State sending more help to hurricane relief efforts; guardsmen, emergency personnel on front lines

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By Tom Latek
Kentucky Today

Kentucky is sending more help to Florida to aid in Hurricane Irma relief efforts.

Another 35 soldiers from the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade also departed for Jacksonville, Florida, Monday morning to assist in relief efforts from Hurricane Irma. 
They were expected to arrive in Jacksonville Tuesday, joining 20 others from the unit who arrived in Florida on Sunday to prepare for arrival of the unit.
 
The brigade is staffed to provide command and control of two incoming aviation battalions from other states outfitted with more than 30 military helicopters.
 

Twelve members of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Airlift Wing and two of the unit’s C-130 aircraft helped evacuate more than 1,000 U.S. citizens from the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten (U.S. Air National Guard photo)

“The helicopters from our subordinate battalions should be in the area in the next 24 hours to begin helping out,” said Col. Dewayne Lewis, commander of the 63rd.  “Right now, we have our operations office set up to manage the aviation support throughout the state of Florida.”
 
This is the second Hurricane Irma response deployment for the 63rd in the last week.

Approximately 20 soldiers and two UH-60 Blackhawks mobilized to the U.S. Virgin Islands last Thursday to assist with search and rescue efforts. This brings the number of deployed Kentucky Guardsmen to nearly 100 soldiers and Airmen in hurricane response operations.
 
Other elements of the Kentucky National Guard remain on standby should further requests for assistance be received.
 
Twelve members of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Airlift Wing and two of the unit’s C-130 aircraft helped evacuate more than 1,000 U.S. citizens from the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten Sept. 9-10, flying them to safety in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
 
The Kentucky Airmen, who personally evacuated more than 400 people, were part of a team that included aircraft and Airmen from the New York Air Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing and the Puerto Rico Air Guard’s 156th Airlift Wing, said. Maj. Aaron Zamora, operations officer for Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Special +Tactics Squadron. Together, the three units evacuated 1,028 U.S. citizens in 11 flights.
 
The rescue mission was facilitated by 12 special operators from the Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, who provided air traffic control for evacuation flights at Phillipsburg Airport in St. Maarten. Those special operators returned to Louisville on Monday, pending further assignments.
 
With the evacuation of U.S. citizens from St. Maarten largely complete, the 12 Airmen and two C-130s that comprised Kentucky’s piece of the airlift mission are now awaiting further taskings in Puerto Rico.
 
For Master Sgt. Chris Hodge, a loadmaster in the Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Airlift Wing, the evacuation was one of the most rewarding missions of his career.
 
“It was an incredible experience,” Hodge said. “I’ve been with the unit since December 2008, and we always train, and train and train, performing homeland missions that serve an essential purpose. But obviously, a mission like this serves a much greater purpose. When you’re talking about rescuing people and saving lives, that takes things to a whole different level.”
 
Many of the evacuees, who ranged in age from toddlers to the elderly, personally thanked Hodge and his colleagues for their service, expressing deep gratitude for airlifting them off an island that has been largely devastated by the category-5 storm.
 
“A lot of them were in tears because they’ve lost everything,” Hodge said. “All they left that island with was their passport, their ID and the clothes on their back. But they were also thankful to be alive, to have survived it, and to be going to a safe place.”
 
Dozens of evacuees have posted to the wing’s Facebook page to express their appreciation, many of whom Hodge recognizes “from having been on our aircraft.”
 
“So grateful to you all for evacuating my daughter and me from the devastation in St. Maarten,” one Facebook user wrote. “Thank you all from the bottom of my heart!”
 
“Y’all rescued my (American University of the Caribbean) family from St. Maarten and I am eternally grateful!” another wrote. “Real heroes don’t wear capes, they wear dog tags! Y’all are my heroes!”
 
“You took 50 children and moms from (American University of the Caribbean) out, including myself and my two children,” a third person wrote. “When I saw Kentucky on your uniforms, I knew we were in good hands!! Strong, gentle, kind gestures for everyone on (board) was remarkable!!”
 
Hodge said the outpouring of support has been truly humbling.


Kentucky Emergency Management also said an ambulance strike team left early Monday morning for a seven-day deployment.  

It consists of 30 members, six ambulances and a six-wheel ATV ambulance and is made up of members from Independence, Somerset, Boyd County, Lyon County, Livingston County., Shelby County., the Kentucky Fire Commission and the Kentucky Board of Emergency Medical Services.


“As first responders, our first and foremost goal is to save lives, said KBEMS Director Michael Poynter.  “We are very proud to bring together this strike team and assist with Hurricane Irma operations during Florida’s time of need.”
 
Kentucky Emergency Management received a request from Florida asking for assistance with ambulance services.  The requests are coordinated through a mutual aid agreement between states and territories in the United States, allowing the sharing of resources during natural and man-made disasters.  Under the agreements the requesting state reimburses all associated costs incurred by the provider state.  
 
“We continue to work diligently to deploy emergency services first responder teams to our sister states in need, following Hurricane Harvey and now Hurricane Irma,” said Michael E. Dossett, the director of Kentucky Emergency Management. “Thanks to our KBEMS partners for their deployment to Florida where the need is immediate for life safety medical response teams.”
 
The storm will still be affecting Florida, Georgia and Alabama for a few more days, which will impact all major corridors: I-10, I-75 and I-95.  Florida Emergency Management reminds residents to use caution and check road status before returning home. 

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