BY CAPT. DAVID GULUZIAN, COMMANDING OFFICER, AND
CMDR. TREY RYKER, SUPPLY OFFICER
USS KEARSARGE (LHD 3)
The Multi-Purpose Amphibious Assault Ship (LHD) is a highly versatile and capable warship. USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) proved this after multiple hurricanes ravaged the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico (VIPR) in the summer of 2017. The ship remained at sea for more than 60 days conducting Department of Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) operations in VIPR.
In late August 2017, Kearsarge was underway in the Virginia Capes, running engineering drills with Afloat Training Group Atlantic for Basic Phase training, when informed of an emergent schedule change: return to homeport immediately and make preparations to provide DSCA to areas in need along the Gulf Coast of the United States in the recent aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. After mooring in Norfolk, Virginia, and only 31 hours pierside, Kearsarge was back underway. During this brief, but busy stop, the crew had loaded more than three million pounds of equipment and supplies. These supplies included: more than 25 heavy vehicles and trailers, wheeled water purification trailers, environment control units, front loaders (bulldozers), generators, tents, fuel trucks, water trucks, disaster relief supplies (e.g. packaged food, water, blankets, etc.), and three weeks of fresh food. In addition, the crew orchestrated the embarkation of 35 Sailors and Marines from Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group TWO, including Commander Rear Adm. Jeffery Hughes and 700 Marines from the 2/6 Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). Once underway, Kearsarge embarked six H-60s from Helicopter Sea Combat Wing, Atlantic and two landing craft units (LCUs) from Naval Beach Group TWO. Forty-eight hours later, while heading south, Kearsarge embarked U.S. Marine Corps aircraft consisting of six MV-22B Ospreys, three UH-1Y Hueys, and three CH-53E Super Stallions.
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Centro Communal, Puerto Rico. HSC-26 delivers essential commodities–photo by MC3 Dana Legg
As the ship approached the southern tip of Florida, it became increasingly clear that Texas and the rest of the Gulf Coast did not require any additional Harvey aid. However, Hurricane Irma was bearing down on the U.S. Virgin Islands. Kearsarge, now part of Combined Task Force 189 (CTF-189) (including USS Wasp and USS Oak Hill), moved into a position south of Cuba ready to assist any Caribbean island affected by Irma.
As Irma moved past VIPR, CTF-189 and Kearsarge moved in. From Sept. 8 - 18, during the DSCA response in the immediate aftermath of Irma, CTF-189 transported 1,068 personnel and 187,365 pounds of supplies and equipment to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands of Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, and Saint John. Missions included: area reconnaissance, patient transport, passenger/mail/cargo movement, external lift, key leadership engagement, VIP transport, and aviation delivered ground refueling. During these first critical days after Irma, Sailors and Marines from CTF-189 re-established air traffic control in local airports, delivered food, water, and medical supplies, cleared roadways of debris, and transported patients to level hospital loading. In all, the CTF team performed 424 flight hours completing 121 emergency medical evacuations, transporting 1,392 patients to alleviate hospital overflow, moved 201,765 pounds of relief supplies via air, moved 426,435 pounds via surface, and cleared over 33 miles of highways on Saint Thomas and Saint John Islands.
LCUs provided surface transport to the islands. With a vast carrying capacity, they were able to move vehicles, troops, fuel, and water. Troops ashore set to work clearing roadways and debris to allow local citizens access to hospitals, to set up distribution nodes for relief supplies, and to create an “air bridge” of predictable air transport of persons and material.
As Irma relief efforts continued ashore, the meteorology professionals on Kearsarge began to monitor the formation of Hurricane Maria and raised the alarm before anyone else. As Maria began her march, the LCUs pulled relief workers, support personnel, and equipment off the islands and transported them to Kearsarge. Kearsarge then moved south of VIPR to avoid the approaching storm to ensure that ship, people, and equipment would be ready to respond after the storm.
As Maria, a Category 5 storm, passed directly over Puerto Rico, Kearsarge, USS Wasp (LHD 1), and USS Oak Hill (LSD 51) pressed north into the back-half of Maria and arrived on station off the southeast corner of the island. Within hours of the winds and seas subsiding enough to get aircraft safely off the deck and LCUs into the water, CTF-189 went to work.
