As Tropical Storm Irma continued to batter the eastern coast of the United States on Monday, a senior White House official touted as superlative the response of the U.S. military to the storm’s long path of destruction.
Tom Bossert, President Trump’s homeland security adviser, said during a news briefing that the Pentagon had put together “the largest-ever mobilization of our military in a naval and Marine operation.” He added that “an Air Force carrier” also had been deployed in the effort, and that the ship’s involvement in the relief effort was historic.
“This is the first-ever, as well,” Bossert said of the carrier deployment, the USS Abraham Lincoln, which actually is operated by the Navy, not the Air Force. “So we have the largest flotilla operation in our nation’s history to help not only the people of Puerto Rico, people of the U.S. Virgin Islands, but also St. Martin and other non-U. S. islands affected and the people of Florida.”
The U.S. military’s naval response to Irma — which savaged the U.S. Virgin Islands and other Caribbean Islands as a Category 5 hurricane last week — is certainly sprawling. The Pentagon has deployed at least eight other ships in addition to the Abraham Lincoln to help with Irma relief, providing dozens of helicopters and thousands of U.S. Marines and sailors to assist.
The other services also are involved, with the Army deploying thousands of soldiers in helicopters and high-water vehicles, and the Air Force and Coast Guard running missions that include dangerous search-and-rescue operations. The Pentagon said in a statement Monday that it has 10,400 service members involved in Irma relief in the Southeast, and another 4,600 involved for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The National Guard reported Monday that had 13,800 guardsmen involved.
But the response is not the largest in Defense Department history, and the Navy has a more extensive history of responding to hurricanes than Bossert acknowledged on Monday. That includes the use of aircraft carriers.
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, for example, the USS Harry S. Truman deployed, serving as a lily pad from which helicopters could refuel and reload on relief supplies. In total, 20 U.S. military vessels, including 13 combat ships, were involved in Katrina relief, according to a 120-page history of the operation compiled by the think tank CNA.
Asked for clarification, Bossert said in a statement released through the White House press office Monday night that the Defense Department has assembled two of the “most powerful naval relief flotillas in recent memory, including a total of nine large ships coming to relief of Americans in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.” He did not repeat that the deployment of the Abraham Lincoln marked a first in hurricane relief operations, but called the Trump administration’s response to Irma “an unprecedented domestic operational support mission.”
“Forces assigned include two Amphibious Ready Groups comprising nine U.S. Navy ships, and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier outfitted with 24 helicopters for search and rescue support,” Bossert’s statement said. “That group is also equipped with elements from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a mission-tailored relief package, and a total of 81 helicopters and numerous fixed wing aircraft.”
The Defense Department’s response at the height of Katrina relief operations included 17,417 active-duty troops, 42,990 National Guardsmen, 20 U.S. ships, 360 helicopters and 93 military planes, according to a Congressional Research Service report. A report for the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center estimated the active-duty involvement after Katrina peaking at about 22,000. However, the government response was roundly criticized for being slow to come, and leaving people stranded in flooded neighborhoods for days.
After Bossert’s statements, some naval enthusiasts noted the use of U.S. aircraft carriers in disaster relief before the Katrina response. It includes the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Saipan after Hurricane Hazel in 1954. That storm reached Category 4 strength in October, raking Haiti before coming ashore at the border of North Carolina and South Carolina. The Navy brought relief supplies ashore in Haiti for nearly a week afterward, according to a 1990 history of Navy disaster-relief operations.
A Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Kearsarge, also responded to Typhoon Vera in 1959, running both relief and rescue operations. U.S. Pacific Command last year celebrated that mission with a tweet: