The U.S. Navy has tasked five warships to respond to Hurricane Irma-ravaged areas as the storm neared Cuba on its expected path toward Florida, defense officials said Thursday.

The USS Wasp arrived Thursday in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where aircraft aboard the amphibious assault ship began assisting missions to evacuate critically injured patients from St. Thomas to St. Croix, according to a U.S. Northern Command statement. The Wasp has medium- and heavy-lift helicopters aboard to transport people and supplies.

Meanwhile, the USS Kearsarge, another amphibious assault ship, and the USS Oak Hill, an amphibious dock landing ship, were en route Thursday to that area to assist after Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, devastated several Caribbean islands including St. Thomas, Barbuda, St. Martin and Saint Barthelemy, commonly known as St. Barts.

Collectively, the three ships are carrying 15 Marine Corps and Navy helicopters and five tilt-rotor aircraft — three UH-1Y Venom utility helicopters, three CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters, nine MH-60 Seahawk medium-lift helicopters and five MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

“These ships are capable of providing medical support, maritime civil affairs, maritime security, expeditionary logistic support, medium- and heavy-lift air support and bring a diverse capability including assessment, security, route clearance and water purification,” the Northern Command statement read.

The Air Force sent a C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft to St. Thomas to help relocate hospital patients, the statement added.

Two more Navy amphibious warships are expected to join the other three soon in the Caribbean Sea.

The Navy on Thursday was loading the USS Iwo Jima, another amphibious assault ship, and the USS New York, an amphibious transport dock, with supplies at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia in preparation to embark south toward areas impacted by Irma, Navy officials said.

U.S. Navy photo
An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter departs USS Wasp (LHD 1) en route to the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Hurricane Irma weakened slightly Thursday with sustained winds of 175 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm boasted 185 mph winds for a more than 24-hour period, making it the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. Irma on late Thursday was moving off Hispaniola toward the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas. The storm was expected to arrive in Cuba by Friday. It could hit the Florida mainland by late Saturday, according to hurricane center models.

At least 10 people have been killed by the storm so far, officials reported. That number is expected to grow incrementally in the coming days.

Some 7,000 National Guard members in Florida were ordered to report for duty by Friday. In Georgia, which could be impacted by Irma as soon as Sunday, Gov. Nathan Deal alerted 5,000 National Guard members to prepare to respond to the storm.

———

©2017 the Stars and Stripes. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.