Center for Strategic Communication

Medical workers assist a patient into an ambulance during an evacuation of New York University’s Tisch Hospital on Monday. Photo: AP / John Minchillo

Updated 8:42 a.m. Hours after being contacted by Danger Room, the New York Army National Guard on Tuesday night abruptly reversed a decision to send hundreds of soldiers out-of-state in the midst of the Hurricane Sandy relief effort.

The troops were previously declared unavailable to help New York recover from the state’s biggest hurricane in centuries. Instead, they were assigned to fight a fake disaster.

But hours before they were set to deploy, the troops’ participation in a week-long exercise in Missouri known as “Vigilant Guard” was cancelled. The exercise is designed to test the response to a mock earthquake in the Midwest. Until Tuesday, that previously scheduled drill took precedence over the real-world catastrophe that struck the East Coast. It was declared a bureaucratic near-impossibility to redeploy hundreds of guardsmen at a moment’s notice, even at a moment when so many are in need.

Troops from the New York Army National Guard’s 104th Military Police Battalion, the 1156th Engineer Company – 450 soldiers in all — were poised to head to the middle of the country. Dozens more from the 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade were supposed to train in Pennsylvania this weekend. ”At this point in time, we’re still sending our soldiers to Vigilant Guard,” Eric Durr, a spokesman for the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, told Danger Room late Tuesday afternoon.

Hours later, that changed. “Last night the decision was made to cancel New York National Guard participation in Vigilant Guard,” Durr emailed on Wednesday morning. “The adjutant general [the Guard’s commanding officer] decided to keep troops in state in case they are needed.”

The New York Army National Guard has about 10,600 troops in total. Of those, about 2,100 are either in, or are waiting for, basic training. Another 400 to 500 are medically unavailable. And an additional 3,500 troops from the 27th Brigade Combat Team are either just back from Afghanistan or still there. Which means that New York’s Army National Guard had, at most, 4,500 troops at its disposal — before the assignments to Vigilant Guard began. About 2,300 Army and Air National Guardsmen are currently deployed to the hurricane relief effort.

Hurricane Sandy has the most vicious storm system to hit the New York City area in nearly two centuries — a once-in-several-generations event that’s left millions without power and tens of thousands of people homeless. The exercise in Missouri, however, is the second such drill in a year and a half.