With Hurricane Irma approaching, Navy officials have decided against evacuating the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but are ordering an evacuation of non-essential personnel at Naval Air Station Key West, Navy officials said Monday.
Irma, now classified as a Category 5 storm, is expected to pass just to the north of Guantanamo.
“We’re just watching it like everybody else. The plan is to shelter in place,” said Bill Dougherty, spokesman for Navy Region Southeast. “We’re watching it to see if it speeds up or slows down — current track puts the storm north of the island.”
The base is located on the southeastern side of Cuba and is home to roughly 5,000 military members and their dependents. Last year, Hurricane Matthew forced nearly 700 family members to evacuate when the storm came very close to the base.
The current track of Irma, however, does put Naval Air Station Key West firmly in its path, and the center of the storm could pass over or near the base on Saturday evening.
Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, commander Navy Region Southeast, ordered an evacuation of all active duty military personnel, civilians and their dependents from Naval Air Station Key West starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday, said base spokesperson Trice Denny.
The base is home to VFC 111, a squadron of F-5 fighter jets whose active duty and reserve pilots perform the role of adversary in the Navy’s air exercises.
“The admiral has ordered evacuations as far up the coast as Atlanta, Georgia,” Denny said, noting that the base personnel normally are authorized to evacuate up as far as Orlando, but given Hurricane Irma’s size, Bolivar expanded the area that base personnel could travel to for safety.
Of the base’s 17 jets, 15 will evacuate, Denny said. One is in maintenance on base and cannot fly; the other is undergoing repair work off base. In addition, one of NAS Key West’s two MH-60 search-and-rescue helicopters is expected to depart the base by tomorrow, Denny said. The other MH-60s was not able to fly. Those aircraft remaining behind will be sheltered in hangars, Denny said.
“This is the real deal,” Dougherty said. “We want everyone to get an early start as it’s going to be tough on the roads heading out of South Florida as this gets closer.”
Dougherty said that personnel are being told to find “safe haven” anywhere within 300 miles of Atlanta.
Pentagon Bureau Chief Tara Copp contributed to this report,
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.