United States military helicopters began landing at Owen Roberts International Airport on Grand Cayman Tuesday afternoon as part of a disaster relief program in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
The U.S. Southern Command directed a team of 100 military personnel and nine helicopters at the airport to support disaster relief operations as Hurricane Matthew continued to bring torrential rains and 145 mph winds to Haiti.
U.S. Marine Colonel Tom Prentice, standing on the tarmac at the airport Tuesday afternoon, said his task force was “poised to respond as rapidly as possible.”
He said their mission is to “position ourselves into Haiti” as soon as the U.S. government receives a request for assistance.
Matthew moved slowly over Haiti Monday and Tuesday, bringing as much as 3 feet of rain to some areas of the country still reeling from the 2010 earthquake and a cholera epidemic. The massive Category 4 storm is expected to pass over Cuba and the Bahamas in the coming days before heading toward the southeast United States.
Hurricane warnings were in effect Wednesday for eastern Cuba and most of the Bahamas. Much of central Florida’s east coast is under a hurricane watch.
The U.S. military is staging heavy equipment in George Town, ready to support disaster relief operations in Haiti. Members from U.S. Joint Task Force Bravo, a mix of air and ground units, flew from Honduras to Grand Cayman on Tuesday to support U.S. Agency for International Development foreign disaster work in Haiti and other areas that need assistance in the wake of Matthew.
The large helicopters – Chinooks, Black Hawks and Super Stallions – landed Tuesday afternoon to begin staging to move supplies and equipment into Haiti.
On Tuesday afternoon and evening, members of the Marines and Army unloaded equipment and prepared their helicopters to be ready to move into Haiti as soon as the storm clears and the U.S. and Haitian governments give the go-ahead.
Kafara Augustine, with the Cayman Islands Airports Authority, said another six to eight civilian jets would bring additional supplies.
The U.S. military said the Marine Corps units deployed to Honduras in June are on call as a rapid response force through hurricane season.
Flooding, damaging winds hit Haiti
Matthew slammed into Haiti’s rural southwest Tuesday, causing flooding and mudslides across much of the country and the Dominican Republic. The Associated Press, as of press time, reported at least seven people have died over the past week from Hurricane Matthew.
The storm – at one point the most powerful hurricane in the region in nearly a decade – dumped heavy rain as it swirled on toward Cuba and the Bahamas.
The dangerous Category 4 storm blew ashore with powerful winds around dawn in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, hitting a corner of Haiti where many people live in shacks made of wood or concrete blocks.
The country’s Civil Protection Agency said many homes were damaged or destroyed, and people had to wade through flooded streets to rescue their belongings and find higher ground.
“It’s the worst hurricane that I’ve seen during my life,” said Fidele Nicolas, a civil protection official in Nippes, just east of where Matthew came ashore. “It destroyed schools, roads, other structures.”
A fisherman drowned in Haiti as Matthew closed in, and four deaths were recorded in the neighboring Dominican Republic, authorities said.
The storm left the peninsula that runs along the southern coast of Haiti cut off from the rest of the country. Many streets were flooded or blocked by landslides and fallen trees. Local radio reported that the water was shoulder high in parts of the city of Les Cayes.
“They are getting everything a major hurricane can throw at them,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.