From the waters off Key West to north of the Florida border, the Pentagon had an array of military forces on standby Monday for call-up to federal Hurricane Irma relief efforts sought by Gov. Rick Scott.
Among them, the Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which dispatched four helicopters on a site survey over Key West of potential landing sites to deliver supplies or assist in rescue operations. It was not immediately known what the chopper pilots found.
But, “we believe that tomorrow you’re going to see a much larger search and rescue effort beginning in Florida, specifically in the Key West area,” military spokesman John Cornelio said Monday evening from Northern Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Meantime, on the amphibious assault transport dock the USS New York — which was forged in part from steel salvaged from the World Trade Center — sailors took time out to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks near Florida while awaiting their assignment in post-Irma humanitarian relief efforts.
Separately, air assault soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division on Monday were moving about 370 troops, 40 vehicles and 35 aircraft to Alabama to be in position to provide search and rescue, medical evacuation and other services to Florida.
The aircraft included Black Hawk helicopters, some equipped to evacuate patients, others set up to move people and equipment, and Chinook, heavy-lift helicopters, Army Lt. Col. Martin L. O’Donnell said of the 101st at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Other U.S. military forces Northcom said were on standby for service — if Scott’s office asks FEMA to ask the Pentagon to provide it — included 76 fuel trucks from the Defense Logistics Agency at the Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and about 400 soldiers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with 100 high water vehicles that can be used to locate and rescue people who may be trapped in flooding.
“We have positioned our forces in the areas that we anticipate have the greatest need,” said Navy Lt. Mike Hatfield at the Northern Command.
With an order from Scott via FEMA, U.S. troops and sailors can evacuate patients, do search and rescue operations, land on Florida beaches and deliver supplies by air, land and sea. U.S. military war-fighting skills, Hatfield said, “translate really well into disaster relief. Marines are designed to access foul beaches. Well, a hurricane creates a foul beach. We can do anything we’re asked. It’s FEMA in the lead.”
Monday afternoon, FEMA’s Mary Hudak put it this way: “We give them the mission and they meet the requirements.”
The Marines were aboard the USS Iwo Jima and USS New York still awaiting an assignment. Separately the Lincoln, a destroyer, the USS Farragut; and a cruiser, the USS San Jacinto, arrived in the vicinity of Key West Sunday night to offer a range of assistance — once the state of Florida requested it.
The Navy said the mini armada can provide medical and logistic support, handle seaborne security duty, and with three heavy-left Super Stallion helicopters and about two dozen medium lift, multi-mission Seahawk helicopters can be used for a range of duties — from search and rescue missions to moving relief supplies from sea to shore.
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Lincoln, part of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, is based in Norfolk, Virginia. Sailors from the ship have done humanitarian, post-disaster relief operations before, notably in 2005 after a devastating tsunami struck Aceh Province in Sumatra, Indonesia. It recently completed a four-year, mid-life overhaul and was returned to sea duty in May.
The governor’s office can also tap into other out-of-state U.S. military support.
— Over the weekend, a U.S. Air Force rescue squadron from Anchorage, Alaska, reached the U.S. Coast Guard’s Miami air station in Opa-locka — an offer of support to search-and-rescue operations from the northernmost tip of the United States even before Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys, the nation’s southernmost tip.
For combat situations, pararescuemen with the 212th Rescue Squadron, an Alaska Air National Guard Unit, are trained to pluck isolated personnel from enemy territory and carry out recovery missions. In peacetime, for example in the aftermath of an assault by Hurricane Irma, they can also fly helicopters to evacuate survivors of natural disaster, move the sick and injured — and deliver relief supplies.
— A Pentagon spokesman said Monday morning, as Irma was leaving the state, that “approximately 10,400 service members are supporting relief operations in the region. One possible platform: The Homestead Air Reserve Base, south of Miami, was “assessed to be in good condition,” Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis said.
— Other Pentagon offers of support to the state include U.S. Army Corps of Engineers power teams, debris removal teams, temporary roofing teams and port survey personnel, Davis said. They were on alert and ready in Florida and Georgia.
Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg ___
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