COLUMBIA, S.C. – As the now-Category 4 Hurricane Irma bears down on Florida with an expected weekend landfall, the South Carolina National Guard is escalating efforts to respond to the effects from Irma, as projection models indicate South Carolina is in the path of the storm when it makes landfall in the upcoming days.
Approximately 800 South Carolina National Guard troops were mobilized Thursday, after South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency the day prior. Hurricane Irma has been called the strongest hurricane in the history of Atlantic storms as a Category 5 hurricane and has already claimed lives in the Caribbean.
More than 100 Guard troops from New Jersey were ordered to Florida for Irma duty. As of Friday morning about 3,800 Guard personnel were working in Florida but that number is expected to swell by day's end, when Gov. Rick Scott said all 7,000 state Guard members would be available.
And the devastated Caribbean has not been forgotten. About 120 National Guard troops were assisting in Puerto Rico, and on Thursday, about 20 Kentucky National Guard deployed to the Virgin Islands with two UH-60 Black Hawks equipped for medical evacuations. Airmen from the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron also deployed as part of Kentucky's response to provide search and rescue.
More than 280 Virgin Islands National Guard members were on duty helping their fellow citizens.
"Our main job is to focus on humanitarian efforts and provide medical evacuation and triage as well as patient transfer from hurricane-affected areas in the Caribbean, especially the Virgin Islands," said 1st Lt. John Kerr, a Black Hawk Pilot with the 2/238th. "The mission will be to go where others cannot to rescue and aid any civilian personnel we can."
The New York Air National Guard also sent about 120 Airmen from the 106th Rescue Wing to the U.S. Virgin Islands to assist in the Irma response.
As Texas continued recovering from Hurricane Harvey, more than 17,500 Guard personnel were still involved, according to the National Guard Bureau.
But most of the attention now is focused on the East Coast, where Irma's path is uncertain. "Just as our Soldiers and Airmen stayed strong and answered the call during the floods of 2015, Hurricane Matthew last year and the many other recent events when our state needed support, so now is the time we must be ready for Hurricane Irma," said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston, Jr. the adjutant general for South Carolina.
Evacuations were ongoing with the highest volume expected to begin over the weekend as highway lane reversals away from the coastline would begin based on the path of the storm. McMaster said he will determine the timeframe for official evacuations for the different coastal regions before the weekend, but wants individuals with medical needs to evacuate now.
"Team South Carolina is ready," said McMaster. "Now is the time for our citizens to be ready."
Livingston mentioned that because the South Carolina National Guard recently deployed two helicopter battalions to Afghanistan, they are coordinating with other states to bring in additional aviation assets as they are needed to support, including swift water rescue.
The California National Guard was busy assisting Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and now the 129th Rescue Wing, based in Silicon Valley, will be heading to Florida in anticipation of Hurricane Irma, which is sweeping through the Caribbean heading toward Florida.
The wing plans to deploy about 100 of its members this week, including pararescuemen, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. They plan to operate two HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters and three MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft out of the Hurlburt Field in the Florida panhandle, the news report said.
The 129th was credited with 113 saves while operating in Texas.
Contributing: Steve Marshall of the National Guard Bureau