Deep Freeze Anniversary

Lessons learned a decade after commonwealth’s biggest disaster

By Staff Sgt. Benjamin Crane, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Army Sgt. Joshua White with the 206th Engineer Battalion speaks with a resident of Leitchfield, Ky. Jan. 31, 2009 as part of a door-to-door health and welfare visit program conducted by members of the Kentucky National Guard following an ice storm that hit the region. More than 4,600 Soldiers and Airmen were placed on duty to assist with the Commonwealth’s response to the deadly storm. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Ellie Waters)

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A lot can change in a decade but memories of the incredible ice storm that hit Kentucky in January 2009 and crippled the state are still vivid.

The storm was declared “The biggest natural disaster in modern Kentucky history” by then Governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, who now teaches a course at Harvard’s Department of Health Policy and Management titled, A Governor’s Perspective on Leadership.

The arctic blast affected six Midwest states with Kentucky being hit the hardest. Citizens dealt with widespread power outages and lack of water and fallen debris.

Ninety percent of the state was without power, which included an estimated 800,000 homes. More than 100 counties declared states of emergency and the Federal Emergency Management Administration declared the entire state a disaster zone. Thirty-six Kentuckians died during the storm, many due to hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning according to Kentucky Emergency Management (KYEM).

Beshear directed Kentucky’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Edward Tonini, to order the unprecedented activation of all Kentucky Army National Guard units, along with selected portions of the Kentucky Air National Guard.   This was the largest state call-up of Kentucky National Guard forces in the history of the Commonwealth; which included 4,600 Kentucky Guard members to distribute food and water, remove fallen trees and provide security for, as well as, check houses in hard to reach areas.

That amount of Soldiers activated was more than has been called on to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan at one time.

According to the Kentucky Weather Service, ice accumulations around the state varied with hardest hit areas near Paducah receiving more than 1.5 inches. In Northern Kentucky ice varied from 0.5 to 1 inch. The southern end of Kentucky saw the least amount with 0.25 to .5 inches but all in all total causing $336 million dollars in damages.

Though the losses were tragic and the damage was great, it taught those who responded a lot of valuable lessons that can be seen implemented a decade later.

Emergency Management

“It all happened so fast,” said Monica French, Public Information Officer for KYEM. “It was overwhelming,  like oh gosh, this actually happened and it’s bad.”

Since the storm hit so quickly, it revealed a glaring weak area for the National Guard and state emergency response entities: communication with the western part of the state.

“The hardest thing as far as public information was concerned was that we had no communication with the people down in western Kentucky so, at first, we didn’t know how bad it was. It was a whirlwind trying to gather all the information as to what was going on and making sure we were collecting the right information and then to get that information out to the public.”

French admitted that her second toughest challenge was having limited resources on the public information side during the storm. They dealt with limited space and not enough personnel to run a 24-hour a day Joint Information Center which made things difficult.

Since then a new Emergency Operation Center (EOC) has been built on Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort to address all of those issues.

“This building is one of our largest assets,” said French. “It is an operational area that allows all of our state and private sector partner’s room to be in here. Every part of this building is wired for connectivity and ready to be used should something like this happen again; even the break room can be turned into a phone bank and used in emergencies.”

Due to having many of the same people who were involved with the ice storm still working in the same positions with KYEM and the Kentucky Guard, the continuity is strong. There is a wealth of knowledge to pull from in case another huge event happens.  French also stated that they do in-house training on a regular basis and training with their Emergency Support Function (ESF) partners to include state agencies and those in the private sector as well.

Great strides have been made thanks to French pursuing partnerships with private sector communication offices and with state agencies helping them to understand the importance of having somebody in the EOC to represent their cabinet during training for real world emergencies.

“I feel like if an event ever hit again, we would be more than prepared,” said French. “We are passionate about preparedness and making sure we have plans in place to efficiently and effectively respond”.

G4 – Logistics & Supply

The storm caused a lot of logistical issues since the roads were blocked by downed trees and power lines, as well as, a lack of power and no way to communicate with higher headquarters.

“Early on the mission was road clearance since trees were down like fallen dominoes,” said Col. Jim Covany, Director of Logistics, who was the commander of the 103rd Brigade Support Battalion during the storm. “The roads were literally covered with trees.”

The lack of power caused a string of problems for both the National Guard as well as local first-responders. Armories didn’t have generators or means to gain back-up power needed to communicate with commanders in Frankfort.

“A lot of things were unknown at first; nobody understood how big this thing was since communications were down everywhere,” said Covany.” It took about 36 to 48 hours before we started realizing how big it was.”

