Hurricane Irene

New Jersey Army National Guard played key role in Hurricane Irene response

By SSG Wayne Wooley
September 19, 2011

Hurricane Irene did not spare Sgt. 1st Class Marco Chavez. The rising floodwaters swept into the New Jersey Army National Guard soldier’s home in Fairfield, forcing the evacuation of his family.

Yet Chavez was among nearly 2,400 citizen soldiers and airmen who reported for duty to protect the lives and property of fellow New Jerseyans. Gov. Chris Christie met Chavez several days later and the 46-year-old Iraq veteran was still helping friends and neighbors recover from the devastating storm. Chavez told the governor he was “where he needed to be.”

The remarkable thing about the National Guard’s largest domestic mobilization in more than 30 years was that Chavez’s story is not uncommon. Guardsmen from Cape May to Riverdale left their homes and families in a time of crisis. They put the needs of their communities’ before their own.

Countless examples of selfless sacrifice formed the backbone of the New Jersey National Guard’s unprecedented response to a storm that Christie described as a 100-year event. Soldiers and airmen rescued 543 residents imperiled by rising waters and conducted hundreds of missions supporting civilian authorities on assignments ranging from rescues to transporting relief supplies. They logged thousands of miles in high-wheeled vehicles on treacherous roads, with few incidents and no injuries. Our helicopters flew dozens of missions to assist authorities in assessing damage and to gauge where to best marshal resources. The National Guard also played a key role at the state’s emergency evacuation shelters.

The initial predictions about Hurricane Irene called for a Category II hurricane, packing 115-mph winds, to cross the state. Preparing meant redistributing 300 pieces of equipment from armories across the state to ensure a rapid response.

Once the storm hit, it became clear Hurricane Irene would cause epic flooding in central and northern New Jersey. The National Guard responded by rapidly reconsolidating in Somerset, Passaic, Essex and Bergen counties. As the floodwaters receded, the National Guard began its drawdown at a pace commensurate with the threat.

The overall government emergency response required by storms of this magnitude is expensive. Although the Soldiers and Airmen of the National Guard are a great value to the taxpayer because of their part-time pay structure, my leadership team understands the need to be good financial stewards.

The National Guard’s response to Hurricane Irene required intricate planning, preparation for multiple contingencies and a complicated analysis and reaction to an emerging threat. Even though our soldiers and airmen drove thousands of miles without incident, the chaotic nature of this storm and an aggressive push by soldiers led to an incident in which two of our vehicles became stranded in floodwaters. Video images of this episode were posted on a social networking site.

We are conducting a commander’s inquiry and safety investigation to determine exactly what happened.

But let’s remember, as in all of the hundreds of other missions successfully completed by the National Guard, the young men and women behind the wheels of our trucks rushed headlong into one of the nastiest storms in memory in a determined effort to save lives and protect property.

Here are two other things that happened during Hurricane Irene that didn’t make it onto You Tube.

Less than 72 hours after the storm landed, a group of our soldiers began a one-year deployment to Iraq and Kuwait. They will be joining more than 15,000 other New Jersey National Guard troops who have contributed to our nation’s defense by serving around the globe over the past decade.

Later that same day, our troops joined Christie at a VFW post in Manville, where water had risen waist-high. When this gathering of residents, emergency workers and elected officials spotted the uniforms, a spontaneous chant broke out: “National Guard, National Guard.”

Folks in that VFW hall that day recognized that the New Jersey National Guard is the hometown team. They are their friends and neighbors, who have volunteered to serve and will always step up when they are needed most.

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