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More than 320 sailors and Marines put new gear and strategies to the test Wednesday in a bid to prepare for and reduce response times to natural disasters.

“We’re making a lot of mistakes out here,” said Rear Adm. Frank Morneau, commander of Navy Expeditionary Combat Command. “That’s good. It’s fine that we learned [those lessons] out here.”

The Improved Navy Lighterage System quickly transferred gear from mud flats to the dock landing ship Whidbey Island, which was fully equipped for relief operations within one day.

But the system provided many challenges, as well.

“The INLS is not a typical tool for a load-out,” said Operations Specialist 1st Class Michael Diamond, a mobility officer with Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2. “On paper it may look good, but until you physically get up there with the equipment, you won’t know.”

Some vehicles towing trailers proved troublesome as the tongue grounded when the vehicle cleared the ramp. The blue-green team also walked carefully through the initial stern-gate marriage to Whidbey Island. That is not an issue for the traditional landing craft utility and landing craft air cushion, but those craft have far less capacity than the INLS, which is essentially a floating pier.

Even gear common to Defense Support of Civil Authorities missions added some new twists. For example, loadmasters had to carefully consider weights and cubes when loading Humvees, which are heavier and have different configurations than in recent years.

Once loaded, about 50 people in Whidbey Island’s well deck identified ways to stow gear so that relief teams have immediate access to the most critical items. Supplies for the crew must also fit in there somewhere. Morneau considers this the biggest challenge to a relief operation.

“We’re prepared to operate on our own for about 30 days,” he said. While resupply could come earlier, depending on circumstances, “we need to make sure that we do not become part of the logistics problem early on.”

In a likely scenario that emerged from the load exercise, a ship would be loaded days before a hurricane made landfall, with gear pre-staged at Camp Allen, said Col. Gary Keim, commanding officer, Headquarters Regiment, 2nd Marine Logistics Group. Marines would embark and the ship would use the ocean as maneuver space until the storm passed, which would allow the relief team to come in behind the storm. If the event was not something foreseeable — such as an earthquake, tsunami or man-made event — the amount of time needed to recall troops and transit to the ship would simply be factored into the response time equation.

Though Hurricane Cristobal was well off the Virginia coast as Marines and sailors conducted the exercise, they did so with the expectation that they will eventually be called on to provide relief. The crew of Whidbey Island took it in stride, despite an already high tempo, as they work through the basic phase of work-ups.

“We are in the Navy, so we like challenges,” said Cmdr. Chris Wells, the ship’s skipper. “Every time we’ve been challenged, I’ve seen my crew step up to a new level. We absolutely welcome any kind of challenges that get placed upon us, particularly the DSCA mission, to be able to go in and help our fellow countrymen.”

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