Guardsmen find parallels in Ukraine's disaster relief efforts

SACRAMENTO, Nov. 18, 2008 - For California National Guardsmen, the annual fire season has rendered moot the question of whether natural disasters will strike the state. No longer do they ask "if," but only "when" and "where."On the eve of Vigilant Guard '09, the National Guard's weeklong emergency-response training exercise, California Guardsmen learned their Ukrainian counterparts face a similar burden on their own native soil.

Each summer in western Ukraine, floods hammer the region surrounding the Carpathian Mountains, and this July especially heavy rains brought a record deluge, causing the worst financial damage in more than 100 years.

On Nov. 12, at the Joint Force Headquarters here, Ukrainian delegates prepared for Vigilant Guard by briefing Army Maj. Gen. William H. Wade II, California's adjutant general, and other key leadership on the difficult lessons gleaned from the recent catastrophic floods.

"The damage was equal to approximately 1 billion U.S. dollars," said Maj. Gen. Vasyl Kvashuk, director of the Ukrainian army's civil protection department, through a translator. "In my opinion, people were not informed [in a timely manner] about the flooding."

Kvashuk said many Ukrainian officials failed to disseminate information about the threat of floods, and more importantly, on what people should do once heavy waters struck the villages at the base of the mountains.

"We lost 40 lives," Kvashuk said. "We lost both children and adult persons during the flood."

Many well-meaning citizens, Kvashuk said, actually caused further damage to life and property due to ignorance on how to respond properly. In one instance, a man overpopulated his small boat with neighbors. The boat capsized, drowning all eight passengers.

Ukraine is one of two nations participating in the California National Guard's Partnership for Peace program, the other being Nigeria.

Just as officials in California do, Ukrainian officials are learning to deal with their natural disasters through "real-world emergencies."

"It's not [ideal] to learn from your current emergencies," Kvashuk said, but he also noted that the transcarpathian region, the nation's most frequently flooded area, reacted best to the severe torrent in July, embracing the inevitability of the floods as an opportunity to improve their responsiveness.

That desire to bolster their readiness brought the Ukrainians - and a host of other nations - to California to participate in Vigilant Guard, which offers participants a close-to-real-world training environment in a simulated earthquake scenario.

"We initiated a partnership with the National Guard of California 15 years ago," Kvashuk said, expressing his gratitude for the training benefits generated by the alliance. "We have learned much from our partnership."

(Army 2nd Lt. Will Martin serves with the California National Guard.)