Navy Aid Ship Rides Out Rita, Poised to Help

Noah Adams talks with Capt. Rich Callas aboard the Navy amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima, currently riding out Hurricane Rita in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship is loaded with emergency equipment and supplies, and ready to begin rescue and aid missions as soon as possible after the storm makes landfall.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

It's DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

Out in the Gulf of Mexico, a US Navy amphibious assault ship, the Iwo Jima, is heading towards Louisiana just behind Hurricane Rita. The ship, 840 feet long, looks like a small aircraft carrier. It's loaded with helicopters, emergency personnel and equipment. We spoke with the commanding officer of the Iwo Jima earlier. He is Captain Rich Callas.

How are things aboard the Iwo Jima?

Captain RICH CALLAS (Commanding Officer, USS Iwo Jima): I think they're proceeding just fine. We have been dodging some pretty nasty weather over the past 36 hours and we've now fallen in behind the storm, and she's traveling about nine knots; we're doing 21 knots. So slowly but surely, we're catching up to the eye of the storm to get right in behind her as she makes landfall so we'll in an excellent position to render assistance if we have to.

ADAMS: It is your intent to be behind the storm and to the east of Rita?

Capt. CALLAS: Yes, and there's a reason for that. As the storm passes along, the right-hand side of the storm is referred to as the dangerous semicircle. That's where you have the most destructive winds twirling in a counterclockwise fashion. The left-hand side of the storm is the less dangerous semicircle. So right now as the storm tracks, as it approaches the border between Texas and Louisiana, that the most destructive winds and seas will be on the right-hand side hitting Louisiana. So we're focusing on where we think the most damage may be and be ready to respond.

ADAMS: And what will be your mission, specifically, when you get there as the storm hits or after the storm comes through?

Capt. CALLAS: Well, the ship's carrying a number of helicopters that are outstanding vehicles for search and rescue. And our intent is that first thing tomorrow morning after the storm hits landfall is to have those aircraft airborne. So if there's anyone out there that is need of rescue, we can respond immediately after the storm passes through.

ADAMS: Yes, and how...

Capt. CALLAS: And she's also configured with a huge hospital suite with six operating rooms and upwards of 600 beds. And we currently have about 70 doctors, nurses, anesthetists and other folks on board. So in case there are injuries, I think we have the right mix of people to provide immediate assistance.

ADAMS: Captain, tell us what you can see now.

Capt. CALLAS: Behind us right now we see clearing skies and sunshine, but ahead of us you can definitely see some very, very dark areas on the horizon which is where the storm center is.

ADAMS: And what sort of seas have you had and what sort of winds?

Capt. CALLAS: Well, yesterday we had seas upwards of 20 feet with spray coming over the bow. The ship's bow is about 50 to 60 feet above the water. So you can imagine that we're taking some pretty good, heavy seas. But we were operating at a reasonable speed with the nose dead into the sea, so the ship was able to ride fairly comfortably, though I think some new green ranch hands on board were a bit under the weather.

ADAMS: Captain Rich Callas of the USS Iwo Jima talking with us from the Gulf of Mexico.

Thank you, sir.

Capt. CALLAS: My pleasure.

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