MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Dark clouds turned into heavy rains, tornados not seen in more than a hundred years, all culminating into near catastrophic floods. This scenario was not Hollywood’s latest take on a 2012 disaster flick, but how Marines prepare to deal with the worst side of Mother Nature.
Taking the same approach they use to prepare for combat, trainers at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, or controllers, pushed their personnel to the breaking point during Golden Guardian 2011, a base-wide disaster preparedness exercise held here May 16-19.
Golden Guardian is an annual statewide exercise and is the largest statewide program of its kind in the country.
Recent natural disasters around the world, like the tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdowns in Japan that have killed thousands, and catastrophic weather in some parts of the United States, has highlighted the relevance and importance of this exercise, said Col. Michael S. Bodkin, operations plans officer for the Marine Corps’ Training and Education Command, and the planning section leader during the exercise.
In addition, the Combat Center and surrounding communities are exposed to significant natural geographical hazards, such as isolation, severe flooding and major earthquake damage from movements in the San Andreas Fault, said Deb Helton, the Combat Center’s emergency response manager. This makes it extremely important to know what works and what needs fixing here, she said.
Most importantly, it gave Emergency Operation Center participants and key leaders an opportunity to take a good and hard look in the mirror at their section’s ability to make effective decisions in real time during a crisis.
In a whatever-doesn’t-kill-you, makes-you-stronger approach, Helton said it was no coincidence many serious calls for help came during the wee hours of the night or just before dawn, when brain cell levels were at their lowest.
In one request, controllers acted as local officials pleading for sand bags and Marine muscle to save local business in danger of serious flood damage. Another came from a community college official asking for generators, food, water, lights, and sleeping bags for 200 cold, wet, and hungry students who were stranded at the school’s gym by flooding.
In simplified terms, the Marines and civilian personnel had to determine the condition of the installation, what assets and personnel were available, prioritize requests, provide support to those who needed it most, and stay within legal boundaries detailed in their current response plan.
But getting the right people together to improve and implement the existing plan during a time of crisis is anything but simple, said Bodkin.
Now, ask this team to do this while also doing their day-to-day jobs and throw in the frequent personnel changes inherent in the uniformed side of the team, and you’ve got some serious hurdles to overcome, added Helton.
But working together, the trainers and participants managed to pull it off. Helton, said she saw much improvement from last year’s exercise and gave special credit to the members of the construction and engineering section.
“We overwhelmed their help desk after hours with all kinds of transportation and engineering requests and they did a great job.”
Others did equally well, as controllers pushed 10 different scenarios with escalation of in rapid-fire. In one incident, flood waters pushed excess debris into a drainage ditch near the corner of a busy intersection, causing water to overflow and flood the road.
Palani Paahana, Natural Resources and Environment Affairs office, was called to the scene. When he arrived minutes later, he accessed the situation and noticed unexploded ordnance within the debris, a situation that could easily turn an inconvenient hazard into a deadly one. Paahana went into action. He quickly cordoned off the area and called the Provost Marshal’s office and explosive ordnance personnel.
When Paahana got the call, he said he was not aware it was part of the Golden Guardian, or that he was being evaluated. “But that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Not everything went as smoothly. Some tempers flared and some nerves were frayed, but there were no serious problems, said Helton.
Overall, the exercise achieved a key goal, to deepen the level of knowledge and capability of staff at all levels of leadership, said Helton. The Marines planned and effectively sent personnel, vehicles and equipment to save local businesses and ease the suffering of the stranded students, and helped local officials during search and rescue operations.
Public affairs, a key player, used the installation’s Facebook fan page at www.facebook.com/thecombatcenter and base cable television channel to communicate with internal and external audiences. They also activated a temporary Twitter account to “tweet” updates to followers, about weather and road, shelter locations, and other vital information.
“Although we don't have an exact picture of what impact this had during the exercise, using social media, especially twitter, we were determined to use them because of its immediacy and reach,” said 2nd Lt. Sin Carrano, the installation’s deputy public affairs officer, who was acting as the PAO during the exercise. “Information empowers people. Instant information is even better. This also gives people an element of control and can ease stress during a crisis.”
Public affairs was aggressive in sending out information, said Capt. Nicholas Mannweiler, the Combat Center’s PAO, who served as a controller.
Although a self-proclaimed Marine Corps cheerleader, Mannweiler said the notional press statements his section released, and in particular, one by Col. George Aucoin, the Combat Center’s chief of staff, during a flooding support request from local businesses, were not entirely self-serving. His main purpose was to send a clear message to the community from the installation commander, that especially during times of strife, Marines “are committed to helping our neighbors whenever possible. Our families live, work, and shop in this community, and what affects [our neighbors,] ultimately affects us.”