By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Florida National Guard Public Affairs
KEY WEST, Fla. (09/08/2008) - The skies were clear and the weather balmy, but the normally bustling streets of Florida’s southernmost city were practically empty.
This popular tourist destination was quiet and devoid of visitors Monday afternoon, evidence that most had heeded mandatory evacuations for visitors in the lower Keys.
As Hurricane Ike churned across Cuba more than a hundred miles to the south, only a few people ignored the warnings, staying to enjoy fishing and the beach.
A Florida National Guard special forces team were patrolling Key West, assisting city workers in identifying potential areas where water and wind damage could occur from the powerful storm -- a common concern for local emergency officials since residents and visitors here routinely ignore mandatory evacuation orders.
During the day and evening the four-person team – members of the 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group – visited mobile home parks, marinas and emergency shelters as part of their reconnaissance patrols. At certain locations they catalogued grid coordinates to areas of concern where disaster response teams might need to visit later.
A Special Forces team sergeant, who is not identified due to security concerns about his normal federal mission, said they were working closely with the local law enforcement and city emergency management officials throughout the mission.
“They are very supportive and appreciative that we’re down here,” he said of the Key West city officials. “They’ve given us everything we need to do our mission, including topographical maps.”
If Hurricane Ike came near Key West, the team – along with another Special Forces team in nearby Key Largo – was prepared to conduct immediate post-storm damage assessments.
“Once the storm blows over, we’ll be the first ones out to help with reconnaissance in different areas,” he said.
The team sergeant noted his Soldiers had performed similar post-storm damage assessments after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, including search-and-rescue missions in the flooded streets.
Key West City Manager Jim Scholl stated that he and his staff welcomed the assistance from the National Guard Special Forces team.
“The Florida National Guard has always been tremendously responsive to this community,” Scholl said on Monday afternoon. “Whether in assisting our efforts in disaster preparedness or response, the National Guard has always been there when we’ve needed them the most.”