The Defense Department is responding to "catastrophic" levels of destruction throughout the Leeward Islands, including the islands of St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, DoD spokesman Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis said today in a statement.
Open source media reports a total of 23 fatalities in the affected region, he said. “Preliminary property damage assessments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency describe ‘massive devastation,’” Davis said, “including ‘complete power/communications collapse’ in the [U.S. Virgin Islands], and substantial damage to a local hospital. Irma struck Puerto Rico a glancing blow, leaving 70 percent of the population -- more than 1 million customers -- without power.”
Irma is forecast to impact Florida in the next 36 hours as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane, the colonel said, with life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state and the danger of storm surges of up to 12 feet in southwest Florida and the Florida Keys if peak surge coincides with high tide.
U.S. Northern Command commander Air Force Gen. Lori J. Robinson is leading DoD's domestic response and is generating forces in response to FEMA requests, Davis said. DoD components, including the Defense Logistics Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, are posturing to provide significant additional assets and support as needed.
The amphibious assault ship USS Wasp evacuated about 21 critically ill patients yesterday from the damaged hospital on St. Thomas, with at least 23 more planned for today, Northcom officials said. The amphibious assault ships USS Kearsarge and USS Oak Hill -- carrying Marines assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and FEMA personnel -- are supporting response operations in the U.S. Virgin Islands, including patient evacuation.
U.S. Transportation Command is supporting the aeromedical evacuation and will evacuate additional patients this evening.
Ten MH-60R Seahawk helicopters were loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to support defense support of civil authorities operations before the ship departed Norfolk, Virginia, earlier today, Davis said. The amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima and amphibious transport dock USS New York are loading a second maritime defense support of civil authorities package and plan to depart Norfolk today and proceed to the Caribbean region, he added.
The Army Corps of Engineers is assisting with disaster assessment in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico today, the colonel said, and will have power restoration teams in the area tomorrow. The corps is monitoring Lake Okeechobee to prepare for the possibility that heavy winds push floodwaters over the dike holding the lake. Florida has initiated the precautionary evacuation of sparsely populated counties to the south, he said.
The Defense Logistics Agency has shipped more than a million shelf-stable meals to St. Thomas and 1.7 million liters of water to San Juan, Puerto Rico, via sealift, and is redistributing Hurricane Harvey commodities in support of the response to Irma, Davis said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott activated 4,000 National Guardsmen and National Guard Bureau officials said they expect a request from him for an additional 20,000 troops. National Guardsmen from as far away as California have been mobilized in anticipation of the storm, National Guard Bureau officials said yesterday.