Often during disaster response, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Planning and Response Teams such as, temporary emergency power, debris removal and Operation Blue Roof are the Corps activities in the limelight; however, the little-known and little-seen Local Government Liaison, or LGL, national cadre is operating in the background, providing a critical lifeline of communication between Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state, local officials, and the Corps.
The mission of the LGL cadre is to support the federal team, be a liaison to FEMA and provide assistance and advice to local governments in response and recovery mission execution related to what USACE is doing downrange. The 30-40 member team was first formed in 2006 in response to shortfalls seen in responding to Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, and Rita when USACE’s Team Leaders and Assistant Team Leaders were stretched thin, trying to respond to the many needs of state and local leaders, along with FEMA at the field level.
“Our LGLs are hard-working, dedicated individuals, and I’m emphasizing individuals,” stated C.J. Hamilton, LGL and action officer for the five other LGLs deployed to southwest Louisiana to respond to Hurricane Laura. “While they are team players, one thing we rely heavily on them to do is operate independently. Often they are the only USACE person stationed with FEMA downrange in a particular geographic area”.
Hamilton said that LGLs may drive 200 miles a day, providing the direct line of communication from the local community to the federal response level.
“That’s 1,000 miles a day across the five LGLs. Multiply that over three-plus weeks and that’s more than 20,000 miles!”
Hamilton added that they gauge the pulse of the community. “While a phone call or email may get you an answer, nothing tops the value of an in-person connection. That’s where the real information exchange, problem solving and ground truthing occurs.”
LGL Andrew Auxier echoed Hamilton’s comments but added another key element to team members’ success, flexibility.
“Independent and flexible are two keys to success of an LGL,” Auxier stated. “Sometimes you find yourself writing reports behind truck stops. You have to use whatever resources are available.”
He added that LGLs need to be prepared to work and sleep in austere environments, they arrive at a disaster early in the response and rarely is lodging readily available.
Another key attribute LGLs must possess is the ability to talk to anyone, under any circumstance. Tied into that is that “they need broad shoulders,” as Auxier described it. “They must be able to talk to people empathetically. They need to be able to tell the bad news alongside the good news.”
Beyond the ability to be independent and flexible, relationship building is a skill that is necessary for this team.
“When developing a rapport, it’s all about relationships,” Auxier stated “LGL’s don’t have authority over anybody, so the ability to create relationships and build trust is a must.”
He added that relationship building is imperative both internally across the Corps teams, but also at the local communities, state officials and FEMA staff. You have to put yourself in their position and ask, “What can you do for me?”
Auxier described an example where the LGLs’ relationships paid dividends was the city of DeRidder.
“We met with administrators at the city of DeRidder in Beauregard Parish. It turns out one of the city officials had good relationships and contacts in surrounding communities. She was a pot of gold.”
The city official was Elona Weston. She’s the director of the Beauregard Museum. However, due to her media background, she served as the public information officer for the city.
Regarding Hurricane Laura response, Weston said that one of the challenges survivors face is that much of the relief process is online. While it makes it easier for the agency, it’s not necessarily the case for the disaster survivor, especially since western Louisiana has communication challenges prior to Hurricane Laura.
Weston said “The Corps of Engineers arrived with this awareness and sought us out directly on the best ways to communicate with our community, which was a mixture of all mediums, with an emphasis on radio in the immediate days that followed.
“COVID has also complicated things, but the Corps operated a right-of-entry help desk at a local church,” Weston added, referencing the ROE center with the mobile command vehicle. “Even when the help desk moved to another parish, LGL’s found a way to provide help through a local volunteer.”
But for LGL’s, a lot of the work can be difficult, with few citizens or state and local officials never completely happy, with the response’s pace or breadth. There’s a lot of complaints to sort through. If you’re looking for a job where everyone loves you and you have immediate rewards, LGL work in a disaster may not be a good choice.But solving problems and managing expectations are what the group does best and as Auxier summarized, “In the end, you look for the small wins. Those small wins add up to big wins.”