The military, the Coast Guard and civilian responders have prepared as best they could but the forecasts for Category 5 Hurricane Irma "are not looking particularly good for Florida," President Donald Trump said Thursday.
"We are very well covered from the standpoint of bravery and talent. We have tremendous people there representing us from the Coast Guard to FEMA to everyone else," Trump said.
However, "We don't think we've seen anything quite like this. Some of the winds have gotten up to close to 200 miles an hour," he said at the White House.
By Friday, 8,000 members of the Florida National Guard were expected to be mobilized ahead of Irma's predicted landfall on a path to take it northward up the Florida Keys for a potential direct hit on Miami this weekend.
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The storm was then expected to trace the Florida Atlantic coast before making landfall again somewhere between Savannah, Georgia, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Army Maj. Gen. Michael A. Calhoun, Florida's Adjutant General, backed up the warnings of Gov. Rick Scott, R-Florida, to state residents to evacuate or be well prepared for the storm. Florida officials have said it could be days before first responders reach those needing help after the storm passes.
Calhoun's message to Floridians in a Defense Department release was that "The men and women of your Florida National Guard are ready and prepared to respond -- are you? Irma is a very serious threat and you need to make sure your family is prepared with enough food, water and essential supplies for at least three days."
"Have an evacuation plan -- Where will you go? What is your route? Who will you keep updated? Your preparedness ensures that your Guard personnel and equipment can respond where the need is the greatest," Calhoun said.
The eye of Irma passed north of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico Thursday, leaving behind a string of Caribbean islands with flattened homes, flooding and widespread devastation. Early estimates of the death toll ranged from five to more than 10.
More than a million of Puerto Rico's 3.5 million U.S. citizens were estimated to be without power. "I want our airmen, their families and our community to know the Puerto Rico Air National Guard stands ready and prepared. We are trained to deal with natural disasters," said Air Force Col. Raymond Figueroa, commander of the 156th Airlift Wing.
The hurricane downed power lines, flooded two shelters and caused "catastrophic failures" at the Roy Lester Schneider Hospital in the U.S. Virgin Islands, officials said in a statement. The islands of St. Thomas and St. John "bore the brunt" of Irma's impact, officials said.
As Irma passed the Virgin Islands, the amphibious assault ship Wasp arrived there to assist in the response, U.S. Northern Command said.
"Wasp's helicopters are conducting medical evacuations for critical care patients from St. Thomas to St. Croix and conducting damage assessment in support of the local government," NorthCom said in a statement announcing that NorthCom had begun operations in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Irma response.
The amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, with about 700 Marines aboard from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and the dock landing ship Oak Hill were also enroute to the Puerto Rico-Virgin Islands area for disaster response, NorthCom said.
The two ships had been deploying to the Texas Gulf Coast for Hurricane Relief but were called back as Irma began churning through the Caribbean island chains.
The combined aircraft on the Wasp, the Kearsarge and the Oak Hill included three UH-1Y Marine Utility Helicopters, three CH-53E Marine Heavy Lift Helicopters, five MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and nine MH-60S Navy Medium Lift Helicopters, NorthCom said.
In addition, the Air Force said that the 621st Contingency Response Wing at Travis Air Force Base, California, had deployed an eight-person joint assessment team to St. Thomas to evaluate the airfield and determine what will be required to prepare it to receive aircraft supporting relief missions.
The power and size of the storm has stunned even the "Hurricane Hunters" of the Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, who fly reconnaissance and data-gathering missions into hurricanes aboard WC-130J aircraft.
"This storm -- it's still game on," Maj. Jonathan Brady, an aerial reconnaissance weather officer with the squadron, told Military.com.
"The record [Irma] has set is the strongest hurricane to have ever formed in that part of the Atlantic, and also another record for this strong of a [weather] system being this strong for this many days," Brady said.
In addition to prepositioning assets for the response to Irma, the military was also getting many of them out of way.
Eleven KC-135 Stratotankers from the 6th Air Mobility Wing and 927th Air Refueling Wing will evacuate from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, and 13 F-15 Eagles will evacuate from Jacksonville International Airport, Florida. The Air Force did not immediately give a destination for those aircraft.
Military families and personnel who have been ordered to evacuate from Key West will be reimbursed for mileage, lodging, meals and incidentals based on rates for the 300-mile area around Atlanta.
Tricare officials declared a state of emergency for all users in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Beneficiaries from those areas can get emergency prescription refills at any in-network retail pharmacy until Sept. 15, officials said. Those from Miami-Dade and Monroe counties in Florida also will be able to receive in-network specialty care without a referral until Sept. 30.
VA clinics in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and portions of Florida planned early closures, shuttered some clinics and rescheduled elective procedures and outpatient procedures through Sept. 11 in preparation for Hurricane Irma.
The pharmacy disaster relief plan, which allows qualifying veterans to receive emergency refills from any retail pharmacy, was also put in effect for affected areas.
VA officials advised veterans to visit the administration's Hurricane Irma page for updates as the storm's impact unfolds.
-- Oriana Pawlyk and Amy Bushatz contributed to this report.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.