Naval Air Station Key West in Florida was being evacuated Wednesday and the Pentagon was diverting more assets from Texas as Category 5 Hurricane Irma began working its destructive way westward along the Caribbean island chains on a path to hit southern Florida.
Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, commander of the Navy Region Southeast, ordered the "mandatory evacuation of nonessential personnel and dependents from NAS Key West to safe haven within 300 miles of Atlanta, Georgia," the sea service said.
The order will apply to about 5,000 active duty personnel, civilians and their families, the Navy said. About 50-60 support personnel will remain at NAS Key West for the hurricane expected to hit the Florida Keys and southern Florida this weekend.
Military families and personnel who have been ordered to evacuate will be reimbursed for mileage, lodging, meals and incidentals based on reimbursement rates for the 300 mile area around Atlanta.
In preparation for relief efforts ahead of the storm, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordered the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and the amphibious dock ship USS Oak Hill, which left Virginia last week enroute to the Texas Gulf coast for Hurricane Harvey relief, to be on standby for Irma relief at the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As the two ships left port last week, the Navy said they were "capable of providing medical support, maritime civil affairs, maritime security, expeditionary logistic support, medium and heavy lift air support, and bring a diverse capability including assessment and security."
U.S. Northern Command stressed that the Defense Department had sufficient assets to continue assisting in Harvey relief while preparing for the onset of Irma in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Florida.
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In a statement, Northern Command said the Pentagon was balancing "support to the response for Hurricane Harvey and the planning and pre-positioning of DoD assets in preparation for Hurricane Irma."
In Texas, military "trucks and rotary wing assets continue to be actively engaged in life-sustaining commodity distribution," Northern Command said.
The department was also aiding in "identifying potential support areas where DoD's unique capabilities may be required to assist in the response efforts" to Irma, the command said.
Col. Patrick Ryder, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon, said Tuesday that "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."
"The Air Force continues to monitor the status of Hurricane Irma and stands ready to respond if called upon," he said."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," Ryder said.
The colonel said 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.
"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.
With landfall in Florida expected this weekend, Gov. Rick Scott, R-Florida, sent out a Tweet: "Please do not ignore evacuation orders. Remember, we can rebuild your home, not your life."
President Donald Trump has declared disaster emergencies in Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and Scott has ordered 8,000 Florida National Guard members to be mobilized by Friday.
In a statement, Scott said he had asked the National Guard Bureau to identify 30,000 additional troops to respond if they are needed.
At the White House, where he was meeting with congressional leaders on the House and Senate agenda, Trump said "there is a new and seems to be record-breaking hurricane heading right toward Florida and Puerto Rico and other places."
"We'll see what happens," the president said. "We'll know in a very short period of time. But it looks like it could be something that will be not good, believe me, not good."
Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms ever recorded, began hitting islands of the northeast Caribbean early Wednesday.
The storm packing winds of up to 185 miles an hour first made landfall on Barbuda, and later in the morning passed directly over St. Martin, the National Hurricane Center reported.
There were reports of flooding, major damage to buildings, and severed electricity and phone service on those islands as well as on Saint Barthélemy and Anguilla.
In the Bahamas, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis ordered the evacuation of southern islands to Nassau, the Associated Press reported. "The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life or serious physical harm," Minnis said.
Editor's Note: The second graph was updated to correct the name of the commander of Navy Region Southeast.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Oriana.Pawlyk@military.com.