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Disasters keep Colorado Springs' U.S. NorthCom hopping

September 22, 2017 Updated: September 22, 2017 at 11:09 am
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U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs arranged the flight of 60 search and rescue experts to Mexico City overnight to help in earthquake relief efforts. The command has had the busiest summer in its history dealing with disasters, (U.S. Northern Command photo)

Amid the fires, floods and hurricanes, U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs was asked to deal with an earthquake this week.

In the busiest summer the command has ever seen in dealing with disaster, one more wasn't a problem. An Air Force C-17 picked up 60 search and rescue experts and their dogs and flew them to Mexico City by Thursday morning. Relief supplies should follow aboard other Air Force planes.

"We're fueled by caffeine and inspired by the actions of others," said Coast Guard Capt. Scott Langum, a future operations director with the command who helps oversee the Pentagon's contribution to disaster relief.

Established in 2002, Northern Command is responsible for guarding the continent from attack while providing troops and gear to local authorities when disaster strikes.

The latter mission doesn't grab headlines like the former. It's the difference between dealing with North Korean nuclear threats and dispatching fuel trucks to gas-up drivers in the Florida Keys. And while the military is out in front during war, it acts largely behind the scenes in disasters, offering help, but not taking control from local leaders.

But with three damaging hurricanes striking U.S. soil in recent weeks and wildfires blackening 1.5 million acres in the West this summer, disaster relief may be the bigger job for the command at Peterson Air Force Base lately.

Langum said the geographic scope and intensity of the disasters of 2017 is unprecedented for the command.

"It really isn't like anything we've experienced," he said.

The fires came first, raging across drought-ravaged forests from the Northern Rockies to Southern California.

When civilian resources proved inadequate to deal with the flames, the federal Emergency Management Agency and Forest Service asked the Pentagon for help. The plea was answered by Northern Command, which sent C-130 firefighting planes from Colorado Springs and elsewhere to tackle the fires along with soldiers from Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Wash.

Then came the triplets, Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Hurricanes are something the command has studied extensively, starting with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which devastated New Orleans.

The command was in its infancy for Katrina and federal missteps in response to the storm drew widespread criticism. Now, Northern Command watches the weather, prepositioning troops and equipment to prepare for action

Langum was flying a Coast Guard helicopter during rescue operations after Katrina. He helped lead efforts for the three 2017 storms.

"It has been amazing to see both sides of the evolution of how we, as a federal government, respond to disasters," he said.

Northern Command sent thousands of troops to Texas when Harvey hit near Houston. In the days immediately after Harvey struck, the military helicopter crews rescued more than 1,200 civilians and its trucks and troops hauled relief supplies into flooded areas and evacuees out.

For Irma, the command pulled Army troops out of North Carolina, ships from the Atlantic fleet and Marines from around the region to help.

Navy ships delivered relief supplies to Key West. Marine choppers hauled injured patients from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the sick bays of waiting warships. Soldiers trucked in 300,000 Meals Ready to Eat.

Now, the command is sending help to Puerto Rico to aid in recovery after Hurricane Maria lashed the island.

The Navy task force that assisted with Irma is now providing help to Maria's victims.

"Northern Command has begun search and rescue and damage assessment flights in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with six Navy helicopters and three U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft launched from the USS Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group," the command said in a Thursday statement. "Additionally, a Navy P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft, launched from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla., is conducting an assessment of the damage in Puerto Rico."

And then a massive earthquake struck just south of Mexico City.

Langum's team responded quickly.

"The request was to get an urban search and rescue team to Mexico today," he said. "We got that done within 24 hours."

Workers at the command aren't fond of the spotlight. They describe themselves as office workers who coordinate things for those out doing the job.

Success may start in Colorado Springs, but no one here is taking credit.

"It's a testament to those in the field," Langum said.

And Northern Command leaders say they're too busy to pat themselves on the back.

Langum's group is keeping a wary eye on storms still spinning in the Atlantic. While none appear headed toward the East Coast, Langum has learned to doubt the weather forecast.

"We're kind of paid to be pessimistic," he joked.

The end of hurricane season won't calm things down inside the command center at Peterson. It just means that blizzards are next. Earthquakes and volcanoes are always in season.

"We're already starting to look at what might be next," he said.

Northern Command also can't slack on its other job to deal with disasters.

The North Korea continuing with nuclear-tipped threats, terrorists striking in Europe, and ongoing tension with Russia and Iran, defending the continent remains at the top of the command's priorities.

"We still try to defend the homeland," Langum deadpanned.


Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

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