FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
Navy Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek was guardedly confident when Pentagon officials called him in fall 2012 with a question from the president. Hurricane Sandy had cut power and flooded swaths of New York and New Jersey. Could the Defense Logistics Agency give gas to local stations?
“Everybody who’d evacuated had sucked all the gas out of the gas stations, and the only stations that did have fuel didn’t have power. I wasn’t quite sure we could do it – it’s a lot different from just supplying first responders – but I had a pretty good sense that we were capable,” the former DLA director said one month before Sandy’s 10-year anniversary.
After 10 minutes of weighing uncertainties and his “supreme confidence” in employees’ know-how, Harnitchek called back with a bold “yes.” The agency went on to provide over 9 million gallons of fuel to first responders, state and local governments, hospitals, gas stations and survivors during relief efforts.
DLA’s speed and proficiency in fuel support became evident so quickly that the president, via executive order, directed the agency to distribute over 5 million gallons of Department of Energy-owned ultra-low sulfur diesel. DLA Energy contractors moved the fuel by barge from storage facilities in Groton, Connecticut, to sites in New York city’s five boroughs and Long Island. It powered everything from generators at high-rise apartment buildings to dewatering systems.
“A lot of it even went to a Verizon technology center because there was a big focus on keeping the internet up so the New York Stock Exchange could reopen,” Harnitchek said.
More than fuel
Employees throughout DLA showed the nation just how abundantly it could support Americans in need after Sandy, a storm so potent National Geographic called it “a raging freak of nature.” The agency also supplied meals, bottled water, blankets, cots, lighting kits, maps, medical supplies, generators, and removal of over 75 million pounds of trash and debris.
“All of the things we didn’t do well in Hurricane Katrina, we did extraordinarily well in Sandy,” Harnitchek said.
DLA Chief of Staff Eric Smith was the assistant administrator of logistics for FEMA then and he, too, saw the night-and-day difference in DLA’s response. The former Army colonel had a front-row seat to DLA’s support after Katrina as head of DLA’s operations center in 2005 and 2006.
“One of the lessons learned from hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and Rita was that the need for this type of support was only going to grow. The federal government was going to continue to come to the Defense Department and DLA for assistance, and we needed to be ready for it,” Smith said.
Contract specialists at DLA’s supply chains refined agreements with contractors who could surge to support disaster relief while Smith and others worked with FEMA officials to help them build a structured logistics capability.
“By the time Sandy rolled around, we had proofed out a lot of concepts together and put practices in place, things like deployable distribution teams and the fuel support agreement we still have today,” Smith said.
Sandy also marked the first time DLA sent a senior liaison to FEMA to attend on-site meetings and relay information between the two agencies as new requirements emerged.
“I thought it was a good call on DLA’s part, especially in a larger disaster like that,” Smith added.
Over 50 DLA employees deployed to help organizations like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state and local offices match DLA capabilities to local needs.
LNOs often knew what supplies were needed and where before formal requests could be submitted by FEMA, which allocates disaster funds. Those advance preparations with first responders allowed DLA to assess stocks and be ready so trucks could roll at the word “go.”
“In any disaster, you’re going to have rapidly changing circumstances and you’re not going to have great information, but you’re going to have incredible time constraints and political pressure to do things,” Harnitchek said. “If you understand that’s the environment you’re operating in, there are a couple of guiding principles you want to hold dear.”
Responsiveness is No. 1, he said, adding that every hour responders wait is an hour lost in providing relief. The second principle: Think big.
“These disasters often affect huge populations and infrastructure,” he said. “That means you’ve got to think in the millions, not thousands, when it comes to support.”
Making a difference
Harnitchek credited DLA’s success in Sandy to employees’ ingenuity. When the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command needed help getting New Jersey workers across the Hudson River to their offices in New York City because of damaged ferry boats, DLA’s acquisition team contracted for tugboats, barges and pier repair in just three hours.
And sensing a gap in coordination among those working to turn the lights back on in four apartment buildings in Queens, Navy Capt. Joe Vitelli, former director of the construction and equipment supply chain for DLA Troop Support, hopped a train to Penn Station then a cab to Queens.
“He got everybody in a room – the Army Corps of Engineers, the New York City Housing Authority and local electric companies – talking to one another and within a few hours the lights were on,” Harnitchek said. In the early evening, a picture of Vitelli standing with his arms outstretched in front of a lit apartment building popped into the admiral’s email.
“That’s just one example of hundreds of occurrences of DLA individuals making a huge difference because they care about stuff,” he said. “It’s not just a job to them. They care deeply and want to help.”
But he admitted DLA’s support to Sandy could’ve been even better and Smith agreed. Support elements such as embedded liaison officers remain a cornerstone of the agency’s disaster support, the chief of staff said, but the agency learned that mission assignments are a critical part of coordinating disaster assistance among federal, state and local agencies.
“FEMA issues a mission assignment, which is a funding document that says, ‘I need you to do X.’ They’re prefunded to certain levels but can be adjusted for additional support,” Smith said, adding that mission assignments are often created in anticipation of or in response to an emergency or major disaster.
The secretary of defense awarded DLA a Joint Meritorious Unit Award for relief efforts during Sandy, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote a letter thanking Harnitchek for the agency’s efforts.
“Many New Yorkers across the city were impacted by this severe storm, and your rapid response was invaluable to helping our residents through this very challenging time,” Bloomberg wrote. “Many thanks for stepping into action when New York City needed you most.”
Editor’s note: This four-minute video highlights DLA’s response and the appreciation of first responders.