DOD Continues to Provide Disaster Response After Hurricanes Irma and Maria

Airmen from the 123rd Airlift Wing load equipment and vehicles onto a C-130 Hercules at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., on Sept. 20. Air Force photo by SSgt. Joshua Horton

The Air Force Reserve and Army Corps of Engineers continue to provide a range of disaster relief support to the states of Georgia and Florida as well as the US territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

In Puerto Rico, where Maria made landfall on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm, “the power outages are extensive, between 95 and 100 percent right now,” Army Brig. Gen. Diana Holland, commander of the South Atlantic Division of the Army Corps of Engineers told reporters at a Pentagon briefing Friday. Relief efforts are focused on opening airports, restoring power, and launching “blue roof” efforts to provide temporary shelter so residents can begin to return home.

Holland and Maj. Gen. Derek Rydholm, deputy to the chief of Air Force Reserve, confirmed that communications on the island were entirely shut down by the storm, and victims there were unable to communicate their status to family and friends outside. “We are able to fly mobile comm support in,” Rydholm told reporters, but he said it was too early to say when communications would be restored to residents.

Holland said power outages in the Virgin Islands, which Maria hit as a Category 5 storm, were at 90 percent.

For both territories, Rydholm said, Air Force Reserve assets were working to provide relief. “Air mobility aircraft” are providing “humanitarian aid,” he said, and special tactics teams are opening “austere airfields” as a first step to bringing aid to remote locations impacted by the storms.

Both insisted that DOD personnel are not being stretched thin by the busy hurricane season. “I don’t think this is unprecedented” to have three major storms to respond to in a season, said Holland, who remembered previous seasons with four hurricanes. “Our reserve airmen…are very happy to do the mission,” Rydholm said. Disaster response is “the type of thing that our air mobility aircraft are very good at.”

“We do have a lot going on,” Holland said. “But we’re always mindful that we have to balance the different tasks and make sure we’re ready to respond to the next one.” And the threat is not yet ended, Holland reminded reporters. DOD responders will remain on alert for yet more storms until Nov. 1, she said, the end of the hurricane season.