NORTHCOM Prepares to Support Relief Efforts for Hurricane Rita
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 2005 U.S. Northern Command is prepared to meet requests for assistance that the Federal Emergency Management Agency may issue prior to and in the wake of Hurricane Rita, military officials reported today.
The hurricane near the Florida Keys strengthened to Category 2 today and is forecast to strengthen further as it moves westward into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
NORTHCOM's Joint Operations Center continues 24-hour operations in Colorado Springs, Colo., to monitor the storm's progress and to facilitate subsequent requests that may come from FEMA representatives. Defense Coordinating Officers and Defense Coordinating Elements are on the ground in Tallahassee, Fla., and in Austin, Texas, to act as a liaison between NORTHCOM, FEMA and the Defense Department.
Also, NORTHCOM established Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., as an operational staging area to pre-position food, water and ice at the request of FEMA. NORTHCOM requested approval from the Joint Staff for four heavy-lift and four medium-lift helicopters to be forward-staged at Patrick Air Force Base, near Cocoa Beach, Fla., and available for potential damage assessments.
To prepare for the storm's possible landfall along the Gulf of Mexico coastline, NORTHCOM planners are watching the storm closely to identify what and when further resources may be needed. Commitment of resources will be wholly dependent on the track the storm takes and the areas impacted, officials said.
The command's officials stressed that potential hurricane havens and avoidance areas are being identified so that military members working in the Gulf region do not become victims of Hurricane Rita.
Maritime assets in the Gulf region will also be moving as a result of Hurricane Rita. The USS Bataan is headed to Mayport, Fla., for resupply and will embark four MH-60 Black Hawk and two MH-53 Pave Low helicopters, then depart today or Sept. 21 with the intent of following behind storm in order to support potential Rita relief efforts.
Current plans also call for the repositioning of Joint Task Force Katrina ships by having them proceed east to avoid Hurricane Rita. These ships include the USS Tortuga, the USNS Comfort, the USS Iwo Jima, the USS Shreveport and the USS Grapple. The USNS Patuxent will remain in the Gulf of Mexico to support repositioning ships. The Comfort will move from Mississippi today, and the Iwo Jima and Shreveport from Louisiana Sept. 21. Ten ships are in the area of operations -- six Navy and four Coast Guard.
To prepare for the storm's possible landfall in Texas, 1,100 Texas National Guardsmen who had been working in Louisiana have been redeployed home. Rita has also kept some troops in the area who otherwise would have been going home, an official said.
"There are a certain number of redeployments (of troops) that were in the works," said a senior defense official speaking on background. "We are going to hold at the present level until we see what Rita will do."
There are currently 13,753 active duty and 39,833 National Guard forces supporting relief operations in the Katrina Joint Operating Area -- Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. NORTHCOM, in coordination with Joint Task Force Katrina and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, continues to track force adjustment as units move in and out of the area in support of transition operations.
In addition to Hurricane Rita, NORTHCOM is monitoring other tropical weather patterns and continues assisting with Hurricane Katrina recovery, monitoring defense of the U. N. General Assembly in New York City, and providing for the defense of the U.S., officials said.