AUGUSTA, Ga. – As a CH-47 Chinook helicopter roared overhead and a company of soldiers worked to protect the city from a rising Savannah River, David Peterson smiled, comfortable in his element.
“This is like Christmas,” said a visibly excited Peterson, chief of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District’s Emergency Management Division.
The event was part of an annual exercise, Vigilant Guard, a joint regional exercise that simulates real-world natural disaster response from multiple agencies.
For Peterson, it was the culmination of more than a year of coordinated planning among the Corps of Engineers, Georgia National Guard, officials from the City of Augusta and Richmond County, Georgia Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service.
Vigilant Guard’s training scenario involved a Category 3 hurricane moving inland, bringing rain and associated flooding to the area. The premise was especially relevant as the effects of Hurricane Joaquin remained fresh in everyone’s minds.
Though South Carolina bore the brunt of Joaquin’s wrath in 2015, Peterson said Augusta could have received up to 15 inches of rain had the hurricane veered slightly to the south.
During the exercise, soldiers from the 877th Engineer Construction Company and Fort Stewart’s 179th Military Police Company worked together with emergency management officials in three flood fighting tasks to shore up Augusta’s defenses.
First, they used a backhoe-like machine to stack four two-ton stop logs in one of Augusta’s seven levee breaches. The stop logs acted as a plug, preventing rising water from the Savannah River from entering the city through one of the levee breaches, which is large enough to drive a car through.
Next, soldiers used a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to tactically place “super sacks” or large sand bags in areas that required flood protection.
Finally, Peterson and emergency management division officials led soldiers in building sand bag rings around simulated sand boils. The task taught a tactic used to bolster a weakened area in a saturated levee to release pressure in a controlled manner.
Although these tasks only took one day as part of Vigilant Guard 2017, this year’s weeklong exercise was the largest in its history. It included nearly 9,000 personnel from seven states, according to a Georgia National Guard press release.
For Peterson, the benefits of that single day were evident.
“It built confidence with the city and county, plus the National Guard got training on flood fight,” he said. “And we also identified some gaps that need to be filled for our planning purposes.”
Two-minute video footage of the event: