At U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, troops have kept a wary eye on Hurricane Dorian for days.
Working around-the-clock, the command eyed weather forecasts and moved military units and equipment like pieces on a chessboard to ready for the hurricane’s wrath. It’s a well-practiced ballet for the command, which has sent Defense Department help to assist with every hurricane since 2005’s Katrina struck New Orleans.
“We lean forward and we are ready,” said Army Col. Josh Vogel, a military logistics expert who has spent the past year tangling with hurricanes for the command.
The military has powerful tools for dealing with the aftermath of storms. Floating hospitals used in wartime can replace damaged civilian facilities. Helicopters usually shuttling troops around Afghanistan can rescue the stranded, and high-wheeled Humvees and Army trucks can haul supplies through the gooey mire that a hurricane leaves behind.
The trick for Northern Command is figuring out what’s needed and making it ready in case the command is called.
It’s a tough thing with Dorian, a storm that has surprised forecasters with how quickly it turned into a massive and powerful Category 4 hurricane.
It’s also changed course. It threatened to pummel Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands before dealing them a skirting blow. Predicted to make landfall Monday along the Florida coast anywhere from Miami to Jacksonville, Dorian now is expected to spare the state a direct hit. Instead, it could skirt the Florida coast after barreling down on the Bahamas, then make landfall in Georgia or South Carolina.
President Donald Trump, whose Palm Beach resort Mar-a-Lago was thought to be in Dorian’s path, put off a planned trip to Poland because of the storm.
“It’s something very important for me to be here,” Trump said Thursday. “The storm looks like it could be a very, very big one indeed.”
Vogel’s Northern Command team has been drilling for a very big one since last fall when the last hurricane season ended.
Conferences brought together troops and other federal civilian outfits including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.
An annual hurricane confab allowed the command and its partners to examine responses to 2018’s storms, including hurricanes Florence and Michael, which made landfall in the United States. And a March training exercise allowed the military to drill for a worst-case scenario storm, readying troops for rain, wind and flooding with the same techniques used to prepare them for combat overseas.
“It only takes one storm,” Vogel said. “One hurricane can trigger a major response.”
All that preparedness hides the fact that the military is likely the last place called for hurricane help. The Pentagon only steps in when civilian resources have been tapped.
“It goes from a local response to a county response to a state response,” Vogel explained, noting some of the steps before the Pentagon gets involved.
As Dorian grew to hurricane strength over the Atlantic, Vogel and his crew put a military team on alert to head for American lands in its path so they could coordinate military help.
Battling storms is a side job for Northern Command, which is charged with defending the continent from attacks. Created after 9/11, the command watches for terrorist threats and incoming missiles.
The command’s leader, Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, also heads the North American Aerospace Defense Command at Peterson, a binational command that blends U.S. and Canadian expertise to defend the nations from threats.
Hurricanes are “tied to the larger mission for this command that is homeland defense,” Vogel explained.
Vogel, at least, has a thick playbook to lean on. It’s been growing since the command was first called out to Hurricane Katrina.
The federal response to that hurricane 14 years ago was heavily criticized. But leaders say those problems taught lessons that are influencing hurricane plans today.
Now, commanders who can coordinate active-duty and National Guard efforts in disasters have been spread across the 50-states.
For Dorian, Vogel said, the command has alerted Army units in Texas.
“For Dorian, they are stood up and prepared to deploy,” Vogel said.
And along with Vogel and his crew at Northern Command, they are watching the weather. Closely.