New Task Force Supports Hurricane Irma Victims
By Diálogo September 19, 2017U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) established Joint Task Force-Leeward Islands (JTF-LI) to support Hurricane Irma relief efforts. The Leeward Islands comprise more than 10 islands located between the northeastern Caribbean Sea and the western Atlantic Ocean. “The goal of our efforts in St. Martin is straightforward,” said U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Michael Samarov, the commander of JTF-LI. The governments of France and the Netherlands, who share the island of Saint Martin, requested the U.S. support to help the disaster relief operation led by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA). Hurricane Irma was the first Category 5 hurricane to strike the Leeward Islands in decades. “We want to save lives and ease human suffering and also augment civilian emergency response capabilities until our efforts are no longer necessary,” said Col. Samarov. JTF-LI is equipped with several disaster relief capabilities, including command and control, humanitarian assessment, water production, and helicopter transportation. The U.S. National Hurricane Center described Hurricane Irma as the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic. The hurricane reached the eastern Caribbean in early September. It made landfall on the island of Barbuda on September 6th before passing near the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti and making a secondary landfall in Cuba on September 9th. Irma brought destructive winds, heavy rainfall, and dangerous storm surge, resulting in at least 25 fatalities and causing significant infrastructure damage across the Caribbean region. Task force capabilities JTF-LI comprises about 300 U.S. military personnel and includes the support of eight helicopters, four C-130 Hercules aircraft, and the USNS Spearhead (T-EPF 1). Its personnel stem from the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Southern Command, Joint Task Force-Bravo, and other SOUTHCOM elements. The task force is just one element of the U.S. response to Hurricane Irma and will remain in the affected area to support ongoing USAID/OFDA-led relief operations as long as the U.S. government deems necessary. “Hurricane Irma dealt a terrible blow to St. Martin,” said U.S. Navy Captain Steven Stacy, the mission commander of Southern Partnership Station-Expeditionary Fast Transport 2017, a SOUTHCOM-directed operation that was deployed in June by U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command /U.S. 4th Fleet. Capt. Stacy was onboard of the Spearhead supporting Navy humanitarian relief support in Saint Martin. “There have been fatalities, and much of the island’s infrastructure has been destroyed. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and communities that were affected by this storm. We are providing the heavy lift to support USAID and the French and Dutch governments' humanitarian responses.” The USNS Spearhead first loaded humanitarian relief supplies at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay before reaching the port of the Franco-Dutch island, Saint Martin. While in port at Guantanamo Bay, the Spearhead loaded 50,000 gallons of fuel, 81,000 bottles of water and 1,000 ready-to-eat meals. The fuel is to be used for reverse osmosis water purification systems being sent to St. Martin. “We are doing humanitarian support for the hurricane affecting the Caribbean,” said U.S. Air Force Captain Scott Szalejko, a C-17 Globemaster III pilot with the 437th Airlift Wing/15th Airlift Squadron. The 437th Airlift Wing´s crew members traveled to Mountain Home in Idaho to transport a mobile air traffic control tower to support the Caribbean islands affected by the hurricane. The tower was provided by the Federal Aviation Administration, and was requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide relief to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have suffered a loss during this time… We are honored to help in any way we can,” said Col. Samarov.