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Master of disasters: reservist leads Florida county in aftermath of deadly tornado.

When Master Sgt. Gerald "Jerry" L. Smith woke to a ringing phone the morning of Feb. 2, in a hotel just outside Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., he thought it was time to get up and report for Reserve duty at the 39th Rescue Squadron.

Glancing at the clock, it was 3:40 a.m., his mind quickly shifted gears when he realized that what he originally thought was a normal wake-up call was actually the last thing the emergency management director for Lake County, Fla., wanted to hear.

On the other end of the line was word that a powerful tornado had touched down in his county at the worst possible time: in the dead of night while most people were sleeping. Initial reports were bad. He jumped out of bed, threw his things in the car and immediately headed back home for the start of what would be one of the longest days of his life.


"When I got that call, I felt sick to my stomach," Sergeant Smith said. "You try to build teams and thought processes (to deal with potential emergencies), but you hope you never have to put them to use."

Sergeant Smith was about to put all of his years of training, in both his civilian and military careers, to work in the after math of the second deadliest tornado in Florida history.

As a member of the 920th Rescue Wing--he currently serves as first sergeant for the 39th RQS--at Patrick AFB, the sergeant is trained to conduct rescues during emergency situations. His civilian job involves everything from disaster preparedness all the way through recovery.

"I had to drive about two hours," although he admits that with the adrenaline rush he made slightly better time that morning. "The whole drive back I was calling people and doing phone interviews. It was still pitch black outside, so you couldn't really get a good idea of how bad it was."

When he got to Lake County's emergency operations center, the situation was still very chaotic. However, his years of training both in the military and in the civilian sector kicked in, and he immediately began to take control of the situation.

"My job is to got the group of people together that will support first responders to help the victims." Sergeant Smith said.

The mission of the operations center is to coordinate all local emergency response, disaster relief and recovery actions, as well as collaborate with state, federal and volunteer agencies.

"When the EOC is fully staffed, there are roughly 100 people at any given time working on various disaster response and relief efforts," Sergeant Smith said. "To relate it in Air Force terms, the civilian EOC is a combination of base command post, unit control center, survival recovery center and wing battle staff."


However, there is one key difference between the civilian operations center and the military, which creates some challenges, he said. In the military. everyone involved in an emergency response reports directly to the wing commander. With the operations center, "none of the departments and agencies 1 work with has any direct reporting process to me. So, it is a matter of facilitating functions to match needs."

Among the many things Sergeant Smith had to coordinate was setting up shelters for those people whose homes were destroyed or damaged, getting the power companies to help restore power, working with law enforcement to make sure there was no civil unrest or looting, and bringing in specialized urban search and rescue teams.

He was also heavily involved in working to clear county roads, coordinating with school board officials on school closings, getting animal services people involved to help victims of the storm with their pets, providing food and water to victims and rescue workers, keeping the public and media informed regarding the rescue efforts, and working with the medical examiner.

Sergeant Smith credits the Air force Reserve--specifically, his NCO and first sergeant training--for helping him get through that day and the many trying days that followed.

"The significance of what the Reserve did for me was leadership training." he said. "It seemed like at times 1 was the guy everyone was coming to for the answers.

"What I learned (in the Air Force) about human nature--how to lead people and that not everyone responds the same--came in very handy. As a leader, you must respond to individual needs.

"1 understand the concept of organization and how to build a team and how to get the right people to the table."

In total, the tornado killed 21 people in Lake County. More than 600 structures were damaged, including 185 totally destroyed, accounting for $26.3 million in property damages. On the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which is a set of wind-speed estimates that goes from 1 to 5 and is based on observed damage, weather experts said the storm that hit Lake County rated a 3 with winds approaching 165 mph.

"During the event, I used the Air Force first sergeant creed as my personal mantra. 'My job is people. Every one is my business.'" Sergeant Smith said.

It's this first sergeant mentality that makes Sergeant Smith view his county as a really big squadron. The fact that he lost 21 people--members of the squadron--that day really weighed heavy on his heart.

"I cried. I sat and talked to my pastor and a mental health expert," he said. "It's still hard to talk about. I take it (the loss) personally. I think that comes from my first sergeant's creed. I take my job, taking care of my people, seriously."

(Sergeant Babin is a traditional Reservist assigned to the 920th Rescue Wing public affairs office at Patrick AFB.)

By Master Sgt. Chance C. Babin
COPYRIGHT 2007 Air Force Reserves
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Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Babin, Chance C.
Publication:Citizen Airman
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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