BELLEVUE, Wash. -- As hurricane season arrives, governors have a new resource to call upon in the event of a major disaster: military reservists.
Historically, there's been no mechanism under federal law to order reservists to duty in response to a domestic emergency except in limited circumstances. But the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act changed that, giving governors, who already can mobilize National Guard troops, the ability to request the help of the nation's 380,000 reservists in the event of a hurricane, earthquake, flood, terrorist attack or other disaster.
The goal is for the reservists to be ready to help within three days, Maj. Gen. Luis Visot, the Army Reserve's deputy commanding general for operations, told government and business officials at a disaster response conference in Bellevue on Thursday.
"In any kind of disaster, the governor of the state will first and foremost utilize their resources," Visot said. "But we can out and help and get authorized to do it. ... It's all about thinking about the capabilities that are available to you. If there's a need, you can have access to it."
Hurricane Isaac in Louisiana didn't require such a response, and the new authority has yet to be used. Under it, governors would ask the White House for help from the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marine reserves. The reservists could stay on duty for up to four months and could come under the leadership of National Guard commanders already on scene.
Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, highlighted the need for a change in the law. Some reservists were able to serve because they were already on orders, but Visot, who helped lead disaster relief efforts after Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake, said thousands of others at idled nearby at Belle Chasse, La., because of the legal limitations.
Reservists have been able to respond to local emergencies when necessary to protect life and property -- as occurred immediately after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, and after a tornado killed 25 people in Evansville, Ind., in 2005, among other occasions.
In Evansville, a nearby Army Reserve quartermaster company responded with heavy machinery to clear damaged homes from a trailer park and allow local authorities inside to respond and search for survivors, said Maj. Annmarie Daneker, an Army Reserve spokeswoman.
But under that "intermediate response authority," the reservists could only help for 72 hours without further orders, she said.
Retired Col. John Conway, a defense analyst at the Air Force Research Institute at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., said Thursday the change is important.
"If you have an emergency outside your gate, you're compelled to go to the aid of your citizens. People do what's necessary and then worry about the niceties of it later," he said. "What the National Defense Authorization Act has done is set up a mechanism where you can now call these folks up for domestic disasters in an orderly fashion."
Now, he said, it's important that state and local disaster officials get to know their local reserve units and what capabilities they have, so that they can make specific requests depending on what's needed in an emergency.
That was part of Visot's message at the conference.
"It's very important to get the word out," he said. "The military has some capabilities they can utilize if there's a local or state disaster."