In a sign of the dire threat posed by Hurricane Irma to Florida, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln was ordered to get underway Friday and be in position off the Florida Atlantic coast for disaster relief.
Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, ordered the Lincoln, the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, and the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York to leave Norfolk, Virginia, and be in position to provide humanitarian relief in support of federal, state and local authorities if requested, the Navy said in a statement.
The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Farragut, already underway and conducting local operations off the Florida coast, has been ordered to join the three-ship group, the service said.
Iwo Jima and New York departed Mayport, Florida, on Sept. 5 and took on supplies at Norfolk and more than 300 Marines and sailors with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and II Marine Expeditionary Force.
"These ships are 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," the Navy said.
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Earlier Friday, all available 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard were mobilized for the weekend onslaught of Hurricane Irma and Gov. Rick Scott, R-Florida, told state residents who could to "get out -- get out now!"
"This storm is wider than our entire state and is expected to cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast," Scott said.
In addition to the Florida Guard, Scott has asked the National Guard Bureau identify another 30,000 Guard members nationwide who could be called upon for disaster response once the storm passes.
Irma's eye was expected to move just north of Cuba and the central Bahamas for the rest of Friday and Saturday.
The storm was then expected to make a right turn from its westward path and proceed up the entire Florida peninsula beginning Sunday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Irma has been downgraded from a Category 5 to a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of about 155 mph but could gather strength again before hitting Florida.
"It's not a question of if Florida's going to be impacted," said Brock Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "It's a question of how bad Florida's going to be impacted."
Florida officials have repeatedly warned residents who stay behind that first responders, the National Guard and the active-duty military will be unable to help until the storm passes, and possibly for days after that. During that time, "you're on your own," Mayor George Neugent of Monroe County told CNN.
The military's response to Irma was already underway in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and other states in the potential path of Irma were mobilizing their National Guard members.
About 120 National Guard troops were assisting in Puerto Rico. On Thursday, about 20 Kentucky National Guard members from the 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade deployed to the Virgin Islands with two UH-60 Black Hawks equipped for medical evacuations, the Kentucky National Guard said.
"Our main job is to focus on humanitarian efforts and provide medical evacuation and triage as well as patient transfer from hurricane-affected areas in the Caribbean, especially the Virgin Islands," said 1st Lt. John Kerr, a Blackhawk pilot with the deploying unit from Kentucky. "The mission will be to go where others cannot to rescue and aid any civilian personnel we can."
The New York Air National Guard also sent about 120 airmen from the 106th Rescue Wing to the U.S. Virgin Islands to assist in the Irma response.
About 800 South Carolina National Guard troops were mobilized after Gov. Henry McMaster, R-South Carolina, declared a state of emergency Thursday.
U.S. Northern Command said that the amphibious assault ship Wasp was on station off the Virgin Islands and was conducting medical evacuations for critical care patients from St. Thomas to St. Croix and performing damage assessments in support of the local government.
The amphibious assault ship Kearsarge and the landing dock ship Oak Hill, with Marines aboard from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, were approaching the disaster area and will be postured north of St. Croix and ready to provide assistance to FEMA, NorthCom said.
In addition, Air Mobility Command C-17 Globemaster IIIs carrying all-terrain vehicles, forklifts, Humvees, pallets of supplies and crew including contingency response and medical personnel are supporting ongoing relief efforts in St. Croix and St. Thomas, NorthCom said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.