As Hurricane Irma bears down on the Caribbean Sea, U.S. Navy officials are preparing for its impact and the aftermath, ordering the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, the dock landing ship Oak Hill and the embarked Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit to standby for possible tasking once the storm passes.

The two ships and nearly 700 Marines of the 26th MEU have been underway since Aug. 31, when they departed Norfolk and headed south. At the time they left, the official said, they had no tasking other than that from Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of Fleet Forces Command, to get underway and be ready to help.

“We got the Kearsarge and Oak Hill under way so they could be in the best possible position should they be needed for Harvey relief,” said a Navy official familiar with the planning. “At the time, we were anticipating tasking, but none came from Northern Command — and then along came Irma and Jose’s coming right behind — so we anticipate this could be a busy couple weeks.”

A spokeswoman for the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit confirmed that the MEU was now also standing by in case it is needed to respond to Hurricane Irma instead of Hurricane Harvey. About 690 members of the MEU are aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, which is in the Atlantic Ocean.

“As of right now, we still have no task,” said Marine Capt. Natalie Poggemeyer. “However, we are still postured and prepared for response to whatever relief effort we may be requested for. At this point, we’re keeping our eye on Irma.”

The Marines have eight MV-22B Ospreys, three CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters and three UH-1Y Venom light helicopters aboard the Kearsarge. The Marines can purify water, deliver relief supplies, conduct aerial reconnaissance and provide engineering capabilities if called upon.

Despite the fact that the Marines may go ashore in Florida or elsewhere instead of Texas, their mission would remain the same, Poggemeyer said.

“This is one of the many mission sets that the MEU does,” Poggemeyer said. “This is what we do and we are prepared for this. This is what we train for. Regardless of where a storm like this takes place, our mission is just to be as ready as possible to respond and help those affected if we are requested.”

Since the ships were already south of Florida awaiting tasking, the official said that their orders now are to head further south to be out of the Irma’s anticipated path, but to be ready to respond in the Caribbean or the United States once the storm has passed.

But the official stressed that there’s no official tasking for any missions, yet. Any tasking for missions in the United States would come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency through U.S. Northern Command.

If they’re tasked for relief missions outside the United States, that tasking would come from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department.

Staff writer Jeff Schogol 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.

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