Navy warships, 101st Airborne await a call-up from Florida

From the waters off Key West to north of the Florida border in Alabama and Georgia, the Pentagon had an array of military forces on standby Monday for call-up to Hurricane Irma relief efforts by Gov. Rick Scott.

Among them, the amphibious assault transport dock the USS New York — which was forged in part from steel salvaged from the World Trade Center — and four other warships that spent the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks getting in position.

Separately, air assault soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division were Monday moving about 370 troops, 40 vehicles and 35 aircraft to Alabama to be available 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, said Army Lt. Col. Martin L. O’Donnell of the 101st at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

“We have positioned our forces in the areas that we anticipate have the greatest need,” said Navy Lt. Mike Hatfield at the Northern Command in Peterson air base in Colorado.

With an order from Scott via FEMA, U.S. troops and sailors can evacuate patients, carry out 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.”

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The Marines were aboard the USS Iwo Jima and USS New York, from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, still awaiting an assignment. Separately they aircraft carrier USS Abraham 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.

“We haven’t received any formal requests at this point to provide any formal support,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Wierzbicki, spokesman for Fleet Forces Command, the command and control headquarters for the mini-armada, which is smaller than a strike group.

The Navy said the ships 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. 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 OpaLocka — 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 various 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, that “approximately 10,400 service-members are supporting relief operations in the region. One possible platform: The Homestead air base, south of Miami, was “assessed to be in good condition,” said Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis.

▪ 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.