Guard members reflect on change since Katrina

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The Springfield News-Sun will continue to provide unmatched coverage of the military and its impact on Clark and Champaign counties. For this story, the paper spoke to leaders in the Springfield Air National Guard about the role they played in setting up communications after Hurricane Katrina, and how their mission helped influence modern disaster relief.

The Springfield-based 269th Combat Communications Squadron prides itself on being able to set up a communications network complete with working Internet in some of the most remote spots on earth.

But even they took lessons from their time trying to work with first responders after Hurricane Katrina devastated the much of the Gulf Coast a decade ago.

In August 2005, the storm ripped through several states and claimed as many as 1,800 lives.

At the time, equipment and strategies to set up communications were based on military needs, creating challenges when soldiers needed to link up with police and firefighters when the storm hit a civilian population in the U.S., said Col. Norm Poklar. Poklar is commander of the 251st Cyber Engineering Installation Group, which also includes the 269th.

The Ohio Guard’s response was important, especially since many first responders from the Gulf Coast were also trying to cope with damage to their own homes, Poklar said. But lessons learned after the tragedy, and a boost in funding from Congress to improve technology, led to improvements that are in use today, he added.

“We now have equipment today that allows us to link those civilian partners in a much more adaptable method,” Poklar said.

From September through October that year, members of the 251st were tasked with assisting Lt. General Russell Honore to help deploy resources and assist with communication needs. Members of the 251st were based at Camp Shelby, Miss., about 70 miles inland.

Members of the 269th were tasked with setting up a small communications network and working with civilian emergency workers near Bay St. Louis, Miss., near the hurricane-ravaged coast.

“The response was there, but it wasn’t fully understood what was needed there,” Poklar said of efforts in 2005.

Capt. Craig Conner, of the 269th, spoke of the trouble linking up with civilian agencies like firefighters as well. Cell phone towers were out of commission for miles, and private communication companies also had little experience re-establishing infrastructure under those conditions, he added.

At the time, more than 50 local members of the Guard responded, trekking to the coast in military and even their own vehicles in some cases. Now smaller, better equipment and experienced planning would allow a quicker response with just a handful of soldiers, Conner said. Civilian firms have also developed better strategies to cope with a similar disaster, he added.

New equipment also allows Guard members to share communication networks with police and other first responders more easily.

“The level of communication within that area would be substantially better today than it was back then,” Conner said.

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