Thousands of mobilized reservists began search-and-rescue operations in Florida on Friday as Hurricane Matthew moved up the Atlantic coastline, defense officials said.
With more than 6,000 troops standing by as the storm headed toward Jacksonville, Florida, defense officials said it is the largest domestic military operation since Hurricane Sandy four years ago.
Meanwhile, about 250 active-duty service members were on the ground in Haiti on Friday preparing to begin humanitarian support operations for the island nation that was devastated by the storm as it passed through the Caribbean Sea earlier this week, defense officials said.
In Florida, about 3,500 National Guardsman were on duty, many of them deployed in search-and-rescue teams with helicopters and high-wheeled vehicles to support residents who were stranded by the storm.
"They will move south to north," Air Force Maj. Gen. J.C. Witham, the Pentagon's director of domestic operations, told reporters Friday morning.
"The guardsman will come in with search-and-rescue capability as the storm progresses throughout the day," Witham said.
The rescue operations began after several days of guardsman moving across Florida to preposition reserve units, vehicles and emergency supplies, Witham said.
Beyond Florida, which is sustaining significant wind damage, the primary concern in Georgia and the Carolinas is rain and flooding.
"We’re actually preparing ... to support our governors mostly for a flooding event as you move further north rather than a wind event," he said.
In South Carolina, about 2,500 guardsman were preparing for the storm as well as about 360 in Georgia. The governors of those states could increases the number of troops depending on the path of the storm and demand for support.
Several hundred reservists from North Carolina were standing by; if the storm’s impact does not require a major response in North Carolina, those troops can be deployed to the other southern states.
"North Carolina guardsman could be use in south Carolina or other adversely impacted states," Witham said.
For now, the U.S-based response is a reserve component mission; no active-component military forces have been involved, Witham said.
Outside the United States, a U.S. Marine Corps unit was diverted from a mission in Honduras and deployed to Haiti along with nine helicopters to support relief operations, said Navy Rear Adm. Cedric Pringle, the commander of Joint Task Force Matthew, which is overseeing operations in Haiti.
The storm sent more than 300,000 Haitians into temporary shelters across the country and cut off large pockets of southeastern Haiti from the rest of the country, official said.
U.S. military aircraft conducted surveillance flights on Friday to assess the scope of the mission in Haiti and search and rescue operations were expected to begin late Friday, Pringle said.
The Navy on Friday dispatched the amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde from its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, down to the Caribbean to support operations in Haiti, a defense official said.
A total of 350 U.S. troops are expected to be on the ground in Haiti by Saturday, Pringle said.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.