Twenty-eight National Guardsmen set up in a vacant lot across from Ocean Ridge Town Hall to test their ability to assist in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Photos by Jerry Lower
By Ron Hayes
On Aug. 22, while Hurricane Irene was still making up its mind about Florida, 28 National Guardsmen in a vacant lot just across A1A from the Ocean Ridge Police Department were making sure they could help if disaster struck.
“Basically, we’re on a proof-of-concept mission,” said Lt. Eddie Jesse, 30, an Iraq vet and the unit’s public affairs officer. “We’re testing our monitoring systems after a natural disaster.”
That’s how the National Guard describes a training exercise designed to make sure a good idea works.
The idea is to create, very quickly, a sort of super-communications system that would link all the law enforcement agencies within a 50-mile radius in the aftermath of a storm or other natural disaster. The sheriff’s office and local police departments could talk to each other. Radar and satellite systems could provide air traffic control to direct emergency helicopters. Live TV feeds would give ground workers an aerial view, the better to direct relief efforts, and Internet access would be available 24 hours a day.
Why Ocean Ridge?
“After a storm, emergency helicopter tend to navigate along the coast if air traffic control towers are knocked out,” Jesse explained, “so we needed a site near the ocean.”
And that’s how those air-conditioned tents, satellite and radar trucks and 50-foot aerial antennas came to spend two weeks just south of Oceanfront Park.
“We convoyed down from Camp Blanding,” Jesse said. “It took us 12 hours.”
And two flat tires.
A second radio center was also established at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale, while the 28 men and women are staying, as they say, at an undisclosed location — a nearby hotel.
“But it’s a 24-hour operation,” Jesse explained. “This site is manned 24 hours a day.”
So how’s the proof-of-concept mission proving so far?
“Theoretically, it should take us two days to get operational,” Jesse said. “We were semi-operational in two, but it took five days to get everything we wanted, with everyone able to talk to everyone else.”
Meanwhile Police Chief Chris Yannuzzi was thrilled to have the National Guard just across the street.
“We’re very accommo-dating on this side of the Intracoastal,” he said. “We’re all in this together, so maybe if we get a real storm next time, they’ll come back.”