Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Politics

Florida Guard scales down troop strength; Navy sails away from the Keys

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The Florida National Guard on Monday drew down its activated statewide forces to about 1,200 on-duty troops, mostly in operations focused on relief distribution in the Florida Keys — and the last of a mini-armada of U.S. Navy ships off Key West set sail for home.

Florida Guard forces were still staffing six relief distribution sites providing water, civilian-style ready-to-eat meals and some blue tarps across Monroe County, said spokesman Will Manley at the state's guard headquarters in St. Augustine. Guard troops were also operating one supply staging area.

They forces would stay "as long as they're needed by the county's Emergency Operations Center," he said. "We're planning on that being a while still."

Over the weekend the guard shut down its 24-hour Joint Operations Center coordinating troop activity at Camp Blanding and shifted to day-time hours staffing at the St. Augustine Armory.

Manley said the military didn't consider itself downsizing operations. Instead, they were calling it "right-sizing," tailoring the size of the force to the needs of the state, specifically South Florida.

The reduction in force happened at noon with most of the 1,200-strong force concentrated in South Florida and some backfield support in Orlando at the Logistics and Readiness Center. "The missions are moving back and forth," he said, adding that still-flooded portions of Florida's West Coast were handling their issues without troop support.

At about the same time, the Navy announced that two amphibious ships — the USS New York and USS Iwo Jima — had left Key West and were returning to their base in northeast Florida, Mayport. The ships, along with the already departed aircraft carrier the Abraham Lincoln, had served as a staging platform and base for aerial reconnaissance in the immediate aftermath of Irma, before the Guard could move down to the Keys.

The ships also delivered supplies to the Keys by landing craft.

In the Keys, the Navy said, sailors and Marines from the ships "worked along the Lower Keys, from Marathon to Key West, clearing debris from 15 miles of roadway, distributing food, water, tarps and blankets, and repairing generators and other critical infrastructure such as water-pumping stations."

At the height of Hurricane Irma storm response, the Guard had more than 10,000 Air and Army National Guard and Reserve forces arrayed across the state working on road clearing, helping to restore communications, trucking supplies to hard-hit areas and staffing shelters and emergency operations centers. About 2,200 were on loan from other states, including Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Mississippi, South Carolina and Wisconsin.

By Saturday the figure had been reduced to 9,000, and more were released from service on Sunday.

Meantime, the Navy said sailors and family members who were evacuated from Key West before Irma hit — first to Atlanta and now to Jacksonville — would not be returning home until Sept. 30 at the soonest. Individuals in Jacksonville were entitled to per diems of $142 a day — $91 for lodging, $46 for meals and $5, for incidentals.

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