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The Role of the National Guard in Disaster Response

May 12, 2021

During a severe winter storm in Texas that caused massive power outages in February 2021, the state deployed its National Guard to help respond to the emergency. National Guard members worked beside local authorities to clear roads, assist stranded drivers and bring Texans to warming shelters amid freezing temperatures.

The role of the National Guard in disaster response has a long history. Across the nation, the Air National Guard and Army National Guard assist states dealing with natural disasters, such as wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as human-made disasters, such as hazardous chemical spills and large-scale electrical power disruptions.

Why Some Disasters Need a Response From the National Guard

The National Guard collaborates with and supports civilian authorities and traditional first responders in their efforts to respond to emergencies and disasters. They serve to strengthen and expand the local disaster response capacity.

While the emergency services of a state or locale may have robust plans to deal with the unexpected, sometimes disasters strike that overwhelm their resources and manpower. In such cases, the National Guard can play a vital role in saving lives, stemming suffering and protecting property.

National Guard Disaster Response to COVID-19

Situations such as floods, oil spills and public health crises can create a huge need for personnel and equipment. The National Guard helps supply both. For example, throughout 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic placed a huge burden on communities in terms of their capacities to dispatch testing teams, as well as transport and distribute personal protective equipment and other critical medical supplies.

To offset the overwhelming burdens created by the pandemic, the National Guard worked on a long list of missions, including:

  • Constructing alternate care facilities to help deal with the overflow from hospitals treating COVID-19 patients
  • Staffing emergency operation centers to coordinate fast and synchronized response efforts among local, state and National Guard entities
  • Delivering food and working at food banks
  • Conducting and delivering sample collections to health professionals

Once vaccines became available, various state National Guard units teamed up with local health departments to help administer them. This dramatically increased the capacity of places to rapidly vaccinate residents as well as process immunization records.

Ways the National Guard Responds to Disasters

The National Guard partners with a host of agencies, ranging from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state governments. These partnerships involve various planning and operations activities that aim to quickly resolve problems created by disasters.

The objective of a National Guard disaster response is to get relevant resources to where they’re most needed and in a timely way. It’s also to support the efforts of the civilian disaster response workforce. Some of the ways this is accomplished include:

Aiding in Evacuations

Wildfires, floods and hurricanes can often displace people, who may need help evacuating. The National Guard participates in live-saving evacuation missions.

For example, in September 2020, the National Guard rescued hundreds of people and their pets from wildfires raging across California. Using helicopters, Guard troops airlifted trapped people out of danger.

Evacuation missions conducted by the National Guard include:

  • Swift water rescue (a rescue technique used to evacuate people caught in rapid flood waters)
  • The use of tactical vehicles capable of moving through high waters caused by floods
  • Airlift missions in response to hurricanes and other disasters
  • Assistance in the execution of a city or town’s large-scale evacuation plan

Clearing Debris and Setting Security Perimeters

Tornadoes often leave a path of rubble and torn apart trees, while hurricanes can leave a wreckage of trash and metal strewn across streets and yards. For people to safely return to their homes after evacuations and for cities and towns to begin a recovery process, emergency response teams must begin clearing the dangerous debris left behind.

National Guard troops often play a role in such cleanup operations. For instance, after a severe windstorm in Southeast Iowa in August 2020, National Guard teams from the state helped remove debris so utility companies could restore power to residents. Using chainsaws and skid loaders, the National Guard teams drove through affected neighborhoods in heavy vehicles cleaning up downed trees.

In addition to cleanups, disasters can call for securing areas contaminated by hazardous materials. Natural and human-made disasters, such as oil well blowouts, can release toxic materials and waste, posing a serious risk to people’s health and property.

For large and severe incidents, local authorities may turn to the National Guard for assistance. In such situations, Guard troops set up security perimeters to keep people away from contaminated areas until hazardous material response teams decontaminate the affected area.

Transporting Supplies

Disasters can easily disrupt the transportation of supplies or create surges in needs for certain supplies. This includes emergency supplies such as food, fuel, medical equipment and water. In response, emergency management must find ways to keep both normal supply chains and relief supply chains running.

The National Guard helps disaster-struck regions maintain the flow of supply chains by assisting in the logistics of acquisition, tracking and delivery of critical supplies. National Guard disaster response teams coordinate the transportation of aid whether by air or land. This sometimes involves transportation specialists driving loaded tanker trucks to distribution centers or air national guard units airlifting bottled water or military tents to nearby air stations.

As an example, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the National Guard transported medical support personnel and numerous pallets of bottled water to affected areas. Air Guard units also flew many flights carrying humanitarian relief supplies, including tents and hundreds of cots, which guard troops on the ground delivered and set up at disaster response staging areas.

Manning Points of Distribution

After disasters, survivors often need emergency relief services and supplies. They can find them at points of distribution — open areas or buildings, such as schools or community centers, designated to serve as shelters, food banks or warming stations, among other things.

These sites serve as places where community members can receive food, water and supplies. National Guard disaster response units frequently help staff the points of distribution, organizing supplies, coordinating distribution, tracking inventory and offering support to survivors.

For instance, shortly after Hurricane Laura made landfall in September 2020, Louisiana Air National Guard members manned points of distribution across the state. They worked from sunrise to sunset unloading semitrucks full of water, food, ice and other vital supplies and then reloading those items into the vehicles of people affected by the storm.

Prepare for a Career in Disaster Preparedness

Wildfires, hurricanes and public health crises all create untold suffering. However, with the right training and thoughtful coordination, National Guard disaster response teams and other devoted experts in the emergency preparedness field can bring relief and support to those in need.

Discover how Virginia Commonwealth University’s Online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness prepares graduates to meet the challenges of disaster response.