Cannon AFB assists Hurricane Irma disaster relief

Destroyed boats

Boats damaged by hurricane Irma can be seen from a MC-130J Commando II from Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Airmen and aircraft from Cannon were tasked with heading to three locations in the Puerto Rico region to help evacuate cizilians: St. Martin, the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla. As of September 13, 309 American citizens have been evacuated. (Courtesy photo)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- In response to the devastation throughout the eastern Caribbean caused by hurricane Irma, Cannon Air Force Base deployed Airmen and aircraft in support of relief operations.

The base deployed three MC-130J Commando II aircraft and roughly 100 personnel consisting of aircrew, maintenance, medical, security forces Deployed Aircraft Ground Response Element airmen and special tactics personnel from Hurlburt Field, Florida, to support operations in the region, to include: St. Martin, the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla.

“What we’ve been doing is using our specialized air mobility with our MC-130s and our special tactics personnel to evacuate American citizens from all three of those locations,” said Col. Michael Jackson, 27th Special Operations Group commander and Joint Special Operations Air Component-South commander. “We’re also providing austere air traffic control, to conduct assessments of airfields and helicopter landing zones, and assessments of where aid can be distributed.”

When Hurricane Irma hit the region Sept.5, the process for mobilizing Cannon’s capabilities to help began almost immediately.

“We received the initial indication that this may be a mission for us I believe on Sept 7,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Bartlett, 9th Special Operation Squadron commander. “The final tasking for us to deploy and support occurred on Sept. 10.”

After receiving their tasking to assist in the relief effort, the Airmen and aircraft were able to depart Cannon, make a stop at Hurlburt Field, Florida, to pick up more assets and arrive at their mission location within 24 hours.

Even though Cannon is a special operations base versus an airlift wing, the Airmen of Cannon have specialized training and are prepared to assist in these types of disaster relief missions according to Bartlett.

“We’re ready for whatever our government asks us to do,” he said. “What we’re doing here is air-land missions to sometimes challenging airfields so this is something that our crews are certainly trained to do in order to support this effort.”

When they arrived, they were able to see for themselves the damage that had occurred. According to Jackson there’s a lot of structural, roadway, power line and infrastructure damage. Distribution systems for water are also largely affected and the majority of the population is without electricity.

While the military is supporting local first responders… The magnitude of the damage is staggering, but Jackson praised the work done.

“All the Air Force Special Operations Command assets have been doing a fantastic job,” Jackson said. “We are largely, through our actions, pacing and shaping the U.S. military relief effort in those three affected areas. We’re working day and night in challenging conditions but there’s a lot of compassion with the people that are in need.”

According to Jackson, there is no set end date to the mission, and he said that they’ll remain there as long as it takes to ensure the relief effort is successful.

“There are Americans down there and our allies and humanity in general that we’re trying to help and so we have a lot of compassion for that,” Jackson said. “The Air Force brings unique capabilities to bear in disaster responses, and we offer them to the federal effort that’s ongoing. We’re bringing these capabilities that nobody else has and doing what nobody else can do at least at the pace and rate at which we’re doing them.”

As of Sept.13, Cannon and Hurlburt Field personnel are credited with 36 sorties and four airfield assessments, resulting in the safe evacuation of 309 American citizens from the most affected areas.