STARKE, Fla., Sept. 11, 2017 —
National Guardsmen have opened more than 35 shelters in Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico, South Carolina and the U.S. Virgin Islands and more than 11,000 soldiers and airmen are responding to assist civilians and local authorities in those areas.
That assistance is typified by Florida Air National Guardsmen greeting and assisting people with special needs at a shelter opened Sept. 9 at the Atlantic Coast High School in Jacksonville, Florida.
The National Guardsmen are providing physical and emotional support for everyone seeking refuge from Hurricane Irma.
"We meet them at their cars and bring everything in for them so they're not having to deal with it," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mark Collins, an avionics maintenance specialist with the 125th Fighter Wing. "They can come and just kind of ease the transition in."
The airmen wait by the street for shuttles and vans to arrive so they can help people out of their vehicles, carry all their belongings and medical equipment inside and help them settle into the shelter.
"We're just walking around handing out smiles," said Air Force Senior Airman Sierra Cunningham, an aircraft weapons systems specialist with the 125th Fighter Wing.
The high school is one of six special needs shelters, and one of 19 total shelters opened in Duval County. Special-needs shelters are equipped with backup generators and extra power outlets to provide care for people with feeding tubes, respiratory issues, transplants and other critical needs in the event of a power outage.
The American Red Cross manages the shelters. Along with the National Guard, volunteers from the Mayo Clinic, Animal Care and Protective Services and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office offer services for shelter occupants.
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Alan Secrest, the aircraft weapons systems and shelter management chief with the 125th Fighter Wing, said he encouraged all volunteers to take the time to get to know those seeking shelter here. He said he wants airmen to get personal with people to get their minds off what is really going on outside.
"You don't know what kind of impact you're going to have on these people," Secrest said. "At least for that moment, you can take their minds off the situation that they're in."
The Florida National Guard is fully mobilized, with more than 8,000 soldiers and airmen activated and positioned around the state. These troops are helping at more than 200 shelters statewide, and will continue to assist however needed and requested by the counties.
"It's our community," Secrest said. "We're neighbors; we're here for you."