Airmen Keep Hurricane Relief Supplies Flowing to the Caribbean
SAVANNAH, Ga. --
Air National Guard airmen with the 165th Air Terminal Operations Center at Savannah Air National Guard Base here were operating around the clock this week to send disaster relief to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
About 16 airmen began 12-hour shifts for handling air cargo out of Savannah shortly after the islands' devastation from Hurricanes Irma and Maria became known.
National Guard Bureau officials reported today that more than 3,000 National Guard airmen and soldiers were assisting in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The National Guard airlift into Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is focused on the transport of life-sustaining supplies, helicopters, security forces and engineers, officials at the National Guard Bureau said.
"Every one of these guys is a traditional guardsman, and I just called them, and they said, 'Yeah, I'll help out,'" said Georgia Air National Guard Chief Master Sgt. Wayne Weaver, air cargo superintendent. "They weren't tasked, they just volunteered."
The air terminal operations center is coordinating with incoming and outgoing Air National Guard units from across the nation. More help is on the way to handle the massive flow of water, meals ready to eat, equipment, and other material requested. Air-cargo specialists from the 167th Airlift Wing in West Virginia were also activated and will arrive here soon to set up the second cell.
Cargo In, Cargo Out
Forklifts took 38 pallets, totaling 38,000 pounds of meals, ready to eat off of a flatbed trailer on yesterday morning. They carried them into the staging hanger. As soon as that trailer offloaded, another truckload of cargo arrived.
"It's quite the experience," said Georgia Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Austin Duvverly, an air transportation specialist with the 165th Air Terminal Operations Center, who was hustling to direct forklifts to square metal skids. He wrapped cargo with sheets of plastic and then secured it with netted straps.
They explained that the skids get weighed, recorded and positioned near the flight line. Forklifts wheel the skids out to awaiting aircrew on Air National Guard aircraft.
"It's a good feeling know that I can help send some support down there, especially when they have no power," Duvverly said.
One of the aircraft that departed Sept. 25 from Savannah was a C-130J Super Hercules aircraft and aircrew from the Rhode Island Air National Guard’s 143rd Airlift Wing to support several hurricane relief airlift missions in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The mission included transporting pallets of water and MREs to the U.S. Virgin Islands, the transport of NBC Nightly News reporter Lester Holt and his news team to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and several shuttle missions between the islands.
"The continued response and commitment from the airmen of the 143d Airlift Wing has been remarkable," said Rhode Island Air National Guard Col. Michael Comstock, 143rd Airlift Wing vice commander, "The ‘Rhode Warriors’ continue to support back-to-back relief operations and remain at the ready for whatever is required of them. We are extremely proud of our team and the Air National Guard's outstanding effort."
Also, a team of six airmen from the 115th Fighter Wing that deployed to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is the latest in the Wisconsin National Guard's ongoing response to the hurricanes that have affected the United States over the past month.
Joint Incident Site Communications Capability
The 115th Fighter Wing's Joint Incident Site Communications Capability, or JISCC, deployed to Puerto Rico Sept. 23, marking the first time the specialized unit has deployed for a real-world emergency.
"The airmen who volunteer to be part of the JISCC team are highly trained experts of cyber systems and cyber transport operators who are always ready to rapidly deploy," said Wisconsin Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Jaime Denner, a member of the 115th Fighter Wing’s JISCC. "It provides incident site communications support for areas with no network, telephone or radio interoperability to the responding military and non-military emergency responders for both natural and man-made disasters."
According to Denner, the overall mission of the JISCC is to provide satellite communications, radio interoperability of multiple commercial and tactical radio systems delivering high-bandwidth connectivity even where the infrastructure is severely damaged.
The National Guard developed the JISCC concept after learning valuable lessons from the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which exposed the need for a more robust communications capability in the wake of major disasters. The 115th Fighter Wing implemented its JISCC five years ago and members of the team have been training for a real-world opportunity to respond ever since.
Wisconsin Air National Guard Maj. Keith Hofkens, commander of the 115th Fighter Wing Communications Squadron, said the airmen were excited to have the opportunity to serve fellow Americans in their time of need.
"The exciting thing about domestic operations support, like what we are currently doing with the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and even locally in Wisconsin after a tornado or flood, is that it puts our airmen at the tip of the sword from an operational standpoint," Hofkens said. "To see the smile and excitement on their faces when getting called up for DOMOPS, and what it's providing in a role of support for our neighbors, families and fellow Americans is something special. It's why we joined and continue to put the uniform on."
The teams could be gone as long as 45 days with the possibility of extending, but they are prepared to stay as long as needed fulfilling their role as the nation's first military responder in times of emergency.
(The Rhode Island National Guard and Wisconsin National Guard contributed to this article.)