BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
As Tropical Storm Matthew intensified and morphed into a category 5 Hurricane over the Caribbean this past September, Air Force Reserve Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers in the Southeast United States prepared for the worst.
16 EPLOs from Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 4 were activated in the early days of October to assist states from Florida to North Carolina with coordinating Air Force support of disaster relief efforts.
EPLOs are Individual Mobilization Augmentees assigned to 1st Air Force's National Security Emergency Protection Directorate, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. It is their job to facilitate the civilian authority’s request for air support in the aftermath of a disaster. Each branch of the military has its own EPLOs
Col. Paul Pinkstaff, the southeast regional EPLO, was on a FedEx flight in the Pacific as the hurricane barreled toward Florida. He cut his trip short and headed home through Hawaii to set up shop at the Regional Response Coordination Center in Atlanta.
At the RRCC, Pinkstaff had the task of interfacing with FEMA and the other agencies involved at the regional level. As he and other emergency response officials prepared for landfall, they expected there would be a big need for Air Force support.
As luck would have it, Hurricane Matthew only brushed the coast of Florida and Georgia, not making landfall until it reached South Carolina, on Oct. 8, as a category 1 hurricane. There was still the tidal surge and buckets of rain to contend with, but nowhere near the amount of destruction had the massive hurricane swept inland. Because of this, the states were able use National Guard and other local assets to support recovery efforts.
“The states are much better prepared since Hurricane Katrina,” said Pinkstaff.
Still, the EPLOs had a role to play, helping to coordinate support at three Air Force bases and numerous Civil Air Patrol search and rescue and aerial photography missions.
Pinkstaff said Dobbins Air Reserve Base and Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, and North Auxiliary Airfield, South Carolina, were all incident support bases that provided assistance to FEMA. The CAP, which was recently realigned under the EPLO’s parent organization, 1st Air Force, provided 80 percent of inland search and rescue.
The role of the CAP was especially important in North Carolina, which, due to severe river flooding, was hit hardest and longest. Col. Chris Whitmire is the EPLO there, and was present for the historic flooding event, which resulted in 28 deaths and more than half of the state’s 100 counties being declared in a state of emergency; 45 have since been approved for federal disaster relief funds.
Whitmire said the 15 inches of rain brought by the hurricane exacerbated flooding that hit the state just a week earlier. The worst of the damage happened away from the coast long after the storm was over, with every major river in the state exceeding historic flood levels. Whitmire was in place as an EPLO for 12 days, working 14-18 hour shifts.
The worst of it came about three nights after the hurricane moved off the coast, he said. That night, rescue teams in the state conducted 887 swift water rescues and 54 helicopter rescues. The most dramatic was a rooftop extraction of several people who were stranded on a house that had been swept off its foundation and was moving downstream. In total there were more than 2300 swift water rescues and 92 rotary-wing rescues in the aftermath of the storm.
And, as in the other states, the CAP played an important role. Whitmire said the official Air Force auxiliary organization flew more than 150 sorties in the state and provided more than 8,000 images to the FEMA photo coordinating officer.
“We had a small nation’s Air Force flying just in North Carolina,” he said of the air assets involved, which included seven North Carolina National Guard and State Highway Patrol Helicopters, 11 Coast Guard Helicopters, four U.S. Customs and Border Protection rotary and fixed wing aircraft, and 16 CAP fixed-wing aircraft.
He added that his state’s response was a text book example of how you handle extreme situations and he noted that the state has a reputation for having an exemplary emergency response apparatus.
The First in Flight state EPLO said that while his state didn’t request Air Force support (aside from CAP), his presence was still important for the overall function of that apparatus. EPLOs are in constant communication with the people who can make things happen. They are there to provide advice and then offer the reach back into the Department of Defense arsenal for different capabilities, should need arise. It was also an opportunity to help out wherever he could and to build and foster the relationships he has with the state and regional agency players. That way, the next time there is a need for Air Force support, those connections are as strong as possible.
“Having the relationships is absolutely essential,” said Whitmire.
Pinkstaff echoed that sentiment.
“90 percent of our time is spent talking to emergency management folks within a state or region,
he said. “EPLOs don’t task, but they have the big picture and they know who to call.”
He added that the EPLOs strive to develop a response that is both efficient and effective, ensuring the mission of the Air Force is minimally impacted.
In the case of Hurricane Matthew, a large response wasn’t needed, but the EPLOs were there, ensuring the Air Force capabilities were properly leveraged in order to save lives, prevent suffering, and mitigate property damage.