Hurricane Season Looms for National Guard Forces Still Tasked with Pandemic Response

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Texas Army National Guard rescue Houston residents from Hurricane Harvey
Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard rescue Houston residents as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey rise, Monday, August 28, 2017. (U.S. Army photo/Zachary West)

Following simultaneous mobilizations to support COVID-19 response and quell civil unrest, the National Guard is preparing to respond to what is expected to be a highly active hurricane season.

"We know things will be different this year," Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Nordhaus, director of operations for the National Guard Bureau, said Monday in a conference call with defense reporters.

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"Social distancing, [personal protective equipment], screening and testing, sheltering and other impacts will cause us to change how we respond," said Nordhaus, who was joined on the call by Army Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, the Texas National Guard adjutant general, and Air Force Maj. Gen. James Eifert, the Florida adjutant general.

The hurricane season, which officially began June 1, is expected to produce a higher than average number of major storms this year, Nordhaus said.

"What we're seeing this year is there is an increased indication of the weather pattern" to show the possibility of more major storms, he said. "So where a normal year might be eight to 12, they're tracking maybe as many as 16."

One of the major changes in how the Guard responds this year will be in dealing with evacuees from hard-hit areas if called upon by local and federal authorities, Eifert said.

With COVID-19 precautions in mind, the emphasis will be on finding "non-congregate shelters," meaning individual rooms, for evacuees rather than the armories or school gyms that have been used in past hurricane seasons, Eifert said.

Florida's Department of Emergency Management is identifying vacant hotels, motels and dormitories where evacuees could get individual rooms "to prevent the potential spread of the COVID virus," he added.

Eifert said his biggest concern is having enough Guard members in Florida on hand and ready to respond to hurricane emergencies following call-ups for COVID-19 and to assist local law enforcement agencies in dealing with unrest following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

"We are trying really hard to whittle down the numbers on duty" to allow members to reset in anticipation of more activations for hurricane response, Eifert said.

Nordhaus noted that, on June 6, more than 120,000 National Guard members had been activated to deal with COVID-19, civil unrest and overseas deployments -- a historic number.

Norris said her biggest concern is ensuring the health of members of the Texas National Guard, who might be called up for hurricane response.

"The biggest thing for us at the National Guard is, we have to be well in order to respond," she explained.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the gender pronouns for Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com

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