Amid the Hurricane and Wildfire Seasons of 2023, Service Members Found a Shoulder to Lean on With the USO

By Trey Smith

From record-breaking temperatures to devastating wildfires and storms, service members stationed around the world spent much of summer 2023 supporting their local military communities in the wake of natural disasters. And throughout it all, the USO was there supporting these military members every step of the way.

As Service Members Helped Florida Residents Recover from Hurricane Idalia, the USO Was by Their Side

In late August 2023, Hurricane Idalia made landfall in Florida’s Big Bend region as a Category 3 hurricane. Hurricane Idalia hit Florida with sustained winds of 125 mph and record storm surges of nearly 6 feet, causing widespread power outages – more than 560,000 homes in the region experiencing outages at some point.

In anticipation of the storm and its recovery efforts, 5,500 National Guard members were activated and the U.S. Coast Guard also prepared in the days leading up to the storm’s arrival.

And as people in the military prepared for the approach of Hurricane Idalia, the USO was preparing right alongside them by staging Mobile USO vehicles in the days leading up to the storm’s impact. Mobile USO vehicles act as USO Centers-on-wheels, as they bring a bit of home and a sense of normalcy to service members while they work in various disaster zones.

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members in Florida responding to Hurricane Idalia receive support from a Mobile USO unit.

These Mobile USO vehicles create a “home away from home” for service members, providing them with a place to relax and recharge whenever they have a moment away from their military duties. Mobile USO vehicles offer free amenities like laptops, large-screen televisions and movies, video games, comfy seats and Wi-Fi so that service members can contact their loved ones who may be concerned about them working in disaster zones.

The Mobile USO team worked together with Kroger for a “Stuff the Truck” event, in which volunteers outfitted the USO-Kroger Mobile Food Truck with supplies to support the service members responding to Hurricane Idalia. This Mobile USO vehicle, along with a USO Gaming vehicle, then drove to Florida and provided hot meals, USO Care Packages and a morale boost to the service members working long shifts of hurricane disaster relief.

Service Members Responding to Maui Wildfires Turned to the USO for Support

On August 9, 2023, a series of wildfires ripped through the Hawaiian island of Maui, leaving immense devastation in its wake. The wildfire became Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster, and with the death toll standing at 97, it was also the third deadliest wildlife in United States history.

In the midst of the wildfires, the Hawaiian National Guard, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps all deployed and mobilized to provide relief efforts throughout Maui, including firefighting operations and rescue missions.

Photo credit USO Photo

After working under stressful conditions for long hours, something as simple as a friendly smile and something to eat can make all the difference in service member’s day.

The USO mobilized as well, almost immediately hitting the ground in Maui right alongside service members to boost morale, providing snacks and meals and a comforting welcome at the end of their long, 12-hour shifts of fire containment, as well as search and rescue operations. The USO Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA) Center in Hawaii also sprang into action. USO PTA team members kept the Center’s doors open for service members on-base during their response to the wildfires, even as the USO’s team’s own homes had been threatened by the fires.

Military Families in Sicily Found a Safe Haven at the USO

Between late July and early August 2023, hundreds of wildfires ravaged the Italian island of Sicily. As a result, thousands of citizens and tourists were forced to evacuate the island. In the mix of this, Sicily also dealt with a record-breaking heatwave, with temperatures reaching as high as 117 degrees Fahrenheit. Sicily also experienced electricity blackouts across the island, which ultimately left residents without air conditioning and contributed to water shortages.

The combination of natural disasters and extreme weather in Sicily affected American service members and their families who are stationed on Sicily as well, and the U.S. Navy and the USO worked together to step up and be by the side of our U.S. military members.

Photo credit DVIDS/Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelsey Culbertson

Cots are placed in the gymnasium at Naval Air Station Sigonella in response to extreme heat, fires, power outages and a need to provide safe, climate controlled shelter to military families.

Naval Air Station Sigonella provided air-conditioned shelters for American service members and military families on base who needed to evacuate from their off-base housing due to lack of electricity and extreme heat. The USO also opened its doors to serve as a shelter for evacuating service members and military families.

The USO Sigonella Center remained open late into the evening hours when it is normally closed, offering service members and military families – including their pets – with a place to stay that had air conditioning, water, snacks and refreshments. USO Sigonella also offered families many of the typical USO Center amenities, such as free Wi-Fi, TVs, gaming systems, books, entertainment and more.

During Typhoon Mawar, USO Centers in Guam Lent a Helping Hand

On Wednesday, May 24, 2023, Super Typhoon Mawar – the equivalent of a high-end category 4 hurricane – made landfall on the U.S. Territory of Guam , which is home to approximately 20,000 service members and military family members and several USO staff members. The typhoon had sustained winds of over 150 mph and gusts of over 170 mph, flipping over cars and ripping through power lines, trees and buildings. The storm surge hit much of the island’s low-lying coastal areas, and 2 feet of torrential rainfall led to flooding of many streets on the island.

Photo credit FEMA/Robert Barker

On Wednesday, May 24th, 2023, Typhoon Mawar made landfall on the island U.S. territory of Guam, leaving destruction in its wake. Now, service members from the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. National Guard and U.S. Air Force are working together in natural disaster relief efforts.

As a result, USO Guam – whose volunteers and staff were navigating damage to their own homes on the island – were there for the people who serve on the island, and their families, as they worked in the disaster zone. Although many USO locations on Guam dealt with power outages, one USO Center was able to open its doors to provide air conditioning, internet and Wi-Fi connectivity, phones to call home, as well as snacks and coffee.

When even the most basic necessities aren’t available in a disaster zone, resources like these can make all the difference for service members and military families, who, during natural disasters, may have few places to turn to.

Photo credit U.S. Air Force/Tech Sgt. Esteban Esquivel

Military families take refuge at USO Andersen on the island of Guam in the wake of Typhoon Mawar to use the center’s air conditioning and Wi-Fi, and to simply watch a movie and relax. The typhoon wiped out electricity and water for most of the island, leaving service members and military families with few places to turn to.

Supporting service members as they step up for their local communities is one of many ways the USO is there for the military community in times of crisis. And we do so year-round, for military communities around the world, in order to remind the people who serve and their families that no matter where their service takes them, the USO will be there with them, every step of the way.

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