Guantánamo base to ‘shelter in place’ for Cat-5 Irma

Hurricane Irma makes landfall in the Caribbean: where she's headed next

The Category 5 storm is expected to bring strong storm surges. Part of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos is under a hurricane warning.
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The Category 5 storm is expected to bring strong storm surges. Part of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos is under a hurricane warning.

The U.S. Navy has decided not to evacuate family members and other non-essential staff from its remote outpost at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, concluding that the more than 5,000 residents can weather Category 5 Hurricane Irma as it grinds through the region, a spokesman said Tuesday.

“They will shelter in place as the storm passes just north of them,” Bill Dougherty, spokesman for the Pentagon’s Navy Region Southeast Region reported Tuesday morning.

The spokesman for the 1,500-staff detention center declined to say whether the prison’s temporary troops — mostly National Guard soldiers on nine-month tours of duty, without family — would remain in trailer-park style Containerized Housing Units, or CHUs, or would be evacuating to cots in the base gym, as usual.

Nor would the prison respond to questions of whether it would relocate some or all of its 41 war on terror captives. In the past the military moved specially segregated detainees from the flimsy Camp Echo to more secure cellblocks. One of them, Saudi Ahmad al Darbi, was to face a sentencing hearing this week as an admitted al-Qaida terrorist as part of a plea agreement to return him to his homeland in exchange for testimony against other captives.

But, with Irma coming, the Pentagon canceled the special war court session and postponed it to a future date uncertain.

Also unknown was what the prison was doing with the 15 former CIA captives, including the alleged 9/11 plotters, at a secret lock-up called Camp 7.

RELATED 2016 story: Guantánamo begins evacuating 700 parents and kids, plus pets, ahead of Hurricane Matthew

Last year, as Hurricane Matthew was headed toward southeast Cuba, the new base commander evacuated around 700 family members and pets to the Florida Panhandle, and returned them days later after the base suffered minimal damage. This time, the base notified residents at noon Tuesday to “have plans in place to take shelter in the best available refuge.”

Trailer-park troops and base laborers living in similar circumstances were likely to be told what to do by their supervisors.

For Matthew, the prison relocated the so-called high-value-detainees of Camp 7 to a more secure lockup, according to their lawyers. It was unfamiliar to the men whom the United States shuttled for years around its clandestine global prison network, the CIA Black Sites, according to the attorneys, who described it as less isolating than Camp 7, where they’ve been held for more than a decade.

The former Southern Command commander, now White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has described Camp 7 as unstable —and in need of replacement, an assessment subsequent leaders have not adopted. Congress has refused to fund a new one.

RELATED: Oops! Guantánamo’s secret prison is structurally sound after all

At the Pentagon, a spokesman said a long-awaited mobile MRI being shipped to the base — to comply with a military judge’s order to see if a former CIA captive has suffered brain damage —was not at risk in the hurricane. It was being secured in the United States and would not be shipped until later in September, said Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson.

For those on the base with the option of leaving the island at their own expense, the military moved a regularly scheduled Friday shuttle to Jacksonville and Norfolk, Virginia to Thursday morning.

There was no immediate word on whether or when classes would be canceled at the base’s school system for sailors’ children. The Morale, Welfare and Entertainment division announced that, at the base’s usually brown, scrubby 9-hole golf course, “Pro lessons that were to begin this Saturday will be postponed until further notice. Refund information will be available next week.”

On the waterfront, the base said, “recreational diving and boating have been secured due to reduced assets to conduct rescues.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg