’s devastating quartet of hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

What’s changed

The difference this year is the more than $45 million in new trucks, trailers, and equipment that has rolled in from the Army during the past six months.

That means the Florida Army National Guard has 70 percent of its federally authorized amount of equipment on hand. An additional $24 million in supplies, including 90 heavy trucks, are on the way in the next 90 days, Tittle said. Just before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, equipment inventory stood at about 74 percent.

Change of heart

When forecasters predicted a harsh hurricane season last year, critics warned that overseas conflicts had dangerously drained equipment and endangered the Guard’s readiness. Among the loudest was Sen. Bill Nelson, who said, “I don’t think there is a senator here . . . that feels good about the equipment in their National Guard.” This year, the senator “is certainly more confident today in their ability to handle a megastorm than last year,” said Bryan Gulley, a Nelson spokesman.

Skeptics remain

Critics, however, continue to warn that equipment shortages mean troops don’t get enough training time with the trucks, helicopters and other materials they would use after a storm struck. “It is unacceptable to operate at any level under 100 percent, and it is unfortunate and inexcusable that Floridians must sacrifice our security for the duration of the war and for years beyond,” said Chrystal Hutchison, a spokeswoman for the Florida Consumer Action Network.

What the state says

Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, downplays equipment concerns because the Guard trains year-round for hurricanes. “They’re still not up to their full allocation,” he said, “but it’s the best since 2004. I have high confidence.”

Fugate’s chief concern is the double whammy of consecutive relatively quiet hurricane seasons and a tough economy. The challenge: persuading Floridians not to relax and to invest in hurricane preparedness. “The difference between surviving and being a victim is having a plan,” Fugate said.