‘We’re in here for the long haul:’ National Guard sets up Irma command in Keys

For Hurricane Irma’s victims, help comes in darkness.

Under a reddish half moon, 12 Army National Guard trucks rode across the Florida Keys.

The night hides the worst of the destruction.

The rotten stench of standing seawater gives it away.

They’ve come from all over the state, these busloads of soldiers, to bring food and water to the hardy — and perhaps foolhardy — few who stayed on the Keys while Irma unleashed her fury. And, most importantly they’ve brought themselves — strapping men ready to keep the peace, for as long as it takes.

Up to 30 days, their initial orders said. The Keys need them.

The Florida Guard has moved into Irma’s disaster zone, where functioning power outlets are rare, communications spotty and flushing toilets nonexistent. A Miami Herald reporter embedded with a convoy, which left Broward County on Tuesday night and arrived in the Middle Keys on Wednesday morning, to witness the massive logistical operation to slowly make the islands habitable again.

“Man,” one soldier said when the sun rose over Marathon. “It looks like a bomb went off here.”

By Wednesday, soldiers had staffed five centers in former hurricane shelters to distribute supplies flown in on military aircraft.

Sorry, Guardsmen at Marathon High School had to tell locals. No ice.

“WATER,” read a sign outside the National Wildlife Refuge in Big Pine Key, where so few leaves remained on trees that the entire refuge looked like it had been torched.

Lines grew outside a Publix in Marathon and a Winn-Dixie in Pine Key, both boarded up but still open.

Residents were otherwise scarce. A search-and-rescue team kept going door to door, asking survivors if they needed medical help. Power and cell phone crews dotted the Overseas Highway, working to restore service.

In Marathon, a volunteer from Pathfinder Task Force, a nonprofit, tried to recruit volunteers to get involved in aid distribution “so the locals are running things for themselves,” said Emanuel Alex, a West Palm Beach yoga teacher who drove down a week ago. (“No one’s doing yoga right now.”)

“People are still trickling in,” he said, an understatement amid the eerie desolation. Down the street, a lone man rode his bicycle in the crushing heat.

The relief effort got under way even before the storm hit Sunday. An eight-man cell left Miami for Key Largo on Saturday afternoon, hauling a state satellite communications system and preparing to get to work as soon as Irma passed.

“The Humvee would rock in the winds,” said Maj. Kevin Shuler, operations manager at the Guard’s makeshift command center at the Marathon airport. “We ducked them down underneath an overpass and waited for them to go by.”

At one point, they had to refuel in the whipping wind, the men “holding each other on the side of the Humvee,” Shuler said, adding, as only a soldier would: “It was cool.”

Tuesday night, Bravo Company gathered at the Miramar Armory, a National Guard readiness center.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott called all Guard members to duty Friday.

“We’re in here for the long haul,” said Capt. John Beamer, the operations officer managing the team from Miramar.

The South Florida response wasn’t limited to the Keys. Beamer sent soldiers Tuesday to assist Miami Shores police with night patrols. Another team reorganized an emergency supplies warehouse for Broward government. A third group took water to Pembroke Pines hospitals.

Some soldiers didn’t know how their house had fared under Irma. The ones who live in Marco Island and Naples went home to check.

Bravo Company — “B-Co” — is well versed in disasters. The unit returned in April from a year-long deployment in East Africa.

“We actually look forward to this, because helping people in America — we take a lot of pride in that,” Beamer said. “We’re helping our own country.”

Marty Senterfitt, Monroe County’s emergency manager, told Scott when the governor dropped in Wednesday that the military’s “just been a lifesaver.”

“They’ve come in humble,” Senterfitt said.

Tuesday’s convoy included high-water trucks with self-inflatable tires, a fuel truck and an ambulance.

Soldiers left at night because the same traffic that slowed evacuees’ return home on I-75 and I-95 kept trucks from arriving.

Out drove the convoy at 8:12 p.m. A man in a white Mercedes-Benz looked out his window and pumped his fist: “U-S-A!”

Alas, the drive was not without hiccups.

The Guard estimated it would take up to six hours to reach the five distribution centers from Tavernier to Key West. It took eight just to make it to Marathon.

A 20-minute refueling stop at the Homestead Sports Complex took two hours after the fuel truck didn’t make it. A Humvee and two buses of soldiers peeled off to pump at a gas station. When the convoy arrived at the blocked-off entry to U.S. 1 at 12:21 a.m., it was forced to wait for an unplanned police escort.

“You know how it is: too many chiefs, not enough Indians,” said an orange-vest clad Miami-Dade County police officer who walked by the Humvee. “I’m going to go figure out what the fuck’s going on.”

“First F-bomb of the night!” said Spc. James Lanza, a public affairs officer behind the wheel.

The convoy reached Coral Shores High School in Tavernier at 1:29 a.m. It dropped off water, ready-to-eat meals and 13 soldiers who appeared ready to sleep under the stars if necessary. At 4:03 a.m., the convoy pulled into Marathon High School. Soldiers rolled out mats on the floor of the gym, a former emergency shelter, to catch a little sleep.

In the morning, some soldiers would continue to Big Pine, Sugarloaf and Key West.

Around the corner from the Big Pine distribution center, homes and businesses were littered with electric poles, torn metal and ripped street signs.

Still standing: a church marquee that displayed Psalms 56:3:

“What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.”