The U.S. Navy decided Tuesday not to evacuate family members and other non-essential staff from its remote outpost at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, concluding that the more than 5,000 residents can weather Category 5 Hurricane Irma as it grinds through the region.
On Wednesday evening, base commander Navy Capt. Dave Culpepper told residents to expect a windy Friday night and Saturday, but no “destructive force winds, assuming that forecast actually holds as predicted.”
Based on Navy forecasting, no community shelters would be required, he said in a brief broadcast over Radio Gitmo he ended with “Guantánamo, be safe.”
“They will shelter in place as the storm passes just north of them,” Bill Dougherty, spokesman for the Pentagon’s Navy Region Southeast Region reported Tuesday morning.
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The spokesman for the 1,500-staff detention center declined to say whether the prison’s temporary troops — mostly National Guard soldiers on nine-month tours of duty, without family — would remain in trailer-park style Containerized Housing Units, or CHUs, or would be evacuating to cots in the base gym, as usual.
Nor would the prison respond to questions of whether it would relocate some or all of its 41 war on terror captives. In the past the military moved specially segregated detainees from the flimsy Camp Echo to more secure cellblocks. One of them, Saudi Ahmad al Darbi, was to face a sentencing hearing this week as an admitted al-Qaida terrorist as part of a plea agreement to return him to his homeland in exchange for testimony against other captives.
But, with Irma coming, the Pentagon canceled the special war court session and postponed it to a future date uncertain.
Also unknown was what the prison was doing with the 15 former CIA captives, including the alleged 9/11 plotters, at a secret lock-up called Camp 7.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson advised: “There is no intent for the safety of the detainees to come into question during Hurricane Irma.”
Last year, as Hurricane Matthew was headed toward southeast Cuba, the new base commander evacuated around 700 family members and pets to the Florida Panhandle, and returned them days later after the base suffered minimal damage. This time, the base notified residents at noon Tuesday to “have plans in place to take shelter in the best available refuge.”
Trailer-park troops and base laborers living in similar circumstances were likely to be told what to do by their supervisors.
For Matthew, the prison relocated the so-called high-value-detainees of Camp 7 to a more secure lockup, according to their lawyers. It was unfamiliar to the men whom the United States shuttled for years around its clandestine global prison network, the CIA Black Sites, according to the attorneys, who described it as less isolating than Camp 7, where they’ve been held for more than a decade.
The former Southern Command commander, now White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has described Camp 7 as unstable —and in need of replacement, an assessment subsequent leaders have not adopted. Congress has refused to fund a new one.
At the Pentagon, a spokesman said a long-awaited mobile MRI being shipped to the base — to comply with a military judge’s order to see if a former CIA captive has suffered brain damage —was not at risk in the hurricane. It was being secured in the United States and would not be shipped until later in September, Sakrisson said.
For those on the base with the option of leaving the island at their own expense, the military moved a regularly scheduled Friday shuttle to Jacksonville and Norfolk, Virginia to Thursday morning.
Rough seas were expected, meaning a halt in weekend ferry service connecting the base’s Leeward and Windward sides for several days starting Thursday afternoon or Friday morning.
The principal canceled Friday’s classes at the base’s school system for sailors’ children, and the base suspended “recreational diving and boating.” Base boat owners were advised to get their vessels out of the bay waters, and park them on a high piece of land not far from the base bowling alley known as Christmas Tree Hill.
The social welfare division announced that, at the base’s usually brown, scrubby 9-hole golf course, “Pro lessons that were to begin this Saturday will be postponed until further notice. Refund information will be available next week.”
The Department is acutely aware of the need to ensure the safety and security of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Tropical weather is an expected part of life in the Caribbean and for our personnel charged with securing the detainee facilities. Likewise, they routinely prepare for any contingencies required to safeguard all individuals at the installation in the event that extreme weather impacts the region. There is no intent for the safety of the detainees to come into question during Hurricane Irma. — Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, Department of Defense spokesman