Three Norfolk-based Navy ships on standby for hurricane disaster relief

The USS George Washington leads a formation while participating in UNITAS 2015 on November 17th. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Paul Archer)

The USS George Washington leads a formation while participating in UNITAS 2015 on November 17th. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Paul Archer)

NORFOLK, Va. – The US Navy is sending three Norfolk-based ships — the USS George Washington (CVN 73), the USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19) and the USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) out to sea, to assist with humanitarian and disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Matthew if needed.

Cmdr. Dave Hecht, a spokesman for Naval Air Force Atlantic, told News 3 the Navy has not yet received any official order to embark on a Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) mission. However, years of practice tell crews it is better to ship out and be on standby, rather than wait for those orders to pull out.

“We specifically train for missions like this, and it is one of those missions I  honestly believe our sailors really enjoy doing,” said Hecht. “To know that you have helped somebody in distress, you have helped somebody in need, you get satisfaction from it.”

The USS George Washington left Naval Station Norfolk on Tuesday afternoon carrying medical supplies, bottled water and aircraft supplies to support helicopters on board.

According to Hecht, the USS George Washington can make 400,000 gallons of fresh water out of sea water a day.

“When you have an area that has been devastated by a storm, and their water supply has been cut off, water is life,” said Hecht. “An aircraft carrier can help save lives.”

The hanger bay of an aircraft carrier can also be turned into a triage center for those in need.

Navy officials tell News 3 the USS George Washington is carrying 12 H-60 helicopters and six Osprey MV-22s that can ferry aid to those in need. The H-60s are coming from Norfolk-based squadrons HSC 2, 5, 22, 26 and 28. The MV-22s are coming from squadron VMM 365 from Marine Corps Air Station New River.

The USS Mesa Verde is loading  humanitarian and disaster relief supplies, including rations and drinking water, while the USNS Comfort is beginning to assemble crew necessary to provide medical care.

Since there are no official orders to embark on a humanitarian mission just yet,  it is unclear where the ships will head, however officials tell News 3, it would take the USS George Washington about 5 days to reach the Caribbean from Norfolk, Va.

After the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, the Navy sent over 30 ships, including the USNS Comfort to provide medical care, fresh water and shelter.

The Navy began preparing for the storm last weekend when they issued a mandatory evacuation for about 700 spouses and children on board Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Depending on the path of the storm, the US military is also looking at moving its own aircraft and ships out of bases along the eastern seaboard as far north as Norfolk in the coming days. Some ships could be tied down at piers to ride out the storm, and some aircraft could be put in hangars.

The US Southern Command has sent 100 personnel and nine helicopters to Grand Cayman Island today to also be ready for relief operations if requested by the US  Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

Military personnel, including Marines from Honduras’ Soto Cano Air Base left for the island Tuesday. The Marines are part of a specialized task force that went to Honduras in June to be prepared to conduct disaster relief operations in the area.