NORTHCOM chief lauds Pentagon, other responders in Florence relief
WASHINGTON — As Hurricane Florence moved slowly toward North and South Carolina late last week, the Pentagon moved equipment and troops throughout the eastern United States, essentially encircling the storm.
Army and Air Force helicopters and high-water trucks moved into the Carolinas from Georgia, Kentucky and New York as two Navy ships — the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship, and the USS Arlington, an amphibious transport dock — followed Florence toward land, parking eventually about 10 miles off the East Coast near the North and South Carolina border.
Even as the flooding worsened Tuesday, four days after the category 1 storm made landfall, the military’s top general in charge of the hurricane response told reporters that the Pentagon’s plan had so far worked exactly as designed. Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy said he was confident he already had the equipment and personnel in place that he would need to continue to respond.
“The intent was that we could bring in the force regardless of [the condition] of the access routes, and that has paid off,” O’Shaughnessy, the commander of U.S. Northern Command, said from an operations center set up in Raleigh, N.C. “We’ve been able to deliver every time there has been a requirement, we have been able to bring the force to bear because we had the access and the prepositioned materials that were available.”
The storm did not impact exactly as predicted, he said. Florence, once a category 4 storm, was expected to produce damaging, life-threatening winds. But it’s been the water that’s had the major impact in the Carolinas, the general said. Florence slowed to a crawl, dumping feet of rain on the impacted areas. Some parts of North Carolina have received more than 40 inches of rain in the last seven days, according to the National Weather Service.
By Tuesday, the storm was blamed for at least 32 deaths, The Associated Press reported. Twenty-six of the reported deaths were in North Carolina.
O’Shaughnessy said the military has held its deployment of about 13,000 troops steady since the weekend and he does not anticipate a major change in that force size. That includes about 6,000 active-duty servicemembers and Air and Army National Guard troops largely from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. However, troops have deployed from as far away as Alaska to aid in the response, officials said.
Another 3,000 Coast Guard members, who do not report to the Pentagon, are also assisting, largely conducting helicopter- and shallow-water response and boat-based search-and-rescue operations. Since Friday, the Coast Guard has rescued 426 people and 234 pets, the service said Tuesday.
Since Friday, Defense Department troops have been primarily conducting search-and-rescue operations via helicopter and high-water and amphibious vehicles, often alongside local first responders, and moving supplies throughout the impacted area, where massive flooding has washed out roads, forcing officials to close much of North Carolina’s highway system.
On Tuesday, Marine MV-22 Ospreys from the Kearsarge and Arlington flew over the area for the first time to assess damage, officials said.
Troops whose own installations were impacted by the storm have been busy, O’Shaughnessy said. Soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C., have joined local first responders on missions around the clock since Friday, he said. Marines at Camp Lejeune have assisted in 331 rescues or evacuations of civilians in the Jacksonville, N.C. area, where the base is located, he added.
However, O’Shaughnessy said most of the impacted military bases throughout the region were largely returning to normal by Tuesday. Though flooding remained a concern at Fort Bragg, much of the post’s personnel returned to work Tuesday, officials said. O’Shaughnessy said the installation was militarily operational as of Tuesday afternoon.
Camp Lejeune, however, remained largely closed Tuesday, but officials announced the base’s commissary was expected to reopen Wednesday. Non-essential personnel are not expected to return to work at the Marine base until Sept. 24.
O’Shaughnessy credited a joint response from the Pentagon, federal, state and local officials for working together well in reacting to the storm. But federal and state officials warned Florence’s impacts would likely continue to worsen as major rivers crested, and advised those people who evacuated not to return to their homes yet.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” O’Shaughnessy said. “The flooding aspect is the most significant impact, and that part is still ongoing.”