As Hurricane Irma makes landfall on the continental United States, America’s military is already responding to assist in the rescue and recovery efforts in the Leeward Islands, where Irma left “catastrophic” levels of destruction, while preparing to do the same at home later this week.
St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to a Defense Department press release, were among the hardest hit.
Preliminary property damage assessments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency describe ‘massive devastation,’” DoD spokesman Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis said, “including ‘complete power/communications collapse’ in the [U.S. Virgin Islands], and substantial damage to a local hospital. Irma struck Puerto Rico a glancing blow, leaving 70 percent of the population — more than 1 million customers — without power.”
The U.S. Northern Command, led by Air Force Gen. Lori J. Robinson, has assumed control of the Defense Department’s domestic response to Hurricane Irma, and they are coordinating with FEMA to allocate resources and personnel where they can be most effective in responding to the needs of the American people after Irma makes landfall. In the meantime, operations to assist the areas already devastated by Irma’s powerful winds are ongoing.
The USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, evacuated 21 critically ill patients from devastated hospitals in St. Thomas on Friday, with plans to evacuate 23 more on Saturday. Two more amphibious assault vessels, the USS Kearsarge and USS Oak Hill, are supporting response operations in the U.S. Virgin Islands, with personnel hailing from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and FEMA.
Stateside, the Defense Department has identified several installations on the East Coast to potentially be used as further staging areas for a larger Irma response if necessary, with Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; Fort A.P. Hill, Va.; Moody Air Force Base, Ga.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Robins Air Force Base, Ga. all listed as likely candidates.
“Right now, majority of this is preparation,” Davis said. “We’re identifying where bases are and ideal possible bases, but until things actually shift we can’t actually respond.”
National Guard detachments from Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Florida have already been activated, with other National Guard units from all over the country responding by providing supplies, equipment and personnel. Many of these units, particularly Air National Guard rescue units, have had very little recuperation after participating in rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s onslaught in Texas, but are already staging to answer the call for Americans in need over the coming week.
“Just as our soldiers and airmen stayed strong and answered the call during the floods of 2015, Hurricane Matthew last year and the many other recent events when our state needed support, so now is the time we must be ready for Hurricane Irma,” said Army Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston Jr., the adjutant general for South Carolina.
100 members of the Air National Guard 129th Rescue Wing arrived in Florida on Friday, many of whom are the same guardsmen from the 129th credited with saving 113 people from the worst of Harvey’s flooding, just prior to departing to begin preparation for a response to Irma.
“We’re always ready to answer that call,” said Air Force Capt. Roderick Bersamina.
Images courtesy of the Department of Defense