WHITE HOUSE - An unprecedented rescue and relief response by the United States is under way not only in Florida, but also in the Caribbean following Hurricane Irma, according to the Trump administration.
It is “the largest-ever mobilization of our military in a naval and marine operation,” for relief operations, White House Homeland Security Advisor Thomas Bossert told reporters on Monday.
Nine large ships, including the 335-meter (1,100 feet) long USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier which arrived at Key West on Sunday night, are being used as platforms for sorties by at least 80 rotary wing aircraft, according to officials.
Ships, troops on the move
The U.S. Navy also moved the USS Iwo Jima, which is an amphibious assault ship and USS New York, an amphibious transport dock, towards Key West.
Another amphibious assault ship, the USS Kearsarge, and a dock landing ship, the USS Oak Hill are in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, moving people and supplies to the islands.
An MV-22 Osprey aircraft assisted in the movement of British Marines from St. Croix to the British Virgin Islands, according to the Pentagon.
“We're saving hundreds, if not thousands, of people off of these islands at this point collectively,” said Bossert.
Attention is not only focused on the hard-hit U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but missions are being conducted to repatriate American citizens on 88-square kilometer (55 miles) St. Martin (jointly held by the Dutch and French), where outbreaks of looting and violence have been reported.
The U.S. Air National Guard says it successfully rescued more than 1,000 Americans from St. Martin on Sunday.
Additional evacuation flights landed there on Monday to take U.S. citizens to Puerto Rico, according to the State Department.
Although Puerto Rico was only grazed by Irma, the storm knocked out the power grid of the effectively bankrupt electrical utility of the U.S. commonwealth, overall teetering on financial collapse.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John took a direct hit. Many buildings, including those built to supposedly hurricane-safe code after damaging storms in 1989 and 1995 were destroyed or seriously damaged.
Residents of St. Thomas say looters with machetes and guns have also been robbing people.
'Roaming like zombies'
On St. John “people there are roaming like zombies,” bar owner Stacey Alvarado, who managed to leave for the U.S. mainland, was quoted by The Washington Post. She described the island as “as wiped out. It's like the walking dead down there.”
Commercial air service to St. Croix, where the airport was extensively damaged, is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.
Bossert, at the White House, said he wants people in the U.S. islands to know they are getting immediate and long-term assistance, but he is asking for patience.
“While I'm preaching caution to make sure people understand that this is an ongoing and there's still going to be long painful days ahead, I am doubling-down on my assertion that this is the best integrated full-scale response effort in our nation's history,” Bossert said.
The U.S. Northern Command says its main focus Monday was pre-positioning of search and rescue assets in Florida should those capabilities be requested.
Helicopters on the way
Military elements at Naval Air Station Key West and Homestead Air Reserve Base worked on Monday to re-establish airfield operations for use in search and rescue missions.
Air Force C-5 and C-17 cargo planes are flying to Homestead carrying helicopters, as well as relief supplies for search and rescue operation.
The U.S. Transportation Command is postured to airlift additional search and rescue assets staged in the United States around the storm as airfields become operational, and help move search and rescue assets returning from Puerto Rico, according to the Defense Department.
The State Department on Monday warned U.S. citizens to avoid travel to the Bahamas, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Turks and Caicos, as well as other parts of the eastern Caribbean “due to continuing hazardous conditions in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.”