STARKE, Fla. - National Guard members in Florida, Georgia Puerto Rico, South Carolina and the Virgin Islands have opened more than 35 shelters and more than 11,000 Soldiers and Airmen are currently responding to assist civilians and local authorities in those areas.
That assistance is typified by Florida Air National Guard members greeting and assisting people with special needs at a shelter opened Saturday at the Atlantic Coast High School in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Guard members are providing physical and emotional support for everyone seeking refuge from Hurricane Irma.
"We meet them at their cars and bring everything in for them so they're not having to deal with it," said Tech. Sgt. Mark Collins, 125th Fighter Wing avionics maintenance specialist. "They can come and just kind of ease the transition in."
The Airmen wait by the street for shuttles and vans to arrive so they can help people out of their vehicles, carry all their belongings and medical equipment inside and help them settle into the shelter.
"We're just walking around handing out smiles," said Senior Airman Sierra Cunningham, 125th Fighter Wing aircraft weapons systems.
The high school is one of six special needs shelters, and one of 19 total shelters opened in Duval County. Special-needs shelters are equipped with backup generators and running power outlets throughout to provide care for people with feeding tubes, respiratory issues, transplants, and any other critical needs in the event of a power outage.
The American Red Cross manages the shelters. Along with the Guard, volunteers from the Mayo Clinic, Animal Care & Protective Services and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office offer services for shelter occupants.
Chief Master Sgt. Alan Secrest, 125th Fighter Wing aircraft weapons systems and shelter management, said he encouraged all volunteers to take the time to get to know those seeking shelter here. He said he wants the Airmen to get personal with people to get their minds off what is really going on outside.
"You don't know what kind of impact you're going to have on these people," Secrest said. "At least for that moment, you can take their minds off the situation that they're in."
The Florida National Guard is fully mobilized, with more than 8,000 Soldiers and Airmen activated and positioned around the state. These are already helping at more than 200 shelters statewide, and will continue to assist however needed and requested by the counties.
"It's our community," Secrest said. "We're neighbors; we're here for you."