By Andrew Lubin
Breezy Point, Queens, 9 Nov. 2012: This is the little town America saw burning last Monday night, 5 Nov. With the roads blocked by winds and the storm surge, some 111 homes were burned to the ground in the midst of Hurricane Sandy, with 20 more heavily damaged.
Not a single building was left undamaged. First the storm surge rolled in and battered the community and then the wind-whipped fire ravaged blocks and blocks of homes.
Today Breezy Point is the main effort for the Marine-Navy team of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), with some 240 Marines and sailors arriving for an “access clearance” mission. Led by Major Craig Clarkson of the 8th Combat Engineer Support Battalion, 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 reaching disaster-stricken New York City soonest, the MEU is not at full strength. The three ships of Amphibious Squadron Six had departed Norfolk for sea on 22 October, ahead of the storm, while the 26th MEU was in the middle of a predeployment workup in North Carolina when the storm hit Monday night, Oct 22. When tasked to move north, the Marines were called from the field and their homes and moved by helicopter and Osprey from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., to USS Wasp (LHD-1) so she could sail north soonest, resulting in only 357 Marines being on board. The emphasis, according to Marine Captain Eric Flanagan was to find Marines with logistics and aviation skills. The urgent deployment north was so rapid that Wasp needed a resupply at sea that weekend to bring the provisions and equipment not on board when she sailed from Norfolk.
Wasp first arrived off the New Jersey coast on Thursday, 25 Oct. at 0800, with USS Carter Hall (LSD-50) and USS San Antonio (LPD-17) arriving Saturday afternoon, 3 Nov. As of 9 Nov., Wasp is approximately 5 ½ miles off the New York-Long Island coast. Carter Hall is in the same region, while 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-A0-196). Spencer is providing communications and logistics support, while Kanawha is providing equipment and personnel.
Despite experience in conducting humanitarian and disaster relief (HA-DR) missions, the 26th MEU is not in control of its daily assignments. Lacking the rolling stock of humvees, 7-ton trucks, and much of the usual HA-DR gear of engineering kits, generators, tents and construction tools, the Marines are personnel heavy and equipment light, which affects their onshore missions.
New York City is taking the lead in the recovery and rebuilding mission. City officials are telling U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) what is the day’s priority and then NORTHCOM sends mission assignments to the MEU, National Guard, or the unit best equipped to handle the particular mission.
Similar to Monday’s Marine mission to Midland Beach, Staten Island, Clarkson’s Marine-Navy team was moving massive quantities of debris manually. Although the weather is warm today, the snow on 8 Nov. served to increase the 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, but would return to Wasp in later afternoon. “We’re ready to do whatever is asked of us,” he said. “We’re here to help.”