As time passed, the storm lingered and caused the problems to worsen.

“If you had looked at a weather map, you could see it really targeted Kentucky. It was unbelievable how thick the ice was, it was epic,” added Covany.

With no direct plan, Covany sent groups of his guys walking down the road with chain saws to clear what they could followed by the electric companies trying to restore power.

The 103rd assisted the Department of Labor (DOL) in the establishment of Logistics Support Areas (LSA) and the distribution of supplies to Points of Distributions located in the affected area.

The LSA was made up of personnel from the DOL and 103rd.  The main purpose of the LSA in the case of the ice storm was to distribute supplies to people in the affected area.  Water, food, blankets, cots and other material mostly supplied by FEMA were distributed from the LSA to distribution points set up in the surrounding counties.

A few of the logistical changes included making sure to put permanent generators in every Armory to make sure to avoid the same issues from the storm to pop up.

“Back then, when the electricity went out in your community, the armories were out too,” said Covany.  “But as a result of the ice storm, now we have a generator in every armory; there is a plan where the units maintain them and see that they get serviced once a month.”

Also, the plan that had giving guidance on how to handle emergency situations had previously gone largely ignored and rarely updated got a total overhaul.

“We’ve always had the all-hazards plan, but since 2009 we have given it a lot more attention, a lot more detail,” added Covany.

With the changes made in operating procedures and added equipment to armories, the confidence is high that things will be smoother if Kentucky gets hit with another natural disaster.

“I’m 100 percent confident that every armory will have electricity if something like that happens again,” said Covany. “With the generators there, communications will be much better too.”

G6 – Internet & Communications

For the deputy G6 during the storm, and those in the communications hub, everything was looking good according to their computers.

“Across the state we have ways to report status, and our network showed that we were green, meaning everything was online,” said Col. William T. Ewing, currently the Director of Information Management. “The last report we had was that they were all good in western Kentucky with no issues.”

But due to power being out and the armories without generators, they had no way to call or email back to the Joint Operations Center and let them know that they needed assistance.

In spite of the power outages, during the initial stages of the ice storm, local communities and armories were able to send communications statuses and requests for support to Frankfort by cell phone.  However, cell service also started to fail as the generators providing power to the cell towers were unable to be refueled.

“They couldn’t tell us what they needed; they had no way to communicate,” said Chief Warrant Officer Five Dave Barker, wireless manager in the G6.

“It was about 48 hours into the incident, or once troops were on the ground and able to send status reports back to the Frankfort JOC, before the extent of the damage or a clear picture of the needs became known.” said Ewing.

So from that, the Kentucky Guard has made several changes to the way they look at things when a major event strikes. They learned that just because someone’s not reporting that something’s down or has a problem, doesn’t mean there’s not a problem.

“We have an SOP (Standard Operation Procedure) now where we make the assumption that communications are down, unless the units report to us that they are up or we make contact with them,” added Ewing.

Making sure that the Guard had assets deployed to where they were the most needed due to the issues with communications was one of their biggest challenges. But despite all the obstacles that they had to overcome, the Soldiers were out doing what was needed and serving those in need.

Since the storm, the communications equipment has been reduced in size and is more easily transported.

Currently they have a VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal), which is a small satellite fly-away kit that fits on a pallet and can be put on a helicopter to be taken to any location.

Also, the units have radios that can be used in emergencies and each month they are tested to make sure they are in working order.

“We have a pretty robust communication system now, said Barker. “The units are trained on how to communicate on the system; they call in every month on their radios so if their phones go out they do have that radio as a back up in their armories.”

According to Barker there is now a stockpile of satellite phones with service stored at Boone Center as well as at the Wendell H. Ford Training Center in Greenville, Kentucky. Also, The Kentucky Guard operates satellite trailers that can be easily towed throughout the Commonwealth.

“It’s important to provide the basic essential equipment to units,” said Barker. “Voice and data is essentially what you need to be successful.”

Of the nearly 325 Kentucky Airmen called to active duty, many served on the ground in Western Kentucky making door-to-door wellness checks. Two Airmen were credited with saving a couple from carbon monoxide poisoning. C-130 ferried troops and supplies across the state in addition to providing the link between Kentucky and at least five other states who answered the call to assist the commonwealth.

Despite all the challenges faced, the Soldiers and Airmen of the National Guard rose to the occasion and made a lasting impact on the citizens of the Commonwealth. People’s lives were saved and many positives changes were made to ensure that the Guard will be ready when called on again.

“It was a positive experience all in all,” said Ewing. “Everyone got to do what he or she trains for. No one wants disasters, but it’s what a Soldier trains for.”

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