Guantánamo Navy base begins evacuating 700 parents and kids, plus pets, ahead of Hurricane Matthew

Families settle into their seats aboard a cargo plane for evacuation from Guantanamo Bay ahead of Hurricane Matthew. Approximately 700 spouses and children were evacuated to Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla.
Families settle into their seats aboard a cargo plane for evacuation from Guantanamo Bay ahead of Hurricane Matthew. Approximately 700 spouses and children were evacuated to Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. U.S. Navy

U.S. military cargo planes began evacuating about 700 family members of troops and other staff by military cargo plane from Guantánamo Bay to “safe haven” in Pensacola, Florida, on Sunday ahead of Hurricane Matthew.

“We have to prepare for the worst-case scenario” — a Category 3 or 4 hurricane making a direct hit on the remote base, Navy Capt. David Culpepper, the base commander, told residents over Radio Gitmo Saturday. “Things are kind of in motion here at this point. We are trying to execute the most prudent plan given what we know.”

Sunday morning, Army Lt. Chris Smith said from Guantánamo headquarters at 9:40 a.m. that a C-17 cargo plane had already airlifted the first group of people from the base of around 6,000 residents. Five more flights were expected throughout the day Sunday, Culpepper told the base, adding that some family pets could join the exodus, provided their owners had health certificates from the base veterinarian.

Around 700 people were being flown to Pensacola, where temporary housing awaited families of sailors. But “no way we’re getting 450 pets” onto the evacuation aircraft, the skipper said. “There just isn’t the space.” Other pets, including working dogs, would be sheltered in an empty munition bunker.

The Guantánamo base spokeswoman, Julie Ripley, announced the “mandatory evacuation” of “all non-essential personnel” in a statement earlier Saturday, meaning the military was picking up the cost of flights and lodging of the family members in Pensacola, as well as providing an allowance for food. “This includes dependents, school-aged children, special needs families, and their pets.”

In addition, she said, Coast Guard personnel were being evacuated to Miami, and the Navy’s small C-12 aircraft were being flown from the base to shelter in Jacksonville.

The base that may be best known for its war-on-terror prison — now holding 61 detainees, staffed by about 2,000 temporary troops and contractors — also has sailors, families and contractors living there as more permanent residents. About 6,000 people live there in different circumstances, including about 250 school-age children with their Navy families and 2,000 Jamaican and Filipino contract laborers.

At the detention center, spokesman Navy Capt. John Filostrat said without providing details that preparations were under way for the storm. He did not reply to a question on what category of hurricane the buildings currently housing the detainees and command staff could withstand.

Sunday morning, as the evacuations were underway, Filostrat said the prison buildings where the 61 captives are kept "can withstand the current projected storm strength and the detainees will shelter in place.  If the storm should intensify there is a plan in place to move the detainees to alternate shelters."

Former CIA prisoners, six of them awaiting death penalty trials as alleged al-Qaida plotters of the Sept. 11 and USS Cole terror attacks, are held in a clandestine prison building called Camp 7, whose structural integrity has been questioned. The current commander, Navy Rear Adm. Peter Clarke called it “structurally safe” in May, nearly two years after a former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, now retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, told Congress it had become “increasingly unsustainable due to drainage and foundation issues.”

Current hurricane tracks show Matthew hitting the base on Tuesday.

Sunday’s evacuations are intended to take pressure off base hurricane shelters as well as supplies, Culpepper said in a live broadcast from the studios of Radio Gitmo.

“It reduces our food requirements, it reduces our water requirements,” Culpepper said. “In fact, if we do get hit directly by a storm and we have significant damage, which takes several days to repair, that puts us in a little better position to take care of everybody.”

He advised those being airlifted to bring no more than a 40-pound suitcase, calling Sunday “really our last opportunity to do an evacuation.”

The airlift is the first known evacuation of so-called “non-essential” residents from the base since September 1994, when the military airlifted 2,200 family members and civilians from the base. At the time, the outpost was overwhelmed by about 45,000 Haitian and Cuban migrants who were intercepted at sea while trying to reach the United States, stretching resources at the outpost that makes its own electricity and desalinates its own water — like a ship at sea.

“Family members were authorized to return in October 1995, marking an end to family separations,” according to a Navy account of the Operation Sea Signal evacuation. An earlier evacuation also took families from the base to Norfolk, by military supply ships, in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The base last took a significant hit during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when the storm tore up the war court compound called Camp Justice, ripped boats from their berths and washed away the docks used by the ferries that connect Leeward and Windward sides of the base across Guantánamo Bay.

It also caused a blackout on the fence line separating the base from Cuban-controlled territory, and rough seas churned up a suspicious 500-pound object that turned out to be a harmless training bomb.

It was not immediately known how much, if any, assistance people at the 45-square-mile U.S. Navy base could provide Cubans in nearby communities. The base is separated from the rest of the country by a Cuban minefield and a U.S. fence line patrolled by a U.S. Marine Corps Security Force unit.

The base spokeswoman said in a statement Saturday evening that the U.S. military had contact with the Cuban Frontier Brigade on the other side of the minefield to confirm “our agreement to provide mutual support outside the fenceline as we are able, and as requested following storm passage.”

Meantime, in Jacksonville, the base’s Navy headquarters said in a statement that Naval Air Station Pensacola “has quarters to house the families” from Guantánamo Bay and counselors “to provide assistance.” At Guantánamo, it said “the remaining military and civilian personnel will shelter in place and be able to support recovery efforts once safe to do so following the storm’s passage.”

The base commander said the soonest the families could return to the base would be Friday. “If it really pounds us and we have significant structural damage to buildings, it could be longer,” Culpepper said. “I’ll wait until I have power restored to the installation before I ask everybody to come back.”

Guantánamo prison statement

Joint Task Force Guantánamo is taking steps to protect its personnel and keep law of war detainees safe in preparation of Hurricane Matthew making landfall at Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Navy Capt. John Filostrat, JTF Public Affairs officer

▪ Base statement here.