Military bases in Florida are going through staged evacuation checklists as Hurricane Irma threatens to sweep through the state with devastating force.
Around 5,000 nonessential personnel, including family members and civilians, are already being evacuated from Naval Air Station Key West as the Category 5 storm barrels through the Carribean.
The base, which is mainly used to train air-to-air combat and has a port for special operations, will maintain a core staff of 40-50 personel, said Trice Denny, the public affairs officer for the base.
Navy personel are well prepared for the evacuation, she said.
“We train for this quite intensely,” she said.
Key West is home to an adversary squadron of F-5s that are used to train jet fighters in air-to-air combat. That squadron of 15 aircraft, as well as a search and rescue helicopter, are being moved out.
Another search and rescue helicopter is under repair and being stored in a building on sight, she said.
Meanwhile, the North Carolina Air National Guard will be using an air strip at the base to bring in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport plane to evacuate patients that don’t need ambulence service from the Lower Keys Medical Center.
It’s the only hospital in the area.
“We continue to prepare the base for any contingency and that’s really where we are at. Our families are in the process of leaving,” said Denny.
The commander of the U.S. Navy Region Southeast has put bases throughout Florida on alert.
A Navy representative said bases are going through their checklists, making sure they are ready at each stage as the storm approaches and further evacuation orders are potentially issued.
The Navy is calling on personel to get the Navy Family (NFAAS) app up and running on their cellphones (Android/Apple) so they can be connected with information and services they’ll need during a disaster.
They can also visit the Navy Family website, though Google Chrome currently warns it is not a secure site and some visitors must click through their advanced settings to access it.
Meanwhile, the Navy is in close communication with Florida state officials as Irma approaches.
“The communication between us and our local communities is very important,” said Bill Dougherty, the public affairs officer for Navy Region Southeast, the command for bases in Florida.
Decisions to evacuate are often a joint effort, and in the case of Monroe County, local officials decided to issue their mandatory evacuation shortly after the Navy issued its evac order for the Key West base.
“We made our decision and they made theirs because it is coordinated,” he said. “There are constant communications between the Navy and the state of the Florida to make sure we are aligned with them.”
Bases make the primary decision on whether to evacuate and how to handle personal, though Fleet Command in Norfolk overseas ships, planes and submarines.
A representative for Fleet Command has said it is closely monitoring the storm to ensure that ships and personnel are safe but it was almost impossible to say what specific actions would be taken.
“We are constantly looking at, assessing and planning. So it changes on pretty much on an hourly basis,” he said.
Already, however, the USS Iwo Jima and USS New York left Mayport, Florida, and are loading up with disaster supplies in Norfolk where they will be on standby to provide assistance.
Meanwhile, the USS Kearsarge and USS Oak Hill, dispatched to provide relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, will instead stay put off the east coast of southern Florida to await a decision on whether to proceed to Texas or remain to help with Irma.