Marines assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264 wash a CH-53E Super Stallion aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3). Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy
Two U.S. Marine Corps amphibious ships, loaded with 16 helicopters and six V-22s are tailing Hurricane Florence as it barrels toward the Carolinas so they can deploy inland and immediately begin disaster relief efforts as the storm moves inland, according to the chief of U.S. Northern Command.
The USS Kearsarge, a big-deck amphibious assault ship, and the USS Arlington amphibious transport dock will “chase Florence in,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy, commander of NORTHCOM and North American Aerospace Defense Command.
“They are dependent on the storm’s track,” he said during a Sept. 13 press conference at the Pentagon. “As the storm progresses, they progress in.”
The MV-22 Ospreys will primarily perform transport missions moving troops, supplies and equipment in the storm’s wake. CH-53 Super Stallions will perform heavy lift and search and rescue, he said.
Those Marine Corps and Navy assets provide the seaward arc to a halo of prepositioned Defense Department assets surrounding the expected hurricane impact zone. Troops stationed on the land just outside the storm’s projected path include 4,000 Army and Air National Guard troops under the authority of state governors and 3,000 active-duty military personnel. Thousands more are waiting in the wings, ready to respond if called up, O’Shaughnessy said.
“The National Guard is well-postured to respond to the search-and-rescue requirement,” he said. “The magnitude of this storm may exceed their capability and if it does, we want to make sure that we are postured and ready to respond at a moment’s notice.”
Fleets of aircraft have been flown out of the expected impact area and staged just outside alongside helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft from both active and reserve components units. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has given blanket approval for commanders of the 21 major Defense Department installations in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to take immediate lifesaving and life-sustaining action with personnel, vehicles and equipment on hand in surrounding communities.
At least 35 helicopters are staged at Hunter Army Airfield at Fort Stewart, Georgia, ready to fly into the storm’s wake to perform search-and-rescue missions. A similar unit is at Fort Bliss, Texas, ready to move in after the storm passes.
Seven UH-60 Black Hawks remain at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, inside a hangar reinforced to withstand hurricane-force winds.
At Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, the Air Force has staged a rescue fleet of six HH-60 Pave Hawks and four pararescue teams.
Florence has lost some strength as it approaches landfall, but the slow-moving cyclone is forecast to dump feet of rain on some coastal counties in North Carolina and South Carolina. Getting vertical-lift aircraft into the disaster area to pluck people from rising flood waters will be a critical mission and likely the greatest challenge to the military and first responders, O'Shaughnessy said.
“As we look into this storm … in the immediate aftermath of the storm’s landing, we think the search and rescue, the vertical lift and the ability to bring in those helicopters is going to be a key asset,” O’Shaughnessy said.
The Pentagon is allowing FEMA to use Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; North Auxiliary Airfield, South Carolina; and Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama to store relief supplies. Multiple composite truck companies of 80 light medium tactical vehicles (LMTVs) are positioned at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Fort Stewart, Georgia, and ready to respond quickly once the hurricane passes through.
LMTVs have high clearance that will allow them to traverse floodwaters to perform rescues, delivery supplies and check houses for trapped victims. Another 40 vehicles are staged at Fort Bragg.
A C-2 Greyhound and E-8 Joint STARS airborne command-and-control aircraft are on standby at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida under the command of NORTHCOM.
“We have quite literally surrounded the expected affected area with DOD capability that will be critical in the hours and days following the storm’s impact,” O’Shaughnessy said.
DOD personnel and assets are staged to help state authorities and FEMA when requested. Local authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard also are propositioning equipment, supplies and vehicles to expedite emergency response.
“National Guard commanders have the experience and understanding to lead our forces for this kind of mission and they have my complete confidence and support,” O’Shaughnessy said. “While I can attest to the tremendous capability that resides at the local and state levels, based on the magnitude of this storm, DOD’s proactive actions are ensuring our forces are optimally positioned for immediate response.”
“The same capabilities that make the U.S. armed forces so powerful in combat lend themselves extraordinarily well to disaster relief,” he said.