U.S. service members with Joint Task Force - Leeward Islands began evacuating U.S. citizens stranded on the Caribbean island of Dominica Sept. 24, 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
With the use of helicopters from the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps, more than 100 U.S. citizens have been evacuated to the nearby islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, with more people being evacuated every day. In order to facilitate the evacuation process, U.S. Marines with the task force created an evacuation control center at the Douglas-Charles Airport in Dominica.
“The evacuation control center is where we send American citizens to get evacuated during a crisis situation involving a natural disaster,” said U.S. Marine Sgt. Austin Cody, the evacuation control center noncommissioned officer in charge with JTF - Leeward Islands. "It consists of several stations including a security station, a luggage check and medical station, and a registration station ran by the U.S. Department of State. From there we stage them so they can get onto aircraft."
The control center is designed to process 80 people per hour, but it can run into challenges.
“The biggest challenge is getting set up in your environment with what you have on hand,” Cody said. “Once you get that done and everybody has a feel for how the process works, it starts to flow smoothly.”
For the Marines, part of a contingent from Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Southern Command who form the majority of JTF - Leeward Islands personnel, manning the control center is a scenario they trained for during their pre-deployment training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., earlier this year.
“It's an awesome feeling to be able to execute something you've trained and trained and trained for,” Cody said. “It is exactly what you want to be able to do as a Marine.”
To fully accomplish this mission, the Marines are working hand in hand with members of the U.S. State Department.
"One of the main roles of the State Department is to help Americans who find themselves in emergencies and help look out for their immediate needs," said Robert E. Reeves, the deputy lead for the U.S. State Department team in Dominica. “We’re working here with the Marines to identify American citizens, locate them on the island, get them to the airport and, for those who would like to evacuate, get them on a military flight off the island.”
The partnership created between the JTF – Leeward Islands service members and the State Department helps get Americans off the island during this critical time after the storm.
“It is truly amazing watching the work the Marines are doing to help us get Americans off Dominica,” Reeves said. “They are a great group of people to work with.”
The biggest payoff for those assisting with the evacuation is seeing the impact of the help they are providing to those who were affected by the hurricane.
"I've never been so terrified in my life," said Loni Costello, a retired bank executive from San Francisco who moved to Dominica 18 years ago to teach scuba diving. “I was in my apartment during the storm and I hunkered down on my bed trying to stay away from the windows. Then my roof blew off and then I could hear all of the sheetrock falling down.”
Costello lost everything in the hurricane except for one suitcase, but is grateful for all the assistance provided by the government.
“The response by the military and State Department is amazing,” Costello said. “I am really thankful for all of the help you guys have provided.”