National Guard responds to disasters, tragedies

When a hurricane hits the coast, snow blankets the state or a tornado touches down in Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley declares a "state of emergency" then calls on the Maryland National Guard.

During the peak of Superstorm Sandy, the Maryland National Guard had more than 800 personnel and 116 vehicles pre-positioned at various areas in the state, according to 1st Lt. Kristofer Baumgartner, public information officer. The National Guard diverted traffic and blocked off roadways in flooded areas and delivered water to emergency shelters. The National Guard trucks have high clearance, so they were used to transport first responders through high water to emergency calls, Baumgartner said.

The National Guard switched from diverting traffic from flooded areas during the superstorm to cleaning up downed trees and evacuated senior citizens because of the snowstorm that followed Sandy, he said.

"We're pretty versatile," Baumgartner said.

When a weather event is anticipated, such as a snowstorm or hurricane, the National Guard pre-positions its soldiers and airmen in certain areas to ensure a quick response, according to Maryland National Guard Maj. Gen. James Adkins. The National Guard is the safety net for local Maryland jurisdictions that need support, he said.

"We anticipate as much as possible what the need is going to be," Adkins said. "The Guard is rarely in charge of anything. Our job is to reinforce. We are the cavalry coming over the hill to support that local responder."

The Maryland National Guard has approximately 6,700 personnel, including 400 members of the volunteer Maryland Defense Force. Within hours of being called on by the governor, they can be mobilized and ready to respond, Adkins said.

During the 2010 snowstorms, Baumgartner said the National Guard used their vehicles to cut paths through snow for emergency vehicles. In Baltimore County, Baumgartner said, National Guard personnel even helped deliver a baby during the 2010 snowstorm.

"Whatever we can do to help in any given situation, we're out there doing [it]," Baumgartner said.

As Superstorm Sandy was heading toward the coast, Adkins said he visited Guard posts from Cecil to Worcester counties to make sure they had everything they needed to deal with Sandy's onslaught.

The key to effectively responding to an emergency event is getting National Guard personnel spread out to the areas they will be needed, according to Ed McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. Leading up to the 2010 snowstorms that dropped several feet of snow on the state, McDonough said there was enough time to get the Guard where they needed to get.

"We always look at how much time it's going to take them to get them away from their civilian jobs and civilian lives and get to their armories and reporting stations and how long it will take to get them from the reporting stations to places in the state where we needed them to be pre-staged," McDonough said. "It varies from event to event."

If the National Guard cannot anticipate an emergency, such as a tornado or a terrorist attack, they are on hand to fill in wherever they are needed, Baumgartner said. Maryland National Guard soldiers were among of the first to respond following the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, he said.

Outside of the work it does in the state, Baumgartner said the National Guard responded to several large-scale disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti in 2010. The National Guard also has rotations for personnel serving in Afghanistan.

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