Navy is changing the way it prepares for storms

CNN Wire Service

Even before Hurricane Irene started thrashing the U.S. East Coast, the Navy prepared for what it could do if the disaster was even more catastrophic than it proved to be.

As Irene strengthened and bore down on the United States, the Navy ordered 27 warships to sail out of its massive naval station in Norfolk, Va

. Another 11 ships, already at sea on various duties, were told to stay out.

“Our first mission was to sortie the fleet and keep the fleet safe,” said Capt. Brenda Holdener, commander of the USS Wasp, one of the ships that left Norfolk.

Like Air Force bases that fly their planes west, moving ships to sea has become standard operating procedure for the Navy when major hurricanes approach.

“Ships are safer at sea than than are in port during a hurricane or heavy weather,” said Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Reiswig, navigator of the Wasp.

But when the Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, headed out of Norfolk, steering clear of Irene was just its first objective.

The ship was also prepared to respond with a wide array of equipment and people to the hurricane zone if civilian officials asked for help.

“Over the years we’ve had so many hurricanes that devastate this country, you know we kinda get primed for being ready and responsive to it,” said Rear Adm. Kevin Scott, commander of Amphibious Task Force 26, a unit that was created to be more prepared for hurricane response than any other Navy unit.

“What you are seeing is lessons learned from what has happened over the past few years, and realizing that the response that’s required for a major catastrophe — you know like Hurricane Katrina and Rita — requires all the resources that the nation has to bear,” Scott said.

Those resources were focused on the Wasp, one of America’s largest amphibious ships. The ship has a full-sized flight deck, capable of launching heavy-lift or search and rescue helicopters, and a dock inside its stern, capable of carrying and launching two huge landing craft. Those boats can move from inside the hull of the Wasp to just about any beach and unload some 160 tons of equipment, supplies or personnel.

And not all the help has to go to shore. The Wasp, which normally carries Marines into combat, has a huge hospital deck.

“We have three operating rooms. We can expand to four. We have 15 ICU beds that you can see here, each one with it’s own equipment, which is exactly what you would find in a normal ICU,” said Lt. Cmdr. Juan Dapena, a doctor who is the senior medical officer on the Wasp.

Dapena’s regular medical staff was augmented by a surgical team that was prepared to go ashore to help with any medical emergencies.

The ship also brought a group of Seabees, Navy engineers who are trained in disaster response. They brought along chainsaws, water pumps — even a bulldozer.

But putting this vast capacity of disaster aid to use depends on a twist of federal law.

States can and did mobilize thousands of National Guard troops to help victims of Irene.

But the Navy sailors involved in Amphibious Task Force 26 are active-duty military, and they can’t just find a crisis and start helping.

Under a system called Defense Support of Civilian Authorities, local officials who want help have to ask the federal government for it. The president would then issue an order to the military, which would trickle down the chain of command before the Wasp and other ships in the task force could go to work.

This time, as bad as Irene was, state and local officials, as well as non-military federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were able to respond without calling in the Navy.

But Scott thinks even though his task force focused on practice training, that what he saw while at sea for the past week is evidence the Navy is better prepared than ever.

“Over the years we’ve just gotten better and better at it and poised to respond,” Scott said.

But to prove that the Navy has gotten better, that would likely require a disaster like Irene … only worse.