Military gears up to respond to Hurricane Irma devastation

Military gears up to respond to Hurricane Irma devastation
© U.S. Navy

Military branches are laying the groundwork to respond to Hurricane Irma, deploying ships, personnel and equipment to Florida and United States territories in the Caribbean to respond to a storm that has already wreaked devastation on several islands.

So far, the Pentagon has sent six ships, an aircraft carrier, numerous aircraft and thousands of gallons of fuel to the region, as well as activated thousands of National Guard troops in Florida and Puerto Rico.

The Category 4 storm, one of the strongest hurricanes ever reported in the Atlantic, made its first landfall on the island of Barbuda as a Category 5 hurricane on Wednesday and is expected to hit Florida Saturday night. 

Officials predict Irma will bring heavy rains and possible 12-foot storm surges in some parts of Florida, requiring military ships, aircraft and thousands of troops to help in evacuation, rescue and response efforts.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) activated the Florida National Guard on Tuesday in anticipation of the hurricane. About 4,000 troops were activated on Friday, and Scott said he expected the entire force of more than 8,000 would eventually be called into duty. 

Puerto Rico, meanwhile, activated its 5,200 National Guard troops, while the U.S. Virgin Islands activated its nearly 700-member unit, according to the Pentagon. The Coast Guard will also help with efforts.

The scramble to move military equipment and troops ahead of Irma calls into question whether forces can adequately respond so quickly after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas and Louisiana late last month.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) activated the entire Texas National Guard to respond Harvey, with out-of-state guards units and the Coast Guard also stepping in.

President Trump’s homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said Friday he had spoken to Pentagon and State Department officials and insisted they were prepared to tackle Irma response efforts quickly.

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The Coast Guard and National Guard are “all rested and re-fit and ready to come back into the fight,” Bossert said at the daily White House press briefing.  

Trump himself stressed that the U.S. was prepared for the storm.

“We are very well covered from the standpoint of bravery and talent. We have tremendous people there representing us from the Coast Guard to FEMA to everyone else,” Trump said Thursday at the White House.

He warned, however, that forecasts for Irma “are not looking particularly good for Florida.”

“We don't think we've seen anything quite like this. Some of the winds have gotten up to close to 200 miles an hour,” he said.

The Pentagon has been preparing for Irma for several days now, sending Navy amphibious assault ships and Marine helicopters to the U.S. Virgin Islands earlier this week to transport people and supplies. 

The USS Oak Hill and the USS Kearsarge, ships originally deployed with Marines aboard to respond to Harvey in Texas, were redirected to the Caribbean.

The two ships “are approaching the disaster area and will be postured north of St. Croix and ready to provide assistance to FEMA,” U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) said in a statement Friday

“These ships are capable of providing medical support, maritime civil affairs, maritime security, expeditionary logistic support, medium and heavy lift air support, and bring a diverse capability including assessment, security, route clearance and water purification,” the Northern Command noted in a statement Thursday.

The Navy has sent the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, transport dock ship USS New York, guided missile destroyer USS Farragut, as well as hundreds more Marines to the islands.

The Defense Department "is responding to catastrophic levels of destruction throughout the Leeward Islands, including St. Thomas and St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jamie Davis said in a statement late Friday afternoon. 

And the Coast Guard began transferring helicopters from Harvey response efforts to Florida and Puerto Rico last week.

Recovery efforts were underway on Friday in Puerto Rico, where more than 1 million people and half the island’s hospitals were left without electricity after the storm brushed by the territory.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the USS Wasp was “conducting medical evacuations for critical care patients from St. Thomas to St. Croix and performing damage assessments,” according to NORTHCOM.

As of Friday, there were six search and rescue missions. Twenty-one patients were evacuated, with another 23 planned for evacuation. 

In addition, NORTHCOM established logistics bases in Alabama, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia and Georgia.

Military preparation efforts also included moving equipment away from the storm’s wrath. The Air Force moved 50 F-16 Fighting Falcons and 100 personnel from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina to a base in Louisiana, and numerous KC-135 tankers and F-15 Eagles from bases in Florida, Military.com reported.

"Preliminary FEMA property damage assessments describe 'massive devastation,' including 'complete power/communications collapse' " in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Davis said.

The National Guard Bureau is expecting a request from Scott for an additional 20,000 troops, Davis said.