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National Guard Moves Focus as Hurricane Irma Looms

FILE -- Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, prepare to head out to assist with Hurricane Matthew relief efforts in Fern Creek, FL, October 8, 2016 (U.S. Army/Spec. James M. Lanza, 107th MPAD)
FILE -- Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, prepare to head out to assist with Hurricane Matthew relief efforts in Fern Creek, FL, October 8, 2016 (U.S. Army/Spec. James M. Lanza, 107th MPAD)

Updated 5:48 p.m. Eastern

While still dealing with the aftereffects of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, the National Guard began mobilizing Tuesday in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to prepare for possible hits from Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 story that is packing winds of 175 mph as it churns through the Caribbean.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared an emergency for the entire state and ordered 7,000 Guard members to report by Friday.

Florida National Guard units that had deployed to Texas for rescue and relief efforts have been recalled.

"We do not know the exact path of this storm, but weather can change in an instant and, while we hope for the best, we must prepare for the worst," Scott said in a statement.

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Islands under hurricane warnings include Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Martin, and St. Barts.

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, both of which are U.S. territories, declared emergencies Tuesday and mobilized their National Guard units.

The U.S. Navy has not ordered evacuations for the 5,000-plus American residents at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay on Cuba's southeastern coast, but has told them to "shelter in place." About 40-45 detainees from the war on terrorism remain at Guantanamo.

"The Air Force continues to monitor the status of Hurricane Irma and stands ready to respond if called upon," said Col. Patrick Ryder, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon. 

"At this time, the Air Force is making plans to relocate the majority of F-16 aircraft from Homestead Air Reserve Base in southern Florida and the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron based at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, commonly known as the Hurricane Hunters, is scheduled to fly later this week to help monitor the storm's development," he said. 

"Multiple Air Force search-and-rescue teams who were supporting Hurricane Harvey relief efforts have returned to their home stations to recover and prepare for a potential response to Hurricane Irma," Ryder added.

The Illinois National Guard's 182nd Airlift Wing on Tuesday sent a Peoria-based C-130 Hercules aircraft and a seven-member crew to the U.S. Virgin Islands to deliver response capabilities ahead of the storm's arrival, the Defense Department said.

The C-130 stopped en route in Colorado to pick up a National Guard Bureau joint enabling team, which coordinates support to areas affected by natural disasters.

On Monday, the Rhode Island Air National Guard's 143rd Airlift Wing sent a C-130J Super Hercules aircraft and aircrew to support the preparation effort.

The aircraft first stopped in New Jersey to pick up packaged meals and other supplies before heading to St. Croix and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The National Guard Bureau is working to coordinate "maximum support in every way we can, for as long as the affected areas require our help," said Lt. Col. Randy Saldivar, a bureau spokesman at Joint Base Andrews near Washington.

"Personnel here at the Air National Guard Readiness Center here at Andrews are working with National Guard units in the USVI [Virgin Islands], Puerto Rico and Florida, prepping for what could be a large response effort in those affected areas," Saldivar said.

While Air National Guard assets are still involved in the response to Harvey in Texas, rescue units have returned to their home stations and have been told to "stand by for possible activation for response to Hurricane Irma," Saldivar said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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Headlines National Guard Army Disaster Recovery Oriana Pawlyk Richard Sisk

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