The military effort activated to support relief and search-and-rescue operations after Hurricane Florence hits the East Coast has swelled to more than 7,000 troops, with thousands more standing by on ready-to-deploy orders, the commander of U.S. Northern Command said Thursday.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Air Force Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy said Florence, which has prompted more than one million evacuations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, will be met with comprehensive and wide-ranging military relief efforts from every side, including from the ocean, where two amphibious ships are following hard in the wake of the storm.
"The USS Kearsarge and Arlington, which will literally chase Florence in, have Navy and Marine personnel in addition to life-saving assets to include 16 helicopters, and six MV-22 [Ospreys]," O'Shaughnessy said.
The amphibious assault ship Kearsarge and amphibious transport dock Arlington, both sortied from their Norfolk, Virginia, homeport ahead of the storm, have a light special-purpose Marine air-ground task force aboard ready to engage in disaster-relief efforts, O'Shaughnessy said.
But the ships, which must wait until the worst of the hurricane subsides to approach the coast, likely will not be the first line of relief after Florence makes landfall.
The following bases are staging equipment and supplies for relief efforts, O'Shaughnessy said:
- Joint Base Bragg, North Carolina, where 40 high-wheeled vehicles for rescue and transportation, and seven helicopters will also be positioned
- North Air Force Auxiliary Airfield, South Carolina
- Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama
Meanwhile, he said, composite truck companies from Fort Stewart, Georgia, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, will contribute 80 light medium tactical vehicles, which can clear floodwaters and rescue trapped storm victims or perform house-to-house checks. They can also bring supplies for first responders to high-water areas, O'Shaughnessy said.
LMTVs were pressed into storm duty after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas last year.
Helicopters are positioned at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, and Fort Bliss, Texas, for search-and-rescue operations, and additional search-and-rescue teams are on call at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, including six HH-60 Pave Hawks and four pararescue teams. Those elements may be among the first called in to search for survivors.
Command-and-control elements will be in place at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida to oversee NORTHCOM rescue efforts.
"We have quite literally surrounded the expected effect area with DoD capability that will be critical in hours and days following the storm's impact," O'Shaughnessy said.
Of the 7,000 troops currently tapped for storm response, about 4,000 are National Guard and another 3,000 are active duty, he said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has also issued pre-approval for area base commanders to deploy support and aid to their surrounding communities as the storm passes through.
"[Defense Secretary] Mattis' guidance to me is clear," O'Shaughnessy said. "We are anticipating the needs, we are moving forward under our own authorities to assure we can respond as soon as the request is made."
A Category 2 Hurricane as of Thursday evening, Florence's first bands have already made landfall in coastal North Carolina. Winds and rain are supposed to move through a wide multi-state band at least through Saturday, passing through South Carolina and the eastern edge of Georgia before moving north.