There were multiple large-scale natural and man-made disasters in 2017. Myriad local and state agencies as well as the National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency responded and in cases like Puerto Rico, are still at work. Congress allocated billions of dollars to recovery efforts, but much of that was top-down-driven and reactive in nature.
Each year, U.S. Army North brings in partners across the joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational spectrum to rehearse collective reactions based on calamities listed in National Planning Scenarios. Is there a better way to increase preparedness and resiliency in the American populace? A better way that is more localized, yet uses the same conceptual basis the military has for overseas operations like the Army’s pre-positioned stocks storage sites?
Operation Prepared Guardian
I argue yes, and I propose a partnered next step in achieving the goal of a disaster-resilient America: Operation Prepared Guardian. The basic premise is this: Members of the National Guard maintain at home a simple, neighborhood-level support kit to utilize in the event of local devastation.
The National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have a long history of working together during catastrophes in the U.S. FEMA Director Brock Long has repeatedly stated that Americans need a “culture of preparedness” when it comes to natural and man-made disasters. He has also indicated that citizens share some of the responsibility for readiness and training. This is a laudable but challenging objective.
As an active-duty Army officer commanding a unit that trains members of the National Guard, I’ve seen their commitment to the homeland. We could not ask for a better group of citizen-soldiers. Currently, our battalion’s partners in Puerto Rico are assisting in operations on their island. Other states we work with have sent personnel to hurricane-recovery efforts on the mainland. Additionally, research from the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies on National Guard preparedness levels for their own families found they are more likely to be ready when disaster strikes than civilians at large.
With the nation focused heavily this past year on tragedy, now is an excellent time to have FEMA’s culture of preparedness link proactively with National Guard soldiers, leveraging their character, commitment, training and logistical possibilities.
In disaster, to mitigate loss of life and property damage, quick reaction is essential. The “Cajun Navy,” comprised of decentralized, grass-roots citizens helping their brethren by using their private boats to access flooded areas, went from being scorned by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina to being embraced in 2017 hurricane-response efforts.
Juxtapose the Cajun Navy with the five regional pre-positioned storage sites throughout the world. These centralized stocks contain warfighting equipment the Army can use in a “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” scenario when rapid employment of material in a combat theater is essential. Operation Prepared Guardian takes a similar mindset, but applies it to decentralized disaster response on American soil.
The proposal is simple. FEMA, working with the National Guard and states and territories, authorizes and helps procure basic provisions members of the Guard would keep at their personal homes and then utilize upon activation. The supply list is short, cost-effective, easy to use and store, and has a long shelf life.
The items are rice and beans (cooked together they make a complete protein that contains all essential amino acids); propane camping stoves with cookware, dishes and silverware; water-filtration units; basic sanitary supplies such as soap, wet wipes and washcloths; and first-aid supplies. The quantities are scalable based upon the individual soldier’s unique circumstances and the program would be voluntary. Training is minimal. Stored properly, even the rice and beans have a 10-year-plus shelf life and could be sold to local schools, prisons, homeless shelters or places of worship at cost, and then replaced with fresh stocks before their expiration date.
Resiliency in Action
Recently, President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members shifted policy wording to focus on resiliency. This is resiliency in action. As risk analyst Nassim Taleb would say, this is building “antifragility” into the system as the volatility and randomness of the nation’s disasters—from small-scale to large—could make the country stronger and better adapted to future hazards. Operation Prepared Guardian could then expand, possibly to include firefighters or fire stations, police officers, emergency medical technicians, Reservists and active-duty soldiers.
Each state or territory would of course retain the power to tailor the kits to their own needs and potential vulnerabilities. Imagine if just a quarter of the 12,000 National Guard members from Texas had a 10-day supply of food for 10 people each. That would be 30,000 fellow citizens getting a warm meal for over a week while national assets were mobilized and pushed into the area to help. Or look at Puerto Rico; approximately 2,750 Guard members are on duty with many others working their “day job” as police officers and first responders. What if a fraction of them had water-filtration units? How much suffering and illness might have been mitigated?
The habitual familiarity between FEMA and the National Guard is strong. In 2017 alone, from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic to wildfires throughout the West to mudslides in West Virginia, FEMA was there and so was the National Guard.
Future threats include a mix of calamities the National Planning Scenarios war-game against, such as weapons of mass destruction, earthquakes and cyberattacks. A culture of preparedness will not prevent these events, but can serve to mitigate their deleterious effects. As the motto of the National Guard states: “Always Ready, Always There.” We should prepare, together.