In a sign of scaling back Hurricane Irma relief operations in and around Florida, the Navy relieved the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln from duty off the Keys on Thursday and recalled it to its base in Norfolk, Virginia, military officials said.
The Lincoln was the largest symbol of the huge national response mounted by the Department of Defense as the Category 5 hurricane was headed to Florida. But by Thursday, with an estimated 10,000 National Guard and reserve troops in the state, all but about 2,000 from Florida, the Pentagon had already begun recalling forces. The guided-missile cruiser USS San Jacinto accompanied the aircraft carrier back to Norfolk.
“Typically, if we’re leaving that’s good news. I’ve got to tell you, the big effort down there on the military side really is the Guard,” said John Cornelio, a spokesman for the U.S. Northern Command, which oversaw Defense Department response efforts from Peterson air base in Colorado Springs.
As of Thursday, the Florida National Guard reported there were an estimated 10,000 Air and Army national guard forces arrayed across the state — still staffing a dozen shelters and some local Emergency Operation Centers and armories.
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Troops were helping to deliver relief, managing food and water distribution sites in collaboration with 15 counties, clearing debris from roadways and helping direct traffic.
Of them, about 2,200 were from 11 other states under a mutual assistance pact, said Lt. Col. Tammy Spicer, a Florida Guard spokeswoman at Camp Blanding.
The first wave, some 650 troops, arrived at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport from Wisconsin in C130 and C17 cargo planes on Monday in what Spicer called a “major muscle movement” to clear out the airfield and reopen it.
She said Guard members were distributing food and water in these counties: Brevard, Collier, DeSoto, Duval, Glades, Hendry, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Lee, Monroe, Okeechobee, Putnam, Sarasota and Suwannee.
Guard troops also remained in shelters in these counties, she added: Miami-Dade, Citrus, Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hendry, Hernando, Highlands, Lee and Suwannee.
In the aftermath of the storm, Spicer said, the guard ran “several search and rescue missions,” notably in Duval and Jackson counties, Fort Myers and Key West, although it was not known if any actual rescues took place.
In Key West, the Navy said, three ships remained: the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima; amphibious transport dock ship USS New York; and the destroyer USS Farragut. Between the three, about 2,400 sailors and Marines were “providing expeditionary logistic support, medium and heavy lift air support, medical support, maritime civil affairs, and maritime security,” according to a Navy statement
While off the coast of Florida, the Navy said, helicopters based on the Lincoln delivered water and supplies to Key West’s Navy base, Marathon, Port Everglades, Homestead Air Reserve Base and to the USS Iwo Jima, which delivered FEMA water and other supplies via landing craft.
At Florida National Guard headquarters in St. Augustine, which weathered the storm without damage, spokesman Will Manley said Florida Guard troops staffed shelters during Irma but were withdrawing from those. On Thursday, he said, they were working relief distribution points, traffic control and county Emergency Operation Centers.
Another 10,000 or so U.S. military forces had been put on standby to come to Florida for Irma and by Wednesday had been waved off, he said.
Also Thursday, the Coast Guard disclosed that more than 20 cutters rode out Hurricane Irma at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as a “storm avoidance” technique and most had been returned to their ports, law enforcement patrols or hurricane relief support.