By Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
National Guard Bureau
May 26, 2010 - The National Guards of several states are closely watching Louisiana this week and are prepared to assist in its oil spill operations if needed, a senior Guard leader said today.
"We've been asked potentially to assist Louisiana with helicopter support, and if they need that, then we will provide that," Army Maj. Gen. Abner C. Blalock, Alabama's adjutant general, said yesterday during a "DoD Live" bloggers roundtable.
Along with Alabama, aviation assets from Missouri and Illinois have been tapped to support operations in Louisiana through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. Louisiana officials also have asked for public affairs support through EMAC.
"We're monitoring real closely what's going on with our sister states, Louisiana and Mississippi and Florida, particularly Louisiana, and the kind of actions they are taking and the kind of things they are doing," Blalock said. "Quite frankly, there's a lot of trial and error going on along the Gulf Coast, because we haven't really been involved in something quite like this ever before."
About 360 Alabama Army and Air National Guard members have been working to limit the spill's impact on their own state's coast, the general noted.
"On-the-ground work includes installation of Hesco barriers on a barrier island, as well as a peninsula on the east side of Mobile Bay," he said. "Beyond that, we're involved in certain security tasks where volunteers are staged. We have about 20 folks involved in the various echelons of command and control from Joint Force Headquarters down to a local unit headquarters."
Air crews have provided reconnaissance of other oil containment booms that have been put in place along the coast. "We've had two helicopters [and crews] on duty since early May, and they've been flying boom reconnaissance missions and doing some imagery assessment and awareness taskers," Blalock said. For now, Alabama has been largely unaffected by the spill, the general added, with only a few tar balls washing up on shore.
Despite a lack of experience combating an oil spill, the Alabama Guard has been using lessons learned from other disasters, Blalock said.
"We're a hurricane state," he said. "We've learned over the years through our experiences the kind of things the National Guard is asked to do immediately post-landfall, and that is where we've focused our attention."
However, he added, there are a few differences between the two kinds of responses.
"Fortunately, we're not involved in clearing roads of other obstacles to commercial or business traffic," he explained. "But it's sort of the opposite, in that we may get involved in cleaning up a mess [on the beaches] if other contract resources are not available for application."
Planning is the key to this operation, the general said.
"We're thinking ahead over the long term, that six-month window, which sounds hard, but the reality is we're getting a pretty good handle on the kinds of things that the National Guard might be asked to do when the oil comes ashore," Blalock noted.
The Alabama Guard's role in responding to the oil spill, the general said, is largely up to the spill itself.
"The biggest vote out there is what the oil does," he said. "This posture we're in right now, we're prepared for immediate response in case of a surprise. The Coast Guard is working with a 180-day strategic plan. What I'm seeing from my level is that strategic plan is focusing in on response much like you're seeing going on in Louisiana."
For now, it's all about being prepared for any contingency.
"Our efforts have been focused on protection and prevention at this stage," Blalock said, "and trying to get all the resources in place to keep the oil off our coastlines, to keep the oil out of our oyster beds, to keep the oil off our barrier islands."