U.S. service members with Joint Task Force - Leeward Islands moved their aircraft from San Juan to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, Sept. 18, 2017, in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Maria so they can continue their humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mission once the storm passes.
The task force is currently operating two water purification sites in Saint Martin to provide potable water to communities on the island impacted by Hurricane Irma. Supporting the mission are JTF-LI’s aviation assets located in Puerto Rico.
"With Hurricane Irma, we watched it move through the Caribbean Sea and the Leeward Islands, and were tasked with providing support to the countries affected by the hurricane," said U.S. Marine Maj. Matthew J. Weaver, officer in charge of the Marine Aviation Element, JTI-LI.
The aircraft include U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters, U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters. They were positioned in Puerto Rico to provide the task force with a lift capability as needed.
"We can provide a well-rounded lift package that covers everything from medical evacuations, heavy lift and general lift support," said Lt. Col. Dave Morgan, OIC of the Army Aviation Element, JTF-LI.
The helicopters and crew were provided by Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Southern Command and 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, Joint Task Force – Bravo, both co-located at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras. The two units began training before the hurricane in order to provide a joint ability for this type of operation.
"Back in Soto Cano, we started with integration of our manning and maintenance, cross-talking in airspace, and going over differences in tactics, techniques and procedures," said U.S. Army Maj. Jake Yanko, the operations officer with the Army Aviation Element, JTF-LI. "We expect to do a lot of multi-ship flying for all of our humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts."
During the next few days, JTF-LI’s priority will be to ensure that the entire force, including aviation assets, are safe from the storm.
“Now we have Hurricane Maria bearing down on Puerto Rico,” said Weaver. “Our next step is to get our aircraft to a safer place, so we can return quickly and provide the same support to the countries in need.”
Although the helicopters will leave San Juan, the JTF will remain on Puerto Rico continue to monitor communications, accurately track people and gear, and maintain command and control during the storm.
Following Maria’s passing, the task force is poised to resume relief operations as soon as possible.
At the request of partner nations, JTF-LI deployed aircraft and service members to areas in the eastern Caribbean Sea affected by Hurricane Irma. The task force is a U.S. military unit composed of Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen, and represents U.S. Southern Command’s primary response to Hurricane Irma.