September 14, 2018
II Marine Expeditionary Force (IIMEF) has more than 47,000 Marines and sailors, with the highest concentration working and living aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Air Station New River, and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. Those bases are located in Onslow and Craven County, North Carolina. By Monday, September 10, 2018, Eastern North Carolina counties issued mandatory evacuation orders ahead of the landfall of Hurricane Florence for residents effective 12 p.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2018. As of Tuesday morning, Marines and sailors were still required to report to work on normal operating schedules. At 4:27 p.m. on Tuesday, September 11, a message from Brigadier General Alford, Commanding General of IIMEF, was released:
There will not be a mandatory evacuation of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune…We have hardened infrastructure and the support system necessary to deal with Florence’s potential impacts; we have our own first responders to provide security and emergency response; we have emergency shelters for those desiring to seek shelter.
Another message stated: Camp Lejeune shelters are not set up to feed anyone for the first 72 hours. Additionally, please ensure you bring nonperishable food and water for each family member to last three days, medications, diapers, pillows, toiletries, etc.
A quick search of emergency shelter capacities revealed that shelters aboard Camp Lejeune can hold approximately 2,000 people. Families in the evacuated counties with small children, those requiring special diets, and those with medical conditions requiring ongoing attention would not have been properly accommodated under the conditions announced for these shelters. The only logical decision was that these families evacuate without their service members. If a mandatory evacuation order had been ordered for the base, the Department of Defense would have subsidized the cost of evacuation for personnel. For young Marines and sailors, this decision was especially difficult considering the financial stress of the unexpected travel. That financial strain was, in large part, a deciding factor in whether or not to heed evacuation orders of local and state government. As of Tuesday, no shelters were announced to accommodate those with pets. An announcement came late Wednesday evening that one shelter had been established as pet-friendly.
Service members were released (at the discretion of individual commands) as of 4 p.m. on Tuesday. By that time, road conditions were congested and gas was difficult to find anywhere east of Raleigh, NC. Many reports began to filter in of families getting stranded on the side of highways without gas as people flooded the evacuation routes for safer areas. Spouses and children traveling without their service members felt the strain of unsafe conditions. If finances were not a factor, personnel could have, at the very least, been released from work early enough to make their own decisions about evacuation.
Backlash inundated social media criticizing the decision not to evacuate eastern North Carolina bases. As families packed to evacuate, they were unsure if they would come back to their homes, or if any of their personal possessions would survive the storm. Evacuating under the most stressful, difficult circumstances alone with their children, spouses felt vulnerable and angry. One spouse, who evacuated alone with three small children, reported that it took her husband 10 hours to reach their family. Congested roadways and a shortage of gas nearly doubled the evacuation routes across the state. Here is her story.
“What do you mean you aren’t coming?” I said to my husband. “They aren’t releasing us and I want you to get the kids out before it gets dangerous here”, he said. So, we woke at 4 a.m. and packed my SUV. With three small children — one with serious dietary needs — we couldn’t chance it. Even if we wanted to go to a base shelter, they didn’t have the means to support us. I packed our children’s clothes, their food, water, favorite toys, important documents, my most valuable small items, and drove our three children across the state. I’m no shrinking violet. I raised a baby for nine months while my husband was in Afghanistan. I even scared off an intruder, once, while he was gone. This was different. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it alone. I didn’t want to. I wanted him with us.
For all of the young Marines — or those who couldn’t afford to evacuate on short notice — this choice was terrible. The infrastructure in shelters on base wasn’t meant to support those with special needs, special diets, or medical concerns. The infrastructure was meant to support active-duty personnel. I didn’t feel like the command was considering our family, considering what it meant for me to pack our children and leave without my husband. Was it really safe for us to travel alone in a time of panic when people were getting in fistfights at gas stations? Maybe not — but, we certainly couldn’t stay. I’m grateful he sent us and we got out before it was worse. Hearing my friends report that they were stranded on the side of highways with no gas because they waited as long as possible for their husbands was scary.
As Hurricane Florence continues to drill Eastern North Carolina, many are still questioning the decision to keep personnel at work on Tuesday. Citing congested roadways and difficult re-entry routes, the Commanding General stood by his decision not to evacuate personnel. To this point, we ask: With predicted 13-foot storm surges, life-threatening flooding, and the potential for weeks without power, what exactly are we going back to? Why does the Commanding General think these conditions are safe and appropriate for families? The entire state, as well as all counties in Eastern North Carolina, are under a State of Emergency. Clearly, the base cannot accommodate all of these families and their pets.
As spouses, we have full confidence that our Marines and sailors are prepared to assume risks on the battlefield. We believe in our leaders and we know the Marine Corps is the most capable fighting force in the world. But, this is not the battlefield and assuming risk to loss of life is not necessary. This is a natural disaster threatening the lives of our families. No amount of training can prepare us for a natural disaster of this magnitude. The best way to keep service members and families safe is to follow the directives of mandatory evacuation orders.
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