Initial reconnaissance flights revealed that the U.S. Virgin Islands fared better than expected; however, the damage sustained on Puerto Rico was severe. As of January, CTF-189, with the addition of USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), has transported 2,904,794 pounds of relief supplies and cargo to Puerto Rico, cleared 52 miles of road, transported over 1,700 patients, and set up multiple distribution nodes for relief supplies.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined the Guajataca Dam in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, had the potential to fail due to continued erosion around the overflowing spillway. CH-53Es and MV-22Bs were dispatched in order to lift and transport concrete barriers into the base of the dam, in order to slow the erosion and prevent failure while the Army flew in pumps and piping to be strategically placed in order to reroute and lower the water height behind the dam.
CTF-189 planned and executed a systematic assessment of every hospital in Puerto Rico, including those on the smaller islands of Vieques and Culebra. The team recognized early on that the entire territory was without electric power and reliable communications, so hospitals were running on on-site backup generators and were unable to call for help. Sailor-Marine teams from Kearsarge visited each hospital, met with hospital staff to see what assistance was needed, and conducted a quick engineering assessment of each generator. In some cases, the teams were able to perform immediate repairs and get broken (or almost broken) generators working; in other cases, teams were able to relay a message to responders who were able to deliver the right assistance (fuel, repair parts, or technical aid). Because of poor road and airfield conditions on Puerto Rico, many remote hospitals were difficult to reach. CTF-189’s unique amphibious capability allowed the delivery of teams from the sea via helicopter right into these affected areas. The teams found many in desperate need of fuel, water, and food. With a quick message back to Kearsarge, delivery of aid by air occurred within hours.
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A bulldozer disembarks a LCU, attached to Assault Craft Unit 2, embarked aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3). –photo by MC3 Ryre Arciaga
The 2017 VIPR relief efforts have been a showcase for the capabilities and flexibility of the LHD platform. The combination of the ship-to-shore systems delivered by the 26th MEU, Helicopter Sea Combat Detachment, and Beach Master Unit TWO provide an incredible amount of versatility to any Task Force Commander. This operation relied heavily on supply chain logistics. From the supply beach detachments in Norfolk, North Carolina, and Puerto Rico, the supply department expedited the deployment of high priority aviation parts, carried out numerous replenishments at sea, sustained shipboard and flight operations, provided the crew with meals, and delivered critical humanitarian relief supplies to those in need. To expedite deliveries, Assistant Supply Officer Lt. Cmdr. DeVoe flew ashore as part of a regional staging area assessment team and assessed relief supply distribution efforts at multiple distribution points. Assessments included collecting information on the layout of each facility, material handling equipment capabilities, power source reliability, fuel availability, communications, inventory accounting techniques, manpower, transportation, and security. The information collected was used to prepare situational reports and provide recommendations to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to improve distribution efforts.
Throughout the two-month plus underway, Kearsarge conducted more flight and amphibious operations than it would do during a routine six-month deployment. Rear Adm. Hughes affirmed, “These Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) operations demonstrated the effectiveness of our amphibious force and made a lasting impression on those affected by these devastating storms.” He specifically addressed Kearsarge’s rigorous efforts stating “I’m extremely proud of the Sailors and Marines who were prominent among the initial responders responsible for providing tangible lifesaving and relief support for fellow Americans in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico during Hurricanes Irma and Maria.”
The importance of the mission was echoed throughout the ship by personal visits from U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Army North, White House chief of staff, White House press secretary, FEMA director, governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, governor of Puerto Rico, the President of the United States, and First Lady of the United States. “This is some ship,” said President Donald Trump, during his visit. “It has done a tremendous service for Puerto Rico and for the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
In the end, an expeditionary force, based from the sea, is the most flexible, mobile, and immediate response in the wake of a disaster, especially on an island or in coastal areas. FEMA and other first responders cannot get into a disaster area until runways are cleared, air traffic control is re-established, and sea ports are surveyed and re-opened. CTF-189 bridged the gap between devastation and the arrival of federal agency-led recovery efforts. The presence of Sailors and Marines in those initial hours and days after the disaster gave people hope, afforded affected communities time to come together to plan an effective response, and bought time to overcome the natural inertia of setting up a “long-term ground game.”
These islands need 12 to 24 months of recovery time, and VIPR may not have widespread power restoration for several months, maybe even a year. A focused ground-based long-term effort(ultimately led by FEMA and the Puerto Rico National Guard) is needed and is, fortunately, already underway.