“It wasn’t all that different from working combat missions,” said Captain Bobby Baker, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Key West. “It was everything from air to ground in an emergency situation but without the fighting.” The Navy’s immediate action in the hours and days following the storm, now in comparison to Texas and Puerto Rico, shows its true impact on the Keys.
Before the storm, Baker sent military families to secure areas and flew military jets and pilots as far away as Nevada, where they still remain. His biggest pre-storm scare was the predicted 10- to 12-foot storm surge and keeping people safe. “We have 622 out of 733 houses at ground level, they would have been destroyed.” Only 36 trained officers remained for Irma along with just two F 5 jets and one helicopter left on base. The NAS does not have Category 5 buildings so the officers hunkered down at the Marriot Beachside, which generously gave them rooms for a command center.
“Everyone was concerned with one or more of the 42 bridges being lost,” said Baker. He put in a “Request for Forces” before the wind even stopped and the USS Abraham Lincoln, USS Iwo Jima, and USS New York were already on their way. When Baker was able to return to Boca Chica, he found the airstrip flooded by 3 feet of water and whitecaps (not the rumored fishing boat). The base suffered more than $86 million in damage. The airfield tower’s top blew partially away, the radar went down, trees were lost and many buildings lost siding and roofing – including seven out eight metal airplane hangars mangled beyond recognition, perhaps due to a tornado. At the moment, the base is only “partially mission capable.”
Post-storm, the NAS quickly filled up with admirals and commanders sleeping in the offices and orchestrating relief to the Keys round the clock. The amphibious detail moved a sailboat blocking the boat ramp at Truman Waterfront and began unloading supplies and equipment from the carriers. Rear Adm. Sam Paparo worried that Key West would seem a militarized zone with the heavy helicopter and fleet presence, but the troops got working with the community, helping with the prison, the senior center and many other facilities. And just like all residents, the NAS had water issues and Baker was never so happy to see a truckload of portable toilets arrive on base.
“When I got the call about one of our buoys in Palm Beach and one of our sailboats in Fort Lauderdale,” said Trice Denny, public relations officer, “that’s when you really imagine the scope of the storm.”
The NAS harbor lost a total of 17 boats. But now the Navy is concerned with the 77 boats that landed on Trumbo’s beaches. The Navy is actively trying to reconnect people with their boats but it may fall on them to foot the removal bill.
“We have never been able to see U.S. 1 before,” said Denny, regarding the massive loss of trees and mangroves on base, proving that when it comes to a storm, residents and the Navy are all in the same boat.
Troops to thank:
Captain Bobby Baker worked with Rear Adm. Kent Whalen with the USS Abraham Lincoln, USS Iwo Jima and USS New York and units supporting the mission under Carrier Strike Group 10, Rear Adm. Sam Paparo, included Amphibious Squadron (CPR) 4; the guided-missile cruiser USS San Jacinto (CG 56); Explosive Ordinance Disposal Group (EODGRU) 2; Tactical Air Control Squadron (TACRON) 22; Fleet Surgical Team (FST) 8; 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU); Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 461; Marine Air Control Group (MACG) 28; Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28; Fleet Survey Team; Beach Master Unit (BMU) 2; Naval Beach Group (NBG) 2; Amphibious Construction Battalion (ACB) 2; Assault Craft Unit (ACU) 2; and Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU) 202 det. Jacksonville.
Trice Denny, public affairs officer, and Commanding Officer Capt. Bobby Baker of the Naval Air Station give a first-hand account of the Naval response to Hurricane Irma. HAYS BLINCKMANN/Keys Weekly