General commanding 9,000 Hurricane Irma troops served during Andrew, too

Back in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew wrecked South Florida, Army 1st Lt. Ralph Ribas commanded 80 Florida National Guard troops. Part of the job was checking on the soldiers’ families even as they helped Homestead dig out and cope with the catastrophe. It took him five days to actually speak to his own wife, who rode out the storm at what is today Jackson South Hospital.

The hurricane is Irma now and Ribas’ rank is brigadier genera. This time he learned in nearly real time from his wife that a 12-foot tree toppled in his Pembroke Pines yard — while he was commanding more than 9,000 National Guard forces from the state’s Joint Operations Center at Camp Blanding. Everyone was safe at home, and the fallen tree didn’t cause any damage. But it’s waiting for Ribas, a training systems specialist in civilian life, to clean up when he gets home from Irma. Or from the next one.

Winds were indeed catastrophic in both storms. But, as Ribas described it in an interview Saturday, communications were one key difference. Although mobile phone service sometimes failed in Irma, he heard from his wife, by text, for all but 12 hours. Even with spotty cell service, he said, the advent of mobile phones gave the Guard the ability to respond more quickly.

The intervening 25 years — as Ribas rose in the rank, replacing the bar on his uniform with a star — have offered other advantages, starting with pacts between the states that didn’t formally exist when Andrews struck.

Now, as Dual Status Commander, Ribas is in charge of fellow National Guard forces from such far-flung states as Wisconsin and Ohio to Georgia and South Carolina brought in to strategically respond to certain needs. Some federal forces fell under Ribas’ chain of command, too — but only when they were on the ground — for example when Marines and sailors went ashore from Navy ships off Key West before Florida Guard troops got there after waiting out the storm at the Miramar Armory.

RELATED: After Irma cleared the state, the National Guard set up shop the Keys

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Florida National Guard Brig. Gen. Ralph Ribas greeting troops mobilized to respond to the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Key West.

Courtesy Florida National Guard

Forces off the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and surrounding ships “did a great job of doing what they’re good at — commodities and water and communications. They set up some distribution sites themselves, opened some of the waterways, port facilities there to make sure there weren’t sunken boats,” he said. “By them being there we were able to tailor the force so that we both complemented each other.”

Ribas, 54, a graduate of Christopher Columbus High School in Westchester and the University of Miami, recalls Andrew’s damage and destruction on the road from Miami to Homestead as “cataclysmic” and “horrific.” This week, during a site visit, certain portions of the Keys “absolutely looked the same way — so much damage in terms of infrastructure and debris.”

But in between, other structures “did a pretty good job of staying upright,” the general said, offering “a shout-out to city planners.”

Saturday, the Guard had about 400 troops in the Keys and a heavier presence in Collier and Lee counties backed by thousands more across the state handling logistics, even as planners began to consolidate certain support functions.

With Tropical Storm Maria bound for the Leeward Islands on a path similar to Irma’s, Ribas said, there might be time to release some troops “to get home, a change of clothing, a good night’s sleep and come back.”

That’s Ribas’ job as the Florida Guard’s Joint Staff Director — keeping one eye on clean-up from the storm that just passed, and making sure the troops get to the places that need roads cleared, communications restored, food, water and security while keeping watch for the next one.