But, the relief efforts that started in late August hit a lot closer to home for the Surface Warriors who deployed to the Caribbean. This time our Navy was called upon to provide for our own – American citizens in the territory of the United States located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
When the Department of Defense became part of the joint team supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the lead federal agency coordinating help for those affected by the two hurricanes, the U.S. Navy rapidly became one component of the overall whole-of-government response effort.
The priority of the response team was to save lives and minimize the suffering of those impacted throughout the region. Starting with USS Wasp, the first Navy platform to arrive in the vicinity of the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma, and soon thereafter by USS Kearsarge and USS Oak Hill, the ships provided medium and heavy lift helicopters to transport people and supplies throughout both hurricane response efforts. The rotor-wing contingent for the ships included Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom medium utility helicopters, CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters and MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft; and Navy MH-60S Seahawk medium lift helicopters. In critical times, the aviation assets were also used for medical evacuation of intensive care patients from St. Thomas, St. Croix, and Puerto Rico. In addition, the aircrews’ initial aerial damage assessments were extremely helpful to key decision-makers on the ground when prioritizing resources required to assist the broad spectrum of areas in need.
Fueling the lifeline of the forward-operating helicopters and landing craft utility vessels, and driving overall mission success, was the persistent presence of the powerful gray-hulled ships sitting just off the coast. Unparalleled by any civilian equivalent, the ships contributed to relief efforts through medical support, maritime civil affairs operations, maritime security efforts, expeditionary logistic support, and most pertinent to this critical circumstance, meteorological and oceanographic forecasting support.
Unlike some of the previous unforeseen and quick developing disasters in forward-operating theaters which required a reactive response, the ability to track and assess the oncoming hurricanes presented opportunity for Kearsarge and accompanying assets to proactively take on large amounts of supplies specific to post-hurricane recovery efforts prior to departing Naval Station Norfolk. Kearsarge, alone, loaded more than 200 pallets of materials containing bedding, water bottles, towels, batteries, coolers, diapers, baby food and formula, and canned and dry food items, as well as food service supplies.
Kearsarge's Command Master Chief Jason Knupp made note of the response effort during the deployment, "The crew has been extremely adaptable. You would think somewhere between less than two days in port, dodging and then following hurricanes, there would be a hiccup along the way. Between the crew and all the embarked units – Marines, Seabees, squadrons, and others – their work has been flawless. These guys took charge of the mission and got it done."
Following the initial delivery of life-sustaining materials to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the mission then added a focus on road and route clearance. While still maintaining regular deliveries of supplies to points of distribution and hard-to-reach locations in Puerto Rico, Marines and Seabees were on the ground removing debris, enabling federal and Puerto Rican government employees and volunteers to begin service and infrastructure restoration. The ship’s team also took on the mission of repairing more than 50 electrical generators at hospitals throughout Puerto Rico.
"I'm extremely proud of the Sailors and Marines who were prominent among the initial responders responsible for providing tangible lifesaving and relief support for fellow Americans in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico during Hurricanes Irma and Maria," said Rear Adm. Jeffrey Hughes, Commander, ESG 2. "This team of Sailors and Marines from numerous commands in various stages of readiness came together to brilliantly support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and partner with other federal, territory and local responders in an unprecedented response effort. These Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) operations demonstrated the effectiveness of our amphibious force and made a lasting impression on those affected by these devastating storms."
As history has shown, the same Surface Force capabilities that allow the U.S. to project power ashore around the world in times of conflict are just as effective in responding to the world’s natural disasters. In the mitigation of human suffering – this time of U.S. citizens – during times of need, the Navy has once again proven itself as the vanguard of interagency efforts.