Breezy Point, Queens. This is the little town America saw burning the night Hurricane Sandy came ashore. With the roads blocked from the storm surge; a ferocious fire fed by broken gas mains and 70-mph winds burned 111 houses to the ground and badly damaged 20 others.
Not a single building remained unscathed. Many of the men were police and firefighters, and as they were assisting others, first the storm surge rolled in and battered their defenseless families and then the wind-whipped fire ravaged this tight-knit community.
Breezy Point is now the main effort for the Marine-Navy team of the 26th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit), with some 240 Marines and sailors arriving for an ‘access clearance’ mission. Led by Maj Craig Clarkson of the 8th Combat Engineering Support Bn, their goal is to clear the debris from the streets and between the homes, so the power crews can come in and begin to survey the extent of the damage to the gas mains and electrical grid.
Because the emphasis was on speed to reach disaster-stricken New York soonest, the MEU is not at full strength. The three ships had departed Norfolk for sea on 22-October, ahead of the storm, with the Marines in the midst of pre-deployment work-ups at Camp Lejeune when the storm hit Monday night 26-October. When they were tasked to move north, the Marines were called from in the field and their homes. They were moved by CH-53 helicopter and Osprey from Camp Lejeune to the Wasp, so she could sail north soonest. The result was only 357 Marines were brought on-board. The emphasis, according to Capt Eric Flanagan was to bring Marines with logistics and aviation expertise. The emphasis on moving north was so great that the Wasp needed a RAS (resupply at sea) that first weekend to bring the provisions and equipment not already on board on the 22nd.
The Wasp arrived off the New Jersey coast first, Thursday 0800, with the USS Carter Hall (LSD 50) and USS San Antonio (LPD 17) arriving the afternoon of Saturday 3 November. Today, the Wasp is approximately 5 ½ miles off the New York-Long Island coast, the Carter Hall is in the same region, while the San Antonio is 2 ½ miles off New Jersey’s Sandy Hook. They’ve been joined by the Coast Guard Cutter Spencer (WMEC 905) and USNS Kanawha (T-A 196). The Spencer provides communications and logistics support, while the Kanawha provides equipment and personnel.
New York City is taking the lead in the recovery and rebuilding mission; they’re telling Northern Command (Northcom) what is the day’s priority, and then Northcom sends mission assignments to the MEU, National Guard, or whomever is best-equipped to handle the particular mission. They may or may not send the Marines a mission assignment in the morning, to which the Marines and sailors immediately respond.
Despite their experience in conducting HA-DR missions (humanitarian assistance-disaster relief), the 26th MEU is not in control of their daily assignments. Lacking the rolling stock of Humvees, 7-ton trucks, the Marines are personnel-heavy and equipment light, which affects their on-shore missions. However, HA-DR gear also consists of engineering kits, generators, tents, and construction tools, and very little of this equipment was utilized. Precious time was wasted as the Marines flew in-out of Staten Island and Queens daily, instead of pitching a few of the big tents and staying ashore to assist 24/7.
Similar to last week’s mission to Midland Beach, Staten Island, Clarkson’s Marine-Navy team was moving massive quantities of debris manually. Although the weather is warm today, yesterday’s snow only served to increase the resulting misery as the piles of household goods sank deeper into the already-sodden ground. Despite the change in weather, the Marines will not stay on the ground, Flanagan said, but would return to the Wasp in the late afternoon, “we’re ready to do whatever is asked of us,” he said, “we’re here to help.”
Note: The FEMA-NY National Guard team decided the MEU’s services were no longer needed, and the 26th MEU returned to Norfolk and Camp Lejeune two days ago.
This piece originally appeared on the Truman National Security Project's Truman Doctrine blog.