By Leischen Stelter
At 12:20 on Tuesday, August 28, Tropical Storm Isaac turned into Hurricane Isaac, with sustained winds reaching 75 mph. Isaac is a slow-moving storm system, gradually approaching the Louisiana-Mississippi coast where it is expected to make landfall tonight or early Wednesday morning, according to news reports.
Everyone from local officials all the way up to President Obama are urging residents to hunker down and be prepared to evacuate if directed to do so. The mayor of New Orleans has even warned residents that the city will not be providing shelters of last resort for residents who choose not to evacuate if told to do so.
One of those closely monitoring Hurricane Isaac is Dr. Christopher Reynolds, interim Program Director for Emergency & Disaster Management at American Public University System. Reynolds is currently on active duty with the U.S. Air Force as an Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer (EPLO) assigned to the National Security Emergency Preparedness Directorate (NSEP) at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida. He is a Lieutenant Colonel and is the Chief for the Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA) Cell, a response agency called in by the government to assist civil authorities during natural and man-made disasters. “Basically, we do anything that involves heavy lifting or things a local community cannot afford to do, or doesn’t have access to,” he said.
When Hurricane Isaac makes landfall, DSCA will work with local and state emergency managers as well as FEMA officials to coordinate the scale of assistance needed. It is important to remember, Reynolds said, that all disasters are handled by local civilian authorities and DoD support is requested and authorized through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) via a mission assignment request.
The DSCA does a lot of the behind-the-scene coordination and command and control. And it’s not only Hurricane Isaac they have to worry about. The DSCA is currently working three separate events simultaneously: Hurricane Isaac, the Republican National Convention and wildfires in the Northwest.
Reynolds’ role as the DSCA Chief is to coordinate the actions of deployed Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers (EPLO). Currently, there are 12 EPLOs posted around the Gulf as well as EPLOs assigned to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The RNC is a National Security Special Event (NSSE), which also falls under DSCA. Reynolds said coordination efforts for the RNC have been planned for nearly a year now, bringing together state, local and federal agencies to help prepare for the event.
I asked Reynolds how preparations for this hurricane differed from that of Hurricane Katrina. “Katrina was a game changer,” Reynolds said. During Hurricane Katrina, Reynolds’ team conducted air medical evacuations and flew more than 10,000 people to other facilities. While there were a lot of criticisms about the response, it was the impetus for valuable change in emergency management, he said. Hurricane Katrina rewrote emergency preparedness and response. Before Katrina, the National Response Plan was designed as an all-inclusive, rigid plan for response. Now the National Response Framework is just that, a framework that is modular in nature and can be implemented in sections as a situation escalates.
Reynolds was recently on a conference call with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate in preparation for Isaac. During that call, Fugate emphasized that hurricanes aren’t just a point on a map–they are wide and all inclusive, with extended ramifications in other regions. While the current focus is on how the storm will impact New Orleans, emergency response teams need to prepare for a series of other events throughout the country that are a result of this storm.
Reynolds has more than 35 years of emergency management experience in Tampa, Florida. When I asked him what the most critical skills were for emergency management leaders, he emphasized the importance of direct experience. “Boots on the ground are important when you’re in a position to direct forces in the field,” he said. “If you’ve done the job and you’ve been out in the field, you know the nuances and you know what teams are facing.” It’s important for leaders to know the capabilities and limitations of their teams, and know what they can and cannot accomplish.
As I was talking to Reynolds, he was watching a massive rain band move over Panama City caused by Hurricane Isaac. “We’re in Panama City, more than 300 miles from New Orleans, so that’s how big this storm is,” he said. For Reynolds’ team, all the preparation is done. Now it’s just a matter of waiting to see what happens. When Isaac makes landfall, Reynolds will send the damage assessment teams to assist local authorities and determine their needs and what type of assistance local authorities need with search and rescue or other efforts. After all, disasters are local, he said. “It’s primarily the responsibility of local civilian emergency management teams to mitigate this disaster. We want to be a force multiplier, providing logistic and other assistance to them,” he said.