The U.S. military has evacuated over 5,000 people from a base in the Florida Keys in advance of Hurricane Irma, but military personnel and the 41 detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval station are staying put.
The core of the powerful storm, which has reported killed 24 people so far, is barreling through the Caribbean toward Florida and could make landfall as early as Saturday. On Thursday, Cuba, which has experienced waves as tall as apartment buildings in Guantanamo province during previous storms of Irma’s magnitude, issued hurricane warnings for four provinces. The military, however, has not given many specifics about its plans for military prisoners at Guantanamo, , the U.S.’s controversial base and prison, even though the base’s facilities have been historically vulnerable to extreme weather.
Update: Irma passed through with no significant damage, Guantanamo Bay spokesperson Monique K. Meeks said in an email.
“Naval Station Guantanamo Bay has returned to Tropical Cyclone Condition of Readiness (TCCOR) 5 as of 12 p.m. today. The installation has received no significant damage and all personnel are safe,” she said.
On Friday morning, outer bands of the hurricane were already passing over the facility, causing high tides and winds of up to 30 mph, according to officials on the ground. Military personnel have moved to designated shelter areas and were advised to stock up on enough essential supplies to last them 72 hours.
“Tropical weather is an expected part of life in the Caribbean and for our personnel charged with securing the detainee facilities,” said Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense. “Likewise, they routinely prepare for any contingencies required to safeguard all individuals at the installation in the event that extreme weather impacts the region.”
Sakrisson did not comment on what specific actions are being taken to protect prisoners from the effects of the storm, who include 15 high-value former CIA captives, including the 9/11 plotters He also declined to comment on whether he thought the storm would do serious damage to Guantanamo’s facilities, explaining that he didn’t want to speculate about a storm system that was still developing.
As of 2008, Guantanamo’s prison facilities were reportedly able to handle category 2 hurricanes. Irma is not only Category 4 but the strongest storm to ever come out of the Atlantic.
Every hurricane season, Mohamedou Slahi — who was released from Guantanamo after 14 years without charges or a trial — worried about his safety.
“I was always terrified because the ocean is so close, and then if the situation would be very tough, we’d be just swept by the sea. And the guards would just run for their lives and we detainees would die inside those lockdown cells,” he said. “There was no way to go — absolutely none whatsoever. So many gates between you and safety.”
Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney of the Guantanamo Project at the Center for Constitutional Rights, has visited the base more times than he can count. Despite Gitmo’s early days of housing inmates outside in flimsy cages, now detainees are now kept in more permanent facilities. During emergencies, they’re also transferred to some of the base’s most hurricane-proof camps during emergencies.
“In a lot of ways they are likely to be in the safest sort of conditions, and I think the past experience has backed that up,” he said.
The safety of Guantanamo’s emergency shelters for prisoners can’t be guaranteed for the rest of Guantanamo’s buildings.In 2012, Hurricane Sandy cut all power to Guantanamo’s emergency facilities, ripped boats from their births, shut down a Pentagon war crimes tribunal, and exposed a hidden detention facility. The storm also tore up much of Camp Justice, the compound where much of the legal business of the base gets done, according to Kadidal. Thanks to ramped-up staffing following past hunger strikes, guards now often live in flimsy aluminum sheds, according to Kadidal, who’s stayed in them himself.
“The walls move so much on an ordinary night that it’ll keep you awake,” he said.
Two years after Sandy, military officials were still worried about how the buildings on the remote base were holding up.
Back in 2014 when John Kelly, the current White House Chief of Staff, was the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, testified to Congress about the Navy station’s durability. He said that “numerous facilities are showing signs of deterioration and require frequent repair.” (The military later said Kelly’s comments didn’t accurately reflect the physical state of Guantanamo).
Guantanamo’s highly secretive Camp 7, for example was “increasingly unsustainable due to drainage and foundation issues” Kelly said. The camp housed alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other high-security high-value detainees. Kelly asked for $49 million to build a new one, and the House of Representatives went even further, proposing a $69 million fix, but neither attempt went through.
Various structures, like the mess hall, were built in the 1990s to support mass migration operations from before the base held prisoners from the War on Terror, and are falling apart, with corrosion and holes in the roof, according to Kelly’s statements
In the event of overwhelming conditions, evacuations at the facility aren’t unheard of. Last year, in response to Hurricane Matthew, the military evacuated over 700 military family members from the base.
The extreme weather hasn’t completely put the base on hold though. Julie Ann Ripley, a public affairs officer at Guantanamo, said military watercraft would patrol Guantanamo’s harbors as long as weather permitted, and the Pentagon sent a U.S.-based neurosurgery team to the naval base earlier in the week to operate on the spine of an alleged Al Qaeda leader in critical condition.