Local troops, supplies headed to Caribbean for hurricane relief

By Drew Brooks Fayetteville Observer

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The same day more than 120 tractor-trailers filled with hurricane relief aid left Fort Bragg, officials announced that hundreds of local soldiers would be deployed to Puerto Rico to help rebuild the island.

Local military support for the hurricane-ravaged U.S. territory continues to grow, with aid flowing from a support site at Fort Bragg’s Simmons Army Airfield and soldiers from across North Carolina continuing to deploy.

On Friday, the North Carolina National Guard announced that 200 engineers from a Raeford-based battalion would deploy in the coming week to help repair damaged infrastructure, including homes, businesses, government buildings and road networks.

The announcement came minutes after officials with Fort Bragg’s 18th Airborne Corps announced that about 40 soldiers from the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command had begun deploying to Puerto Rico to synchronize recovery operations.

The 3rd ESC sent a 15-soldier assessment team to Puerto Rico earlier this week, officials said. The rest of the soldiers are set to deploy in the near future.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by Hurricane Maria,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher O. Mohan, commanding general of the 3rd ESC. “We are proud to use our skills and equipment for this mission, to help the people of Puerto Rico for as long as we are needed.”

Numerous Fort Bragg and North Carolina National Guard troops have been involved in hurricane relief efforts in recent weeks, following a string of powerful storms that have wreaked havoc in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Local troops have deployed in support of relief operations following hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

The latter two storms have battered islands in the Caribbean, causing widespread damage, loss of power and a humanitarian crisis caused by lack of water and other supplies.

Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Defense Logistics Agency are hoping to provide some relief to Americans in the Caribbean by sending waves of supplies that include water, food, blankets, generators and other supplies that are being stored at Fort Bragg.

On Friday, Navy Cmdr. Steve Holbrook was part of the DLA team overseeing the distribution of supplies.

Holbrook said 120 tractor-trailers were set to leave Fort Bragg throughout the day, carrying a combined 1.8 million meals and 1.2 million liters of water. The trucks were bound for a port in Jacksonville, Florida, before heading to relief sites in Puerto Rico, he said.

The aid represented less than half the supplies that have been stored on Fort Bragg in recent weeks.

FEMA has been using Simmons Army Airfield as an incident support base since earlier this month. It’s familiar territory for the organization, which has used Fort Bragg as a staging base for disaster relief at least eight times since 1993, when officials poised themselves on Fort Bragg to prepare for Hurricane Emily.

Holbrook said his DLA team arrived last weekend, comprised of 10 Navy Reservists, one Army Reservist and 20 DLA civilians.

“All of them are volunteers,” he said. “We’ve got folks who are prepared to be here, if needed, until the end of October.”

Holbrook said there were more than 300 trailers filled with supplies when the team arrived at Fort Bragg.

Friday’s departure of 120 tractor-trailers were the substantial shipments to take place, he said. Each trailer carried 30,000 meals or 20,000 liters of water.

Holbrook said the supplies — gathered from various FEMA storage facilities — are sent out based on requests from government officials in Washington.

“This is the hub where supplies are aggregated,” he said. “We’re just beginning to see supplies heading out of here.”

Holbrook said the service members were working 12-hour days, but would be prepared to conduct 24-hour-a-day operations if needed.

For many, he said, the relief mission was personal.

The team — comprised of members from across the U.S. — first deployed in mid-September to Texas before being redirected to Fort Bragg.

Petty Officer 1st Class Peter Henry said he left after his home in Miami was battered by Hurricane Irma. But that damage was minuscule compared with what was experienced in the Caribbean.

“They are part of the United States,” Henry said of the people in Puerto Rico who would receive the supplies leaving Fort Bragg. “They need it more than us. Compared to what they went through, it’s nothing.”

Henry said it was important for him and others to volunteer for their mission.

“We don’t have to be here,” he said. “But it’s important that we help them. They need a lot of help.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Liseth Perez agreed.

The Georgia sailor said she has family in Puerto Rico and was not able to reach them for more than a week after the storms hit.

“It was agonizing,” she said.

Her family is staying in a shelter, Perez said. And it’s reassuring to know the supplies leaving Fort Bragg may soon reach them.

“It’s overwhelming to know that what we’re doing here is going to help them,” she said.

The Fort Bragg staging base is one of three that have been established by FEMA since Hurricane Harvey struck Texas last month, Holbrook said. It is one of two — along with a staging base at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama — supporting Hurricane Maria relief efforts.

As the amount of supplies flowing into Puerto Rico grows, so does the number of troops.

On Friday, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the commanding general of U.S. Army North, said up to 4,500 troops had been deployed to the island. Buchanan is leading the military’s relief efforts.

Fort Bragg’s role includes the FEMA staging base as well as a steady flow of supplies from Pope Field, where Air Force cargo planes have picked up supplies before heading to Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Earlier this week, a C-5 Super Galaxy from Travis Air Force Base in California picked up a 47,000-pound generator and several pallets of food and water to be taken to Puerto Rico.

Airmen from the 43rd Air Mobility Squadron, part of the 43rd Air Mobility Operations Group based at Fort Bragg’s Pope Field, prepared the shipment earlier in the day. A spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration said the generator — the size of a semi truck — would help officials direct the ever-growing air traffic coming onto the island by powering important radar and communications equipment near San Juan.

Other Fort Bragg troops deployed to the Caribbean include a Civil Affairs Information Support Element that includes 25 personnel trained to support the dissemination of critical public information and a team from the Army Corps of Engineers’s 249th Engineer Battalion, which is trained to maintain generators and provide power to military and civilian authorities.

Those troops joined a group of nearly 80 soldiers who deployed to the Virgin Islands earlier this month, between the two hurricanes.

Soldiers from the 602nd Area Support Medical Company, 261st Multifunctional Medical Battalion have been in the U.S. Virgin Islands for several weeks, deploying shortly after Hurricane Irma struck.

The soldiers are part of the 44th Medical Brigade and have been providing medical care at a damaged hospital in St. Thomas. They briefly evacuated for Hurricane Maria before returning late last week to continue their mission.

The latest troops to deploy, from the Raeford-based 105th Engineer Battalion of the North Carolina National Guard, are set to leave from Fort Bragg this weekend, with additional troops following them next week.

The 200 soldiers will be known as Task Force Rhino, according to the North Carolina National Guard. They are expected to be deployed for 30 days, but are prepared to be there longer if required.

The battalion will be the headquarters for a multi-state engineer task force comprised of more than 600 guardsmen from North and South Carolina, Louisiana and New York.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced the deployment Friday afternoon.

“When our state was devastated with severe flooding during Hurricane Matthew last year, many states came to our assistance in our time of need”, Cooper said. “Now it’s our turn to provide aid to fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.”

The soldiers will help clear debris from roads and make hasty repairs to facilitate the flow of aid across the island, officials said. It’s a mission many are familiar with.

“These NC Guard engineers are no strangers to disaster recovery missions having deployed to South Carolina in 2015 to aid in severe flooding recovery, Hurricane Matthew last year, and supported debris removal missions this month in western North Carolina from the effects of Hurricane Irma,” said Col. Tim Aiken, the North Carolina National Guard’s director of joint operations.

Editor's note: The original story can be viewed on the Fayetteville Observer