After Hurricane Maria clobbered Puerto Rico midweek, the U.S. military announced Saturday that it plans to relocate its foreign disaster relief task force based there to other islands in the Caribbean.
The Joint Task Force-Leeward Islands, which is supporting relief efforts to the islands of St. Martin and Dominica after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, is moving its main command and control element to Martinique, the U.S. Southern Command said in a statement. Its fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft will be based out of Barbados and Guadeloupe respectively.
The task force, which first deployed Sept. 9 in response to Hurricane Irma’s battering of St. Martin, was also tasked Friday with assisting the government of Dominica after it was the first island to be bashed by Maria’s punishing, then-Category 5 winds. The U.S. Navy amphibious ship USS Wasp, with about 1,100 people and two helicopters aboard, was tapped to join the mission.
About 300 military personnel, eight other helicopters and four C-130 Hercules aircraft will be moved, Southcom said.
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The forces had initially deployed to Muñiz Air National Guard Base in San Juan from Soto Cano, Honduras, and was assisting in evacuation efforts of U.S. citizens as well as water purification and aid distribution in St. Martin after the storm. On Tuesday, as Hurricane Maria approached Puerto Rico, the task force had to temporarily suspend operations and move the helicopters, ranging from Chinooks to Black Hawks, to a reinforced hangar about 70 miles west in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
Maria howled ashore onto Puerto Rico’s eastern coast Wednesday morning, downing cellphone towers and flooding roads as it engulfed the island in winds of 155 miles per hour and several inches of unrelenting rain. The water, in addition to threatening landslides across the island, significantly compromised the nine-decade-old Guajataca Dam in the west, prompting evacuations.
The task force’s missions support foreign relief efforts led by the U.S. Agency for International Development and Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.
The military’s relief efforts for U.S. territories, including the hard-hit Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, are being led by U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, which is supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies. The U.S. Army said Saturday it has deployed more than 1,900 soldiers and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel to the territories since Maria hit.