In Sandy's aftermath, military brings rescue swimmers and 'bucket trucks'

The US military has manpower, equipment, and skills that make it uniquely suited to disaster relief. In the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, it is filling in important gaps.

Mark Lennihan/AP
A New York Air National Guard helicopter flies above the George Washington Bridge towards Manhattan Wednesday in New York.

As the cleanup continues in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, some 12,000 National Guard troops have been mobilized to active-duty status in more than a dozen states to provide rescue and relief.

The Pentagon brings its own unique skills and equipment to the nation’s natural-disaster response. Mobilizing quickly in the wake of calamity – both forecast and unexpected – is, after all, the US military’s specialty. 

So, too, is quickly mobilizing supplies, including food, transport, and specialists like rescue swimmers and engineers. The Pentagon has long relied on these sorts of quick-reacting supply lines to win its wars, part of the military maxim that “amateurs think about tactics, but professionals think about logistics.”

Those capabilities have come in handy in the wake of the Category 1 hurricane. ”What we provide to FEMA and the state governors at their request is just a myriad of support and response and rescue capabilities, so that they can pick and choose what they need, and they know they’ll have it,” says Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a Pentagon spokesman. “We can go anywhere in the country and get it quickly if they don’t have it.”

That begins with the raw manpower of the National Guard. Even before Sandy made landfall this week, more than 61,000 National Guardsmen were standing by to lend a hand to civilian authorities. Now, those who have been activated are helping state police and local fire departments with rescues, debris removal, and evacuation of hospitals.

In West Virginia, which has been hit by severe snow, Guard troops were busy patrolling the highways for stranded motorists, said Pentagon Press Secretary George Little.

And wherever it goes, the military brings a suite of useful equipment with it.

Some 140 helicopters have been deployed for search-and-rescue missions, cargo carrying, and preparing shelters. Helicopters also help get state government officials up in the air to “show them to coastlines, so they can make assessments of what’s needed there,” Colonel Crosson says.

Meanwhile, cargo planes help emergency officials move pieces around the chessboard. On Thursday, the US military sent C-5 and C-17 planes to California to pick up “civilian power vehicles” to bring to New York, adds Colonel Crosson. This included “bucket trucks” and pickups to help work on the downed lines and power grids in New York and New Jersey.

The military also has its own high water vehicles and Humvees to get into isolated areas. 

For its part, the Army Corps of Engineers has “fanned out” throughout affected areas to see what kind of expertise it can lend to affected states. “The Corps has been very aggressive,” said Mr. Little.

This expertise has included helping to restore power to the “several million households” on the East Coast that remain without electricity, according to Little.

Another top priority has been assessing and starting to clean out flooded tunnels, homes, and electrical substations. “The Army Corps of Engineers has a great deal of experience in what they call ‘unwatering,’ which involves pumping water out of tunnels and other sites,” he added.

To this end, nine small assistance teams are at tunnels throughout New York, “working with city officials and engineers to determine what’s needed to get that water out,” Crosson says.

US Navy sailors are pitching in to track down “industrial-size pumps” for their Army Corps of Engineers brethren working in the tunnels of New York City, noted Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Navy’s Chief of Information, on his blog.

As of Wednesday, the Navy was continuing to move ships closer to the areas affected by the hurricane, though they have not yet been called upon to provide support, Admiral Kirby added. “This will allow our forces to be best postured to minimize the amount of time it will take these forces to get on station if tasked.”

In the meantime, the Pentagon has offered up generators, vehicles, and troops to assess damage and deliver supplies.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “has been very clear that whatever requests come in – in support of our disaster relief efforts,” Little said. “We’re going to be very forward-leaning.”

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