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Vigilant Guard: Military and civilian units train for hurricane

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

The drill got real Monday when a jet carrying Gen. Frank Grass, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, touched down at Georgetown County Airport, the center of a hurricane disaster enactment involving 5,000 military and civilian personnel from 11 counties and three states.

A four-star general on site, one observer said, ramped up the pressure on the military’s performance and altered the schedule to coincide with his.

Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau, and his entourage saw a field hospital set up at the airport, work in a collapsed building at the former Choppee High School and helicopter rescue simulations at the fishing pier at Hobcaw Point.

“There is no better place to train than right here where disaster could strike, where we are susceptible to hurricanes and other types of disasters,” Grass said. “Anytime we can get the men and women of the National Guard working with First Responders all the way through command and control and to the governor’s office, that’s a win-win for us,” he said.

Grass said he was impressed with work at a collapsed building drill at the former Choppee High School. The building was scheduled for demolition to make way for a regional recreation center and heavy equipment was used to collapse the roof and turn most of it into a pile of rubble. Forty survivors in moulage simulating injuries were removed from the scene of a hurricane shelter supposedly struck by a tornado on Sunday. By Monday, military personnel had joined 30 Midway Fire and Rescue and Georgetown County Technical Rescue team members. A field hospital and decontamination tent were erected near the site as well as an emergency operations communications center under the scenario that the main center in Georgetown had been knocked out.

“I’ve been around this business for many years,” Grass said. “This was definitely one of the best I’ve seen. The rubble pile, for example. “That’s a very difficult and dangerous situation. The professionals that come from the fire department provide tremendous training for our benefit. Our men and women with the military background will take that back to their home units and share it.”

There were other components that were strictly military, including building a temporary bridge across the Sampit River near the county’s Carroll A. Campbell Marina and more helicopter rescues at Pawleys Island. For Gen. Robert E. Livingston, the state adjutant general, the biggest benefit of the drill was the integration of military and civilian forces, right down to the people giving away candy for the USO.

“What I saw was a partnership,” Livingston said, “and that is what emergency management is all about. It starts at the local level when that first fire truck shows up and builds to whatever level we need. The part that I was pleased about was the partnership piece and the way we practiced it–the way we would really do it. We went all the way from one fire truck to a unit from Georgia doing search and rescue and decontamination. This is where the storm supposedly came ashore. It was all about how do we take care of the people of Georgetown and the surrounding communities.”

Livingston said he was working for S.C. Electric and Gas when Hurricane Hugo struck South Carolina in 1989. “What I saw then was the citizens of South Carolina coming together and taking care of each other,” he said. “You didn’t see people taking advantage of the lawlessness or anything like that. You saw people pulling together. What I think we have done from Hugo to today is we have reinforced what makes South Carolina so special and that’s everybody working together. There are no power plays here. Not only did you see paid professionals and paid military, you saw volunteers from local organizations practicing what they are going to do free of charge. That’s the kind of thing that tells you South Carolina is ready.”

A survivor’s view, from the ground up

The Rev. Wil Keith, chaplain for Midway Fire and Rescue, got to experience what it’s like to be rescued during this week’s Operation Vigilant Guard.

Keith and Midway Chief Doug Eggiman were airlifted by a Blackhawk helicopter from Pritchard Street Landing as part of an exercise Monday.

“I felt incredibly safe,” Keith said, “even in the midst of the lift.”

Keith said a member of the South Carolina Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team wrapped a harness around him as the helicopter hovered overhead. He said he had to lean into the wind just to keep his balance while he was on the ground and dust and dirt were being blown in every direction. “It’s amazing the accuracy of the helicopter,” he said. “They can just hover.”

Keith said he was lifted into the chopper by a winch and strapped into a seat, never without a safety harness. Keith, Eggiman and others members of the rescue party were flown to East Bay Park. He was taken on a tour of a field hospital at the Georgetown County Airport that included a chaplain’s trailer being staffed by Lt. Loren Wallace of the Salvation Army.

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