More than 35 Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers were activated in response to Hurricane Irma’s destructive path through the Caribbean and the Southeast United States.
These Air Force Reserve Citizen Airmen were deployed across the eastern seaboard, from the Virgin Islands to Washington, D.C., coordinating requests from FEMA for Air Force support, such as airlift of emergency supplies, medical evacuations and search and rescue operations.
EPLOs are Air Force Reserve Individual Mobilization Augmentees assigned to 1st Air Force's National Security Emergency Protection Directorate at Tyndall AFB, Florida. These senior officers, primarily lieutenant colonels and colonels, facilitate the civilian authority’s request for air support in the aftermath of a disaster. Each branch of the military has its own EPLOs.
These Airmen are a critical link in post-disaster response efforts. They sit in emergency operations centers, FEMA Regional Response Coordination Centers and at higher headquarters, where they keep a finger on the pulse of the response effort. According to Col. Paul Pinkstaff, who was in place at the FEMA Region IV RRCC in Atlanta, Georgia, EPLOs help the lead agency, in this case FEMA, identify gaps in their response capabilities, which then become requests for assistance of forces. The EPLOs vet these requests and then forward them to the appropriate level for approval, in some instances up to the secretary of defense.
Pinkstaff said any time an active-duty Air Force asset was used in response to Hurricane Irma, there was an EPLO involved every step of the way. In addition to channeling requests for assistance of forces, in the event an Air Force installation is used to host disaster response efforts, the EPLO is the sole point of contact between the federal agency and the installation. Six Air Force installations were used in response to Hurricane Irma.
On average, EPLOs have 25 years of service in the Air Force. This experience, which spans nearly every Air Force functional area, significantly reduces fog and friction when multiple government and state agencies are responding to a disaster, natural or man-made, and need Air Force support, said Pinkstaff.
More than half the EPLOs deployed for Hurricane Irma were among the 41 EPLOs deployed in response to Hurricane Harvey two weeks prior.
Among those was Col. Gregory Weydert, who was initially activated on August 23 to support the response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas. In anticipation of Hurricane Irma, he was forward deployed to Puerto Rico, where he weathered the storm inside a concrete FEMA distribution center.
Weydert said that once the storm passed North, the EPLO team in Puerto Rico, where they primarily suffered power outages and downed trees, began assessing the situation and coordinating air operations out of San Juan to deliver supplies to the hard-hit U.S. Virgin Islands.
“San Juan was a critical link, early on, flying supplies to the Virgin Islands,” he said.
Col. Richard Jenkins was on the island of St. Croix as Hurricane Irma roared through the Virgin Islands. He said it was all-hands on deck once the storm passed and damage assessments were made. St. Croix escaped largely intact but to the North, St. Johns and St. Thomas experienced catastrophic levels of damage. The team of joint operators on the ground in St. Croix didn’t waste any time getting support flowing to the harder-hit islands, including medical evacuation of critical patients from the severely damaged hospital, delivery of food and water coming in from San Juan, and Civil Air Patrol flying aerial reconnaissance missions gathering some of the first imagery out of the region.
Jenkin’s said his team established a miniature air mobility center at the airport on St. Croix. The biggest challenges were to integrate information coming from the various systems used across the all of the federal and military agencies involved, avoid duplication of efforts and ensure supplies and support were delivered as efficiently and quickly as possible.
“Without this office, supplies would have been bogged down on the flight line,” said Jenkins, who spent two weeks on St. Croix streamlining the response to Irma.
As Irma dissolves across the continent and FEMA can bring its full might to bear on recovery efforts, military support will slowly wind down.
“The [Air Force] is there immediately because we have that capability,” said Jenkins. “Then, as FEMA comes in, we back off and prepare for the next time.”
IMAs are Air Force Reservists assigned to active-component organizations and government agencies. They provide backfill support during times of need. Unlike traditional reservists, who drill one weekend a month, IMAs complete their annual requirements all at once. IMAs serve in every Air Force Special Code at locations all around the world. Visit www.arpc.afrc.af.mil/HQRIO/ to learn more.