ATLANTIC OCEAN (NNS) -- USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), USS New York (LPD 21), along with multiple embarked Navy and Marine Corps units completed initial recovery operations in support of federal and state officials, September 16, following Hurricane Irma's devastation of Key West, Florida.
The Navy-Marine Corps team, under the command of Commander Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 10, partnered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and with state and local officials until civilian authorities and the Florida National Guard could take over long-term recovery operations.
While on station, Sailors and Marines worked with the people of Monroe County, along the Lower Keys, from Marathon to Key West and points between, clearing debris from roadways, distributing food and water, and repairing generators and other critical infrastructure such as water-pumping stations. Highlights included fly-away teams from both Iwo Jima and New York, Sailors normally deep within the ship making it go, who formed engineering-centric teams who helicoptered in and performed rapid repairs on generators in senior living communities.
"The combination of the hardship the people of Monroe County faced and the strength and grit they faced it with were both humbling and inspiring," said Rear Adm. Sam Paparo, CSG 10 commander. "But the Marines and Sailors rushed to the crisis. We're better for having teamed with our local, State and federal teammates - particularly city governments, Monroe County, the Florida National Guard and FEMA - and inspired we could help in so small a way. As we depart, our greatest emotion is gratitude for having been a part of it."
Search-and-rescue efforts were on the scene September 11, with the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). Recovery operations began ashore September 12. For Marines and Sailors taking part in relief efforts, the work was personal.
"This is the worst I have ever seen my hometown after a hurricane," said Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class Gabrielle Young, from Key West and assigned to Iwo Jima. "My family and I evacuated for Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Wilma. We had to live in a FEMA trailer for two weeks following Wilma, but still it was not this bad here."
Young added she was fortunate her assignment aboard Iwo Jima allowed her to be a part of the outpouring of civilian and military support to her hometown.
"It's a blessing to be here and be able to help out the community - my community. I never thought I would have a chance to do anything like this. I am very thankful."
Lance Cpl. Jack Sweeney, assigned to Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 6th Regiment of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), was handing out food and water when he saw a family with a little boy come through to get supplies.
"He had a cut on his nose, and I was able to put some ointment on it and bandage it up," he said. "This was a very real and rewarding experience."
"I've come to Key West every summer with my family since I was eight years old, so I feel a special connection here," said Lance Cpl. Stephen Ailshie, assigned to Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "Handing out food and water to those in need was a humbling experience."
Members of the Fleet Survey Team, based at Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, cleared the way for the landing craft utility vehicles of Assault Craft Unit (ACU) 2 to make it to shore with heavy equipment and large bulk items for the relief efforts. They then moved to open the ports for the arrival of supplies. Highly trained and operating specially equipped jet skis, the team painstakingly looked for possible obstructions and hazards to navigating the channel into Key West.
Another member of the team, Aerographers Mate 2nd Class Jesse Osborne, from Rome, Georgia, said they cleared debris and used sonar to scan to find objects that would inhibit a ship's movement.
"It gave me a sense of pride that I was part of something bigger - like I accomplished something," said Osborne.
The survey team's work was also instrumental in assisting Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group (EODGRU) 2 in moving equipment ashore as they set up a tactical operations center.
"The tactical operations center allowed us to work seamlessly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Monroe County officials to provide support in the most effective way," said Lt. Cmdr. Abby Mennerich, intelligence officer of EODGRU 2, which ran the maritime command element (MCE) ashore. "The MCE Sailors and 26th MEU Marines were vital in establishing reliable communications circuits and facilities to accomplish the overall mission."
Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28 used their SH-60S helicopters to move people and equipment back and forth from the ship and shore. This also included making runs as far north as Homestead Air Reserve Base, south of Miami.
"This was a very rewarding experience," said Lt. Jenya Boss, a pilot assigned to HSC 28. "You get to do what you have been training for in real life, and that's where the reward comes in."
Part of the mission included working with USS Abraham Lincoln, ferrying water the carrier produced to the landing field at Naval Air Station Key West.
"This was a very dynamic mission, and everyone was eager to help, from one mission transporting water from an aircraft carrier to shore, to the next mission transporting passengers from ship to shore to clear roads and give out aid," said Capt. Michael Inzeo, a CH-53E Super Stallion pilot assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 461.
"Seeing how grateful people were to receive basic necessities like food and water made me feel grateful for all of the small things in life I have," said Navy Career Counselor 1st Class Stephanie Biggs, of Phoenix and assigned to USS New York. "They were just grateful for our presence. It gave me a better understanding how fast things we take for granted can be taken away in the blink of an eye."
With FEMA and the Florida National Guard now in charge of long-term recovery efforts, the focus shifted to loading up equipment and people for return to the ships so they can depart the coast.
FEMA's Region IV Federal Coordinating Officer - and retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Steve Johnson - told crews aboard Iwo Jima and New York he was grateful for their dedication to the mission.
"When I think about your efforts, two words come to mind: humility and family," said Johnson, whose oversight includes Monroe County. "I'm humbled by the efforts you all put forth. But as a Sailor, I also consider you all my family. You have much to be proud of for your accomplishments."
Units supporting the mission under CSG 10 included Amphibious Squadron (CPR) 4; the guided-missile cruiser USS San Jacinto (CG 56); Explosive Ordinance Disposal Group (EODGRU) 2; Tactical Air Control Squadron (TACRON) 22; Fleet Surgical Team (FST) 8; 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU); Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 461; Marine Air Control Group (MACG) 28; Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28; Fleet Survey Team; Beach Master Unit (BMU) 2; Naval Beach Group (NBG) 2; Amphibious Construction Battalion (ACB) 2; Assault Craft Unit (ACU) 2; and Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU) 202 det. Jacksonville.
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