Amphibious warships USS Kearsarge (LHD-3), USS Arlington (LPD-24) and elements of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit are positioned off the Carolina coast to offer disaster relief and search and rescue assistance, if requested, once Hurricane Florence makes landfall, the Pentagon’s top homeland defense officials said.
Standing before a map of the U.S. during a Thursday media briefing, Air Force Gen. Terrance O’Shaughnessy, commander of U.S. Northern Command, pointed to various Department of Defense assets positioned to surround the storm, which was expected to make landfall in the Wilmington, N.C. area.
“USS Kearsarge and Arlington, which will literally chase Florence, has Navy and Marine personnel, in addition to life-saving assets, to include 16 helicopters and six MV-22s,” O’Shaughnessy said.
On Thursday afternoon, forecasters predicted the storm to make landfall near Wilmington, N.C., and move inland through South Carolina. Eventually, what’s left of the storm is expected to move northeast through the Ohio River Valley, according to the National Weather Service.
A year ago, Kearsarge was an integral part of the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. President Donald Trump visited the ship while touring the storm-ravaged island. The amphib ultimately spent two months providing hurricane disaster relief to Caribbean islands.
Other search and rescue equipment, including helicopters and high-water vehicles, along with personnel, are staged at Fort Stewart, Ga., Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga., Moody Air Force Base, Ga., and Ft. Bragg, N.C. Additional search and rescue teams are staged further out in Delaware, Florida and Texas.
“From the sea, where we have the Kearsarge and Arlington that are going to follow the storm in, all the way through to our Army and our great support that we have with the vehicles that are going to be able to be used in a high-water situation, to the helicopters and all the way literally surrounding this affected area, the Department of Defense is ready to respond when asked from FEMA, when asked from the governors, when asked from the local communities. We are ready to respond,” O’Shaughnessy said.
Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) is unlikely to play any role in the post-storm recovery efforts, O’Shaughnessy said. The local hospitals are expected to be able to handle medical emergencies.
Comfort was among the roughly 30 ships to sortie from Naval Station Norfolk on Monday to get out of the storm’s path. Comfort did not depart with medical staff and is expected to return to Norfolk once the storm passes, Tom Van Leunen, a spokesman for the Military Sealift Command, told USNI News.
On land, O’Shaughnessy said about 7,000 troops are currently positioned to respond to the hurricane. Roughly 4,000 of these troops are from National Guard units. At the ready are about 3,000 active duty personnel specially trained to perform search and rescue or disaster relief missions, he said.
Also, all Department of Defense installation commanders have response authorities, Kenneth P. Rapuano, assistant secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security, said during the media briefing. If there is a dire need in the communities surrounding a base, commanders do not need to seek approval before assisting local first responders.
In the middle of the anticipated storm path sits Camp Lejeune, which did not evacuate ahead of the storm. Brig. Gen. Julian Alford, commanding general of Marine Corps Installations East-Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, put a detailed message on social media to explain his reasoning, which centered on the robust shelters and medical facilities on base.
O’Shaughnessy, when asked during the briefing about Camp Lejeune, said he had trust and confidence in all installation commanders. Earlier in the week, officials at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) Parris Island, S.C., planned to evacuate but then reversed course and decided to also shelter in place when Florence’s anticipated track appeared to be veering further north.
“On the positive side, because of their proximity and their great capability, that will also be part of the relief effort that we can bring to bear very quickly,” O’Shaughnessy said of the Marines stationed in the Carolinas.