It sounds like a pitch for one heck of a disaster movie.
Two hurricanes hit the East Coast at the same time – one in Florida and one near Savannah – the latter also wreaking havoc in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. At the same time, a radioactive leak from the Savannah River Site near Aiken has closed one of the main evacuation routes from Beaufort and Hilton Head, stranding tens of thousands of people.
That’s the scenario more than 1,500 S.C. National Guard members are dealing with in one of the largest disaster response exercises in the state’s history. Operation Ardent Sentry, which started Thursday and continues through Tuesday, is the largest exercise since 2008 when 3,000 Guard soldiers and airmen were involved in disaster training.
“We try to make (the annual exercises) as complex as we can so when a real event happens we’re trained properly to handle it,” said Col. Ken Rosado, the S.C. Guard’s joint operations chief.
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People in the counties of Allendale, Barnwell, Jasper, Bamberg, Beaufort, Hampton and Richland will see a lot of folks in uniform and heavy military vehicle traffic and helicopters over the next few days.
The exercise is being conducted here and in Florida with the support of units in Montana and Texas that have specialized capabilities.
“This is a multi-state exercise,” said Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston Jr., the state’s elected Adjutant General.
The Guard’s role is to augment local authorities in each county by providing military police, airlifting supplies, purifying water or otherwise helping county emergency management teams.
Rosado noted that Guard members and armories are scattered throughout the state and are very familiar with their own areas.
“We are in every county,” he said. “We are in every town. We can respond quickly.”
Exercises like Ardent Sentry bolster the ties between local law enforcement, county emergency management officials and individual soldiers and airmen.
“You gotta put the people on the ground,” Livingston said. “You want to develop the relationships with the local people. You don’t want (a major disaster) to be the first time they work with the National Guard.”
The mock Category 3 hurricane the Guard is responding to is named Jay. Livingston noted that if a major hurricane like Jay hit the South Carolina coast today it would present a much larger evacuation problem than Hurricane Hugo 24 years ago, because about twice as many people now live on the coast – about 600,000 compared with about 300,000 in 1989.
Livingston oversees not only the S.C. Air and Army National Guard, but also the state’s Emergency Management Division, the primary coordinating agency for any major disaster response in the state.
The agency operates from the state’s emergency operations center on Fish Hatchery Road in West Columbia. There, the Guard also operates a high-tech command center in tandem with a larger civilian command center of all state agencies, overseen by the governor.
As part of the exercise, the Guard has set up a base camp in Hampton County and is using airport facilities in Jasper County for airlifts. Staging areas also are set up at Fort Jackson’s Camp McCready and McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover.
More than 100 volunteers from the South Carolina State Guard – a military service group separate from the National Guard – also are supporting the exercise, and the Georgia Army National Guard is providing additional aircraft.
But if a hurricane and a nuclear accident occurring simultaneously weren’t enough, exercise coordinators also are going to deal some wild cards – such as unexpectedly shutting down all internet connections to the various units.
“We’re going to throw them some curve balls,” Rosado said.
By the numbers
Ardent Sentry, one of the largest disaster response exercises in years, is being conducted by the S.C. National Guard and will continue over the next four days.
Number of Guard soldiers and airmen involved in the exercise
Number of people living on South Carolina’s coast today
Number of people living on the coast during the disastrous Hurricane Hugo in 1989