Fargo, N.D. -- The 91-degrees-and-humid African country of Ghana and the snow-still-falling-in-April state of North Dakota may, at first blush, seem to have very little in common. There's more to the partnership between the two entities than one might imagine, though.
"Ghana has the same kind of disasters we have in North Dakota. They have floods, drought and windstorms, but, in addition to that, they also have pestilence, avian flu, those types of things that they worry about," said Doug Friez, a retired North Dakota Guardsman who has worked closely with Ghana. "Ghana's climate is a little different, but their disasters are very similar."
Through the Department of Defense-sponsored State Partnership Program, Ghana and North Dakota have been exchanging information and guidance since 2003. Although the partnership's primary relationship has been between the North Dakota National Guard and Ghana Armed Forces, civilians, educators and disaster-management experts have all benefited from the ties in recent years. This week is the first time that disaster management information could be tied into the program during an actual natural disaster.
"I think this is the best opportune time to come around. In fact, the day we were landing in Bismarck, we saw a lot from the air. And what we have seen (in Fargo) really goes a long way to tell us a lot," said Col. Isaac Mensah Tetteh, director of land operations at the General Headquarters for the Ghana Army.
Both Tetteh and Kofi Portuphy, the national coordinator for Ghana's National Disaster Management Agency, or NADMO, spent this week touring and meeting with officials in all levels of disaster management. They also explored how the use of GIS, or geospatial information systems, could benefit their natural disaster response.
As in North Dakota, the military works closely with government agencies in disaster management.
"The armed forces support NADMO. We are the civil sector and they are the military sector, so (we) bring military resources to bear on our planning, our training, our response, our recovery programs," Portuphy said. "And, this principally is an invitation by our partners, the National Guard, to expose us to the use of the GIS system, the WebEOC and what support the National Guard air, land, sea (and) Coast Guard are giving to the flood response."
They spent yesterday in Fargo, starting the morning with a briefing at Joint Task Force-East (JTFE), where the North Dakota National Guard manages their flood operations for eastern North Dakota.
"My intent ... was just to show them how we're actually managing all of the information and leveraging technology to help us manage our Common Operating Picture," said Col. Steve Tabor, JTFE commander. "We walked them through a lot of the info that we're leveraging from other agencies. We've got data from DoT, we have some of the city's data that we've incorporated into GIS, we've actually walked them through the National Guard Mapper GIS program that we have."
The use of GIS is one aspect Tetteh is anxious to share with his counterparts when he returns home.
"Info sharing through the GIS system is perfect, and it goes a long way in trying to develop a very rapid response to issues, and I think that it's one of the issues, that among others, that we have in Ghana," he said.
After seeing how operations are managed, the Ghanaians took to the streets of Fargo on a tour led by Tabor to see the various flood products employed by the city, such as sandbags, Trap Bags, permanent flood walls, Big Bag systems, permanent earthen dikes, temporary clay levees, Hesco barriers and the AquaFence
"We had a good opportunity to show them a lot of different methods that the City of Fargo is using to help them protect the citizens of the community from the flood," Tabor said. "I think they were duly impressed. ... Once they got on top of the levees we pointed out where the river channel is normally versus today. That certainly put it into perspective for them, and they realized just how big of a flood event is going on here."
As the entourage looked at the backyard of a home using a sandbag dike and the Big Bag system, Col. Ron Solberg, deputy commander for JTFE, commented on the water level.
"It's usually down about 24 feet," he said.
"24 feet? Really?" asked Portuphy in amazement.
Portuphy has seen a lot of disasters over the years. Friez referred to him as "the father of disaster management in Ghana," also saying that "he's the Craig Fugate of the United States; he's the director of their FEMA."
Indeed, Portuphy, who founded NADMO, has even trained with FEMA. Despite his wealth of experience, he still was impressed with operations in Fargo.
"We have seen since we arrived here on Sunday the EOCs for the National Guard, the national EOC centers, the state EOC centers in Bismarck and in Fargo here. We've seen the EOC centers also set up by the joint task force here ...," Portuphy said. "And what we have seen is overwhelming in terms of preparedness, in terms of response, in terms of coordination between the city EOC, the Joint Task Force EOC, the National Guard EOC; it's worth emulating because we have learned a lot about what to do in terms of coordination."
Besides coordination, the tools used in the flood were another key takeaway for the men.
"They were telling us today that Ghana actually has a lot of similar areas," Tabor said. "When they get flood events happening, one of the reasons they get as severe as they do or as widespread is because they happen in areas where the terrain is very flat. So, I'm hoping today that some of the stuff we were able to show them will maybe provide some food for thought to help them deal with and mitigate some of the flood events that they experience over there, as well."
There's little doubt that the trip was valuable to both partners.
"It's fantastic. I can't believe what I'm seeing," Tetteh said. "I believe that there's a lot to learn and a lot to take home. Right on from the joint operations center, right on from the emergency operations center, both at the state level and the county level, we have seen a lot that we think we can take back home."
Their trip ends today with a bit of North Dakota culture and history during a tour of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. Before seeing it, Tetteh was already convinced during this, his first trip to North Dakota, that it's a "very beautiful place (with) very hard-working people."
Maj. Brock Larson, the North Dakota National Guard's State Partnership Program director, summed up this week's trip and the next step it took in the eight-year-old relationship between the partners.
"It was an incredible opportunity to be able to host Col. Tetteh and Mr. Portuphy, who represent Ghana's military and the National Disaster Management Organization, here both at the same time to experience first-hand how our National Guard integrates with our Civil Services not only with manpower and equipment, but also technologically during emergency management operations," he said. "During the week we were able to visit all levels of emergency operation centers within the state and supporting agencies to gain their perspectives. This visit will only strengthen our already mature relationship with Ghana and help us focus our efforts during our future exchanges with Ghana.