A week after Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas with Category 5 strength, the Pentagon’s involvement in the relief effort is expected to remain relatively small, with no senior commander deployed on the ground and Navy ships barely involved.
The Pentagon’s response included designating 20 Army and Navy helicopters to fly equipment and people from Homestead Air Reserve Base in southern Florida and reopening airfields. Active-duty military helicopters had made 36 flights as of Monday morning, rescuing eight people, said Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze, a military spokeswoman.
About 1,050 active-duty service members were involved in Bahamas relief as of Monday, with an additional 150 notified that they could be called to help, Kunze said.
Jonathan Rath Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said Monday that four Marine Corps MV-22 Ospreys from the USS Bataan had flown Air Force members to the Bahamas to assess whether airports are capable of receiving C-130 and C-17 aircraft. Grand Bahama International Airport already is, he said. No other Navy combatant ship has been involved in the operation.
The level of U.S. military involvement is significantly smaller than in some other storms.
More than 10,000 U.S. troops and at least 80 military helicopters deployed to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated much of it in 2017. That deployment, led on the ground by Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, came after an earlier response of about 4,400 Defense Department service members and 1,000 Coast Guard personnel was deemed insufficient.
After Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, thousands of U.S. troops also deployed. They were led by a three-star Marine officer, Lt. Gen. John Wissler.
Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the chief of U.S. Northern Command, visited the Bahamas on Friday. Speaking at a news conference in Nassau, he said the Defense Department response was part of a broader effort and was focused on enabling other agencies by reopening airfields and providing temporary air-traffic control.
The U.S. aircraft will fly from Florida because “we don’t want to add additional burden here” by bringing in a force that has to be supported, the general said.
“All in all, the efforts that we are doing are in place now,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We’ll continue to beef up, and we’ll continue to collaborate with the government of the Bahamas to make sure that we’re bringing the needs that they need, when they need it.”
The Coast Guard, which is part of the Homeland Security Department, has handled the bulk of the requests for the U.S. military, bringing in eight cutters over sea and 12 helicopters last week. The size of that force has started to dwindle, with five cutters and five helicopters involved in the mission as of Monday, said Lt. Cmdr. Ace Castle, a Coast Guard spokesman.
The Coast Guard has rescued more than 300 people and helped reopen all of the ports in the Bahamas.
A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the U.S. military has met each request that the U.S. Agency for International Development has made. Civilian aid organizations have played a large role in the relief effort, the official said.
The responses to Dorian and Maria also varies in that the Bahamian government is in charge. It has accepted help from some other organizations, including Britain’s military. Coast Guard service members said they have limited jurisdiction and must take direction from the Bahamian government, according to one report by an embedded Washington Post journalist.
Still, questions remain about how much the U.S. military will be used.
On Friday, Stephanie Bowers, a senior State Department official in the Bahamas, acknowledged in the news conference with O’Shaughnessy that there were rumors on social media that the Bahamian government did not want U.S. military help.
“There’s a long road ahead, but we want to assure everyone that we are standing with our Bahamian partners, and there is more assistance on the way,” she said.
On Friday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) tweeted a push for U.S. military involvement. Only active-duty forces have the heavy helicopters needed to quickly transport supplies to devastated areas, he said.
Within hours, Rubio added in another tweet that he had “good news”: USAID had made a request for heavy helicopters.