Vast military response to Irma underway

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The military response to Hurricane Irma includes deploying ships, personnel and equipment to Florida and United States territories in the Caribbean which have already suffered the effects of the largest hurricane in US history.

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 Hill reported.

Downgraded to a Category 4 storm, Irma 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 are predicting heavy rains and the possibility of 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 expects the entire force of more than 8,000 to eventually be called into duty as the storm moves through the state.

Already devastated by the storm, Puerto Rico has 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.

This latest weather emergency comes just under two weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas and Louisiana late last month, calling into question whether forces can adequately respond so quickly.

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

After speaking with Pentagon and State Department officials on Friday, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert insisted that they are prepared to tackle Irma’s after-effects.

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 was confident in the government’s response to 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,” he said on Thursday at the White House, adding 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 noted.

Ever since the hurricane became an apparent threat earlier this week, the Pentagon began preparing by sending Navy amphibious assault ships and Marine helicopters to the U.S. Virgin Islands to transport people and supplies.

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

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

More than 1 million people and half of the hospitals in Puerto Rico were left without electricity after the storm barreled through the island territory, where recovery efforts began on Friday.

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 out of the killer storm’s path. 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, reported.

“Preliminary FEMA property damage assessments describe ‘massive devastation,’ including ‘complete power/communications collapse’ ” in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Davis said, noting that the
National Guard Bureau is expecting Governor Scott to request an additional 20,000 troops.


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