By NEPLO Public Affairs
WASHINGTON DC – With winds whipping up faster than the speed limit on the highway, the danger of a hurricane can turn into destruction quickly.
“Hurricanes can hit at the worst possible moment,” said Capt. John Saccomando, who leads the Navy Emergency Planning Liaison Officer (NEPLO) program. “Our ability as a Navy to be able to respond to these natural disasters can have a direct impact on our national security. But, in that moment, the focus is truly on saving lives, preventing suffering and mitigating major property damage.”
Every year, the U.S. Navy trains to withstand hurricane season with a dual exercise called Hurricane Exercise/Citadel Gale. This year’s exercise will run from May 3 – 14.
The first week, known as HURREX, focuses on the Navy’s preparation for an incoming storm before it hits land and is led by U.S. Fleet Forces Command. The second week, known as Citadel Gale, moves the focus to how Navy bases recover from the storm after landfall, with Navy Installations Command (CNIC) in the lead.
Last year, the 2020 hurricane season broke records for having the most named storms in history since experts began tracking this data. Most years there are typically 12 named storms, but in 2020 there were 30. Twelve of the storms made landfall in the U.S., breaking previous records.
For CNIC, an exercise of this scale allows bases to review evacuation planning, validate mission essential personnel rosters and build relationships that are needed during a real event. Practicing the emergency management process helps bases and leaders brace for a storm.
Key players on the CNIC team for the exercise are NEPLOs, a community that only exists in the Navy Reserve to be called into action for emergency response.
“We respond when the nation needs us,” said Saccomando, who commands the more than 130 NEPLOs nationwide. “Disasters do not wait until the timing is right, and so as the Navy’s force for Defense Support of Civil Authorities we have to be able to manage cascading response requirements like a hurricane during a pandemic.”
A record-breaking hurricane season last year, coupled with the national response to the pandemic, put the spotlight on NEPLO community, which has been working overtime since the pandemic began.
That sets the tone for HURREX/Citadel Gale 2021, which will be a mostly virtual exercise for the second year in a row.
According to exercise planners, virtual doesn’t mean less training; it actually can mean more.
“With this virtual environment, we now have many more NEPLOs who don't get to participate in real hurricanes but are able to train with us,” said Capt. Sarah Nolin, the NEPLO lead for the exercise. Nolin went on to say that more inland NEPLOs now have the chance to train on hurricane response, expanding exercise participation beyond the typical coastal NEPLOs. Because the exercise is not limited by physical office space, more players are welcomed to the table for gaming the scenario.
The training for NEPLOs focuses on their processes and problem-solving skills, which are relevant in every disaster to which they respond.
“Involving more NEPLOs in HURREX/Citadel Gale allows the NEPLO program to deepen its bench for potential responders in real-world events,” said Nolin. “This will be really important this hurricane season, since so many NEPLOs are already deployed supporting the COVID-19 vaccination mission.”
The obvious benefit for the NEPLOs themselves are the drills that allow them to serve as links to other government agencies during a disaster. NEPLOs think through scenarios in a low-stakes exercise environment so that when faced with similar situations on a real-world mission they quickly make the connections needed.
“It's really great to be able to practice those during an exercise,” said Nolin. “That's one objective: process and practicing those normal things.”
Nolin said that engaging with the Navy regions during HURREX underscores the value that these disaster response liaisons can offer the Navy. Working with region commanders when they are in the disaster response mindset helps to build the muscle memory that NEPLOs are available in every region and trained to manage the complex relationships and communication needed for recovery.
“We always say in the NEPLO world, ‘you don't want to be build relationships when you're in the midst of a disaster.’ You want to have those already set up,” said Nolin.
NEPLOs serve as the military link in the whole-of-government response, helping civilian agencies understand what capabilities the Department of Defense has and how to use them. During their missions, NEPLOs often travel to the heart of the recovery operation to help agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency understand DoD resources to aid in recovery.
For HURREX/Citadel Gale 2021, approximately 30 NEPLOs will participate from across the U.S. Whether virtual or in the same room as their counterparts, the exercise will sharpen the skills of NEPLOs nationally while making them better responders.