Guantánamo Navy base begins evacuating 700 parents and kids, plus pets,
ahead of Hurricane Matthew
BY CAROL ROSENBERG
U.S. military cargo planes began evacuating about 700 family members of
troops and other staff by military cargo plane from Guantánamo Bay to
"safe haven" in Pensacola, Florida, on Sunday ahead of Hurricane Matthew.
"We have to prepare for the worst-case scenario" — a Category 3 or 4
hurricane making a direct hit on the remote base, Navy Capt. David
Culpepper, the base commander, told residents over Radio Gitmo Saturday.
"Things are kind of in motion here at this point. We are trying to
execute the most prudent plan given what we know."
Sunday morning, Army Lt. Chris Smith said from Guantánamo headquarters
at 9:40 a.m. that a C-17 cargo plane had already airlifted the first
group of people from the base of around 6,000 residents. Five more
flights were expected throughout the day Sunday, Culpepper told the
base, adding that some family pets could join the exodus, provided their
owners had health certificates from the base veterinarian.
Around 700 people were being flown to Pensacola, where temporary housing
awaited families of sailors. But "no way we're getting 450 pets" onto
the evacuation aircraft, the skipper said. "There just isn't the space."
Other pets, including working dogs, would be sheltered in an empty
The Guantánamo base spokeswoman, Julie Ripley, announced the "mandatory
evacuation" of "all non-essential personnel" in a statement earlier
Saturday, meaning the military was picking up the cost of flights and
lodging of the family members in Pensacola, as well as providing an
allowance for food. "This includes dependents, school-aged children,
special needs families, and their pets."
In addition, she said, Coast Guard personnel were being evacuated to
Miami, and the Navy's small C-12 aircraft were being flown from the base
to shelter in Jacksonville.
The base that may be best known for its war-on-terror prison — now
holding 61 detainees, staffed by about 2,000 temporary troops and
contractors — also has sailors, families and contractors living there as
more permanent residents. About 6,000 people live there in different
circumstances, including about 250 school-age children with their Navy
families and 2,000 Jamaican and Filipino contract laborers.
At the detention center, spokesman Navy Capt. John Filostrat said
without providing details that preparations were under way for the
storm. He did not reply to a question on what category of hurricane the
buildings currently housing the detainees and command staff could withstand.
Former CIA prisoners, six of them awaiting death penalty trials as
alleged al-Qaida plotters of the Sept. 11 and USS Cole terror attacks,
are held in a clandestine prison building called Camp 7, whose
structural integrity has been questioned. The current commander, Navy
Rear Adm. Peter Clarke called it "structurally safe" in May, nearly two
years after a former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, now retired
Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, told Congress it had become "increasingly
unsustainable due to drainage and foundation issues."
Current hurricane tracks show Matthew hitting the base on Tuesday.
Sunday's evacuations are intended to take pressure off base hurricane
shelters as well as supplies, Culpepper said in a live broadcast from
the studios of Radio Gitmo.
"It reduces our food requirements, it reduces our water requirements,"
Culpepper said. "In fact, if we do get hit directly by a storm and we
have significant damage, which takes several days to repair, that puts
us in a little better position to take care of everybody."
He advised those being airlifted to bring no more than a 40-pound
suitcase, calling Sunday "really our last opportunity to do an evacuation."
The airlift is the first known evacuation of so-called "non-essential"
residents from the base since September 1994, when the military
airlifted 2,200 family members and civilians from the base. At the time,
the outpost was overwhelmed by about 45,000 Haitian and Cuban migrants
who were intercepted at sea while trying to reach the United States,
stretching resources at the outpost that makes its own electricity and
desalinates its own water — like a ship at sea.
"Family members were authorized to return in October 1995, marking an
end to family separations," according to a Navy account of the Operation
Sea Signal evacuation. An earlier evacuation also took families from the
base to Norfolk, by military supply ships, in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The base last took a significant hit during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when
the storm tore up the war court compound called Camp Justice, ripped
boats from their berths and washed away the docks used by the ferries
that connect Leeward and Windward sides of the base across Guantánamo Bay.
It also caused a blackout on the fence line separating the base from
Cuban-controlled territory, and rough seas churned up a suspicious
500-pound object that turned out to be a harmless training bomb.
It was not immediately known how much, if any, assistance people at the
45-square-mile U.S. Navy base could provide Cubans in nearby
communities. The base is separated from the rest of the country by a
Cuban minefield and a U.S. fence line patrolled by a U.S. Marine Corps
Security Force unit.
The base spokeswoman said in a statement Saturday evening that the U.S.
military had contact with the Cuban Frontier Brigade on the other side
of the minefield to confirm "our agreement to provide mutual support
outside the fenceline as we are able, and as requested following storm
Meantime, in Jacksonville, the base's Navy headquarters said in a
statement that Naval Air Station Pensacola "has quarters to house the
families" from Guantánamo Bay and counselors "to provide assistance." At
Guantánamo, it said "the remaining military and civilian personnel will
shelter in place and be able to support recovery efforts once safe to do
so following the storm's passage."
The base commander said the soonest the families could return to the
base would be Friday. "If it really pounds us and we have significant
structural damage to buildings, it could be longer," Culpepper said.
"I'll wait until I have power restored to the installation before I ask
everybody to come back."
Source: Navy base Guantánamo to evacuate families ahead of Hurricane
Matthew | In Cuba Today -