George Washington Arrives for Philippines Relief

USS George Washington

The carrier George Washington arrived in Philippine waters Thursday and a hospital ship sidelined by the budget cuts was called back to action to join the relief effort in the aftermath of the devastation caused by super Typhoon Haiyan.

The Washington, with 5,000 sailors and Marines aboard, arrived in Leyte Gulf and immediately began ferrying and flying supplies ashore, the Navy said.

The carrier, able to produce 400,000 gallons of badly needed fresh water daily, "is going to be a game-changer," said Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, deputy commander of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade and the main U.S. officer in charge on the ground.

Kennedy also said that the Philippine military and police were getting a handle on the looting and violence that have thus far marred the relief effort. "They have responded full force," Kennedy said.

On Thursday, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, ordered the re-activation of hospital ship USNS Mercy to support the relief efforts, now called Operation Damayan.

The Mercy was expected to get underway in several days and could arrive in the Philippines sometime in December, signaling the long-term commitment on the U.S. relief operation.

The U.S. has thus far committed $20 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development to the international relief effort coordinated by the United Nations, but the aid pledge was expected to rise significantly.

In 2004, the U.S. initially sent $10 million to the relief effort for the earthquake and tsunami that hit several Pacific nations, but the U.S. aid money for that disaster eventually reached $950 million.

The Mercy, part of the Military Sealift Command, had been sidelined since 2011 at port in San Diego with only a skeleton crew aboard after its goodwill missions across the Pacific were canceled because of the Defense Department budget cuts. The ship was to be activated only in an emergency.

The only other hospital ship in the Navy, the Comfort, has also been essentially de-activated and is now sitting pierside in Norfolk, its goodwill missions to Latin America canceled.

The carrier Washington was accompanied by its Strike Group, consisting of the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers Cowpens and Antietam, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers Lassen and Mustin, the cargo ship USNS Charles Drew, the oceanographic survey ship USNS Bowditch, and the submarine tender Emory S. Land.

Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, commander of the Strike Croup, said that the Washington, the Antietam and the Cowpens "will go to a position just off the eastern coast of Samar island in order to begin to assess the damage and provide logistical and emergency support to include medical and water supplies." 

Before leaving a port visit to Hong Kong, the Washington sent a number of fixed-wing aircraft to the Naval Air Facility in Atsugi, Japan, to make more room for helicopters.

"One of the best capabilities the Strike Group brings is our 21 helicopters. These helicopters represent a good deal of lift to move emergency supplies around," Montgomery said.

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Philippines Richard Sisk
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