USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) returned home to Norfolk Nov. 6, after 68 days of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Kearsarge, the staff of Expeditionary Strike Group 2, along with the 26th and 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU); Commander, Amphibious Squadron 6; Tactical Air Control Squadron 22; Fleet Surgical Team 4; and Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7, departed for Texas in response to Hurricane Harvey Aug. 31, after approximately 30 hours in port following a 10-day underway conducting routine shipboard certifications.
“Besides delivering combat power from the sea, amphibious assault ships are ideally suited to deliver assistance and aid,” said Kearsarge’s Commanding Officer Capt. David K. Guluzian. “We can transport large amounts of manpower and supplies to areas in need using our small boats, landing craft and helicopters.
With the collaboration of all-hands, prior to departing Naval Station Norfolk, Kearsarge took on more than 200 pallets containing items such as baby food and formula, diapers, bedding, water bottles, coolers, batteries, towels, canned and dry food items and food service supplies.
Shortly after their arrival off the coast of Florida, Kearsarge and her crew received word of Hurricane Irma and were redirected to the Caribbean to be ready to immediately respond. As soon as the storm passed the U.S. Virgin Islands, Kearsarge was on station to render aid.
“The crew has been extremely adaptable,” said Kearsarge’s Command Master Chief Jason Knupp. “You would think somewhere between less than two days in port, dodging and then following hurricanes, there would be a hiccup along the way. Between the crew and all the embarked units–Marines, Seabees, squadrons–their work has been flawless. These guys took charge of the mission and got it done.”
Just two weeks after Irma ravaged the U.S. Virgin Islands, Kearsarge, along with the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) and the amphibious dock landing ship USS Oak Hill (LSD 51) were again redirected and temporarily departed the area to prepare for impending Hurricane Maria. As soon as Maria passed, helicopters and tilt-rotor aircraft from Kearsarge and her units were flying search and rescue and aerial assessment missions over the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
After the initial delivery of life-sustaining commodities to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the mission then added a focus on road and route clearance. While still maintaining regular deliveries of supplies to points of distribution as well as hard-to-reach locations in Puerto Rico, Marines and Seabees were on the ground removing debris, enabling federal and Puerto Rican government employees and volunteers to begin service and infrastructure restoration.
Kearsarge also took on the mission to repair generators at hospitals in Puerto Rico where teams from Kearsarge assessed the status of generators at 51 hospitals on the island, 49 of which were in dire need of fuel.
“In some cases, the teams were able to perform immediate repairs and get broken (or almost broken) generators working,” said Guluzian. “In other cases, teams were able to relay a message to responders who could deliver the right assistance.”
While at sea, President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visited Kearsarge Oct. 3, to discuss operations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Trump commended the crew for their efforts.
“This is some ship,” said Trump. “It has done a tremendous service for Puerto Rico and for the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
Additionally, Kearsarge Sailors who had family in Puerto Rico had the opportunity to participate in a family and neighborhood assessment where Sailors were flown ashore to reconnect with their loved ones and to document and survey the extent of relief efforts in their neighborhood and ascertain local infrastructure information.
Operations Specialist Seaman Zabrina Adorno was happy to see her family and the town they live in were doing well, considering the circumstances.
“It’s definitely a relief knowing they have food and water,” said Adorno. “They were fortunate to prepare well by getting gas and boarding up their windows before the storm.”
As of Nov. 5, in both the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, more than 4,500 Sailors from the Kearsarge, USS Wasp (LHD 1), USS Oak Hill (LSD 51), USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) and Marines from the 26th and 24th MEUs conducted 244 medical evacuations, delivered more than 4.6 million pounds of relief supplies, cleared approximately 100 miles of routes, flew approximately 1,600 flight hours for defense support to civil authorities and treated 1,250 patients aboard Comfort, with operations ongoing.
Additionally, during the 68-day period, Kearsarge conducted more amphibious and flight operations than would be completed in a routine six-month deployment.
“I’m extremely proud of the Sailors and Marines who were prominent among the initial responders responsible for providing tangible lifesaving and relief support for fellow Americans in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico during Hurricanes Irma and Maria,” said Rear Adm. Jeffrey Hughes, commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 2. “This team of Sailors and Marines from numerous commands in various stages of readiness came together to brilliantly support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and partner with other federal, territory and local responders in an unprecedented response effort. These Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) operations demonstrated the effectiveness of our amphibious force and made a lasting impression on those affected by these devastating storms.”
The Department of Defense is supporting FEMA, the lead federal agency, in helping those affected by hurricanes Irma and Maria to minimize suffering and is one component of the overall whole-of-government response effort.