The U.S. Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort is now under way from her home port of Norfolk, Virginia to Puerto Rico to assist with the Hurricane Maria relief effort. She was called up on Tuesday, six days after the storm made landfall on the island, and the Navy says that she is capable of arriving by October 3. As of Friday afternoon, her AIS showed her off Virginia Beach, making 11 knots and bound for sea. She will soon be joined by the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp and the MARAD training ships Empire State VI (from SUNY Maritime) and Kennedy (from Massachusetts Maritime).
The Navy has not announced Comfort's exact destination. Most of the island's main seaports are open to marine traffic, but her unit commander emphasized that Comfort’s crew will exercise caution when navigating near port. "As you can imagine with the level of destruction [from Hurricane Maria], we're very cautious about how we bring a large ship in. Surveys are ongoing and we're working with our Coast Guard counterparts . . . to get that assessment," said Captain Kevin Robinson, commander of Military Sealift Command Atlantic and Task Force 83. "The medical capability that this ship can deliver can be done under way, it can be done in port and it can be done at anchor. Between the helicopter capability that we have, the boats that we have, all of those things together give us the ability to be flexible in our mission."
The Comfort’s 12 operating rooms, 1,000 hospital beds and 800 medical personnel will make her an important asset to the relief effort. With Puerto Rico's electrical grid knocked out, the island's hospitals are relying on generator power, and many have been forced to shut down for hours or days at a time due to a lack of fuel. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been prioritizing fuel distribution to medical centers in order to keep as many open as possible, but damaged roads and truck shortage have combined to make the logistics effort challenging.
Marines clearing a road near Ceiba, Sept. 25 (DoD)
Jones Act carrier prioritizes aid shipments
Florida-based shipping firm Crowley Maritime has played a major role in the government logistics effort: the firm says that nearly all FEMA relief cargo that has arrived to date at its terminal in San Juan has been transported to FEMA receiving locations on the island by the company’s logistics group – the result of ongoing coordination between Crowley, FEMA and other government agencies.
Crowley’s liner and logistics groups have helped to coordinate the throughput of relief cargo at the terminal, prioritizing and trucking government loads on the island. While there are thousands of loads of commercial cargo on the terminal awaiting distribution, the FEMA loads are moving and thousands more are on the way. “This is a team effort,” said Crowley’s Jose “Pache” Ayala, Crowley's vice president for Puerto Rico services. “We are working with our commercial customers to understand their shipping needs and help them scale back, while maintaining our focus on expediting FEMA cargo through the supply chain.”
As of Thursday, Crowley has facilitated the distribution of 1.3 million meals and 730,000 gallons of water to Puerto Rican residents. FEMA has provided food and water to over 60 municipalities with the logistics and transportation assistance of Crowley.
Image courtesy Crowley
Royal Caribbean answers the call
The Royal Caribbean cruise ship Adventure of the Seas has completed a relief mission in Puerto Rico and is headed back to the U.S. mainland, carrying thousands of island residents with her. On Thursday, the Adventure delivered much-needed supplies to San Juan, including bottled water and electrical generators, and she took 1,700 evacuees on board. Today she will pick up more hurricane victims in the U.S. Virgin Islands before returning to Florida. Royal Caribbean worked with the local government in San Juan to register the Puerto Rican passengers, and it will not charge them for the trip – even though it canceled a scheduled September 30 voyage in order to make the vessel available.
Evacuees awaiting boarding in San Juan (Royal Caribbean)