Mich. National Guard heads to Fla. for Irma recovery

Jonathan Oosting

Grand Ledge — Michigan is sending an estimated 1,100 Army and Air National Guard troops to Florida to help the state recover from Hurricane Irma and the tropical storm that caused widespread damage and flooding.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Major General Gregory J. Vadnais on Monday morning greeted roughly two dozen helicopter mechanics preparing to deploy from the Grand Ledge Armory.

“You’re doing the most important mission we do in our military — that’s taking care of the homeland and responding to a national emergency,” Vadnais said. “God bless, and good luck.”

The troops, three of whom said they had family in Florida, were set to meet up with another group later Monday at Selfridge Air Base in Harrison Township. Together, they’ll fly to North Carolina and eventually end up at Naval Air Station Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida.

The mechanics will play an important role in the recovery effort because the helicopters they service will be tasked with surveying damage, rescuing people and reaching sites inaccessible by roads, officials said.

“You think about the people that fly helicopters, but there’s a tremendous about of maintenance and repair work that is required, and there aren’t too many people who know how to do that kind of thing,” Calley said. “We’ve got that in the Michigan National Guard.”

In addition to the helicopter specialists, Michigan will send more than 1,000 members of the 3rd Battalion, 12th Infantry Division to Florida.

Calley said they could assist with security and logistics, but their roles have not yet been defined. Michigan has a “compact” with other states to assist in times of crisis or emergency. It also sent National Guard troops to Texas last month following Hurricane Harvey.

“I know that this will make a huge impact long-term on a state that is facing a tremendous amount of devastation,” said Calley, who is leading Michigan while Gov. Rick Snyder is in Japan on a trade mission.

Devastation was on many minds Monday morning, as Vadnais paused the deployment event for a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m. Sixteen years earlier, American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center as part of a deadly terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

Vadnais played a key role in helping the nation recover from another tragedy, commanding a joint task force after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast in 2005. The United States learned lessons from Katrina and is better equipped to respond to Hurricane Irma, he said.

“But this is massive,” Vadnais said. “Just think about the response it’s going to take to get the power back on.”

A weakened but still dangerous Irma pushed inland early Monday as it hammered Florida and Georgia with winds that created hazards for rescuers and flooding.

Storm surge flooding in downtown Jacksonville exceeded a record set during a 1964 hurricane by at least 1 foot, according to the National Weather Service. A river gauge downtown in the Atlantic Coast city measured 3 feet above flood stage.

As he thanked the helicopter mechanics Monday morning, Vadnais told reporters that helicopters are a great platform for the National Guard to save lives and distribute supplies during major flooding events.

In Texas, some Michigan National Guard members ended up feeding stranded cattle by dropping hay bales from Chinook helicopters, he said.

“We are manned and equipped for the war fight, but all those skill sets, that equipment’s set, we can apply to an actual disaster,” he said. “We have large formations of trained equipped soldiers and airmen that are going to go out and take care of their fellow Americans.”

The Associated Press contributed.