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Lennon: New law enabled Army Reserve to help after Sandy

U.S. Army Reserve soldiers from the 377th Theater

U.S. Army Reserve soldiers from the 377th Theater Sustainment Command traveled to New York to support relief efforts. Photo Credit: Handout

Utility workers came from around the country to help New York recover from superstorm Sandy. But they weren't the only people who traveled from afar to offer aid.

Thanks to new legislation, three Army Reserve water distribution teams came to remove more than 2 million gallons of water from storm-deluged high-rise residential buildings and schools on Long Island and in Queens in the days after the storm.

As a result of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, 82 Army Reserve soldiers from around the country joined other local, state and federal responders to provide emergency assistance. The act was signed into law on Dec. 31, 2011, allowing governors to request help from federal Reserve soldiers in a hurricane, earthquake, flood, terrorist attack or other disaster.

The power of enabling this first-of-its-kind response by the Army Reserve -- a federal force -- should not go unnoticed. In the past, federal law limited the Army Reserve's ability to provide assistance in natural disasters. Army Reserve soldiers and units previously had mobilization authority to support Homeland Security missions or respond to man-made or terrorist incidents, but lacked authority to deploy during natural disaster response operations. The current law enabled our soldiers to deploy to New York quickly.

The Reserve soldiers adapted equipment originally designed to distribute water on the battlefield to remove water from flooded buildings. Using 600-gallon-per-minute pumps, they cleared the way for residents to regain their homes and for cleanup workers to start re-establishing needed services, especially electricity in places like Long Beach Recreation Center and Long Beach High School.

Slogging through waist-high water while being pelted by sleet and snow during the nor'easter, Sgt. Kimberly Boyce, a water treatment specialist and squad leader from the 401st Quartermaster Detachment out of Lock Haven, Pa., maintained high spirits. She was excited about this historic mission and the chance to show that the Army Reserve is a community-based force. "We don't just go to war, but we are here for them," she said, referring to the everyday Americans affected by the storm.

The activation of the Army Reserve was different from that of their National Guard colleagues. Governors have direct control of the National Guard soldiers and can activate them whenever needed. To use federal Reserve troops, governors must first request assistance from the president.

The Army Reserve brought other capabilities to New York's storm-relief efforts. Among the first to engage were 45 regions' emergency preparedness liaison officers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These officers help coordinate and educate local, state and other federal authorities on how Department of Defense personnel and other assets can assist.

Also of note was an Army Reserve facility in Breezy Point that was opened to provide New York City firefighters a temporary distribution center and place to store equipment and plan operations. The core competence of the Army Reserve, providing combat support and combat service support, readily lends itself to helping in a domestic disaster, with almost 70 percent of the Army's logistics capabilities, including pumps, vehicles and laundry and bath facilities; 60 percent of its medical capabilities, including doctors, nurses and field hospitals; and 30 percent of its engineer capabilities, including heavy-duty construction and earth-moving equipment. This previously untapped asset is a primary source for many of the skills that are critical to recovery and restoration.

We are proud of our first-time contribution to this type of response effort. In the future, these relationships and interagency processes will enable us to even better apply our significant capabilities to help in communities across America.

Major Gen. Peter S. Lennon is the commanding general for the 377th Theater Sustainment Command in Belle Chasse, La., and served as the overall commander for the responding Army Reserve soldiers.