U.S. readies Navy hospital ship after Philippines typhoon

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military has ordered the activation a Navy hospital ship for possible deployment to the Philippines in December, as the United States ramps up its relief mission after that country’s devastating typhoon, officials said on Wednesday.

The USNS Mercy is slow-moving and it could take about three weeks for the ship to reach the Philippines from San Diego if it first stops in Hawaii to pick up additional personnel and equipment, a U.S. military spokesman said.

With a capacity to treat hundreds of patients at any given time, the Mercy would bring enormous capability to efforts to help treat victims of Typhoon Haiyan during what is expected to be a long recovery for the Philippines.

“If ordered to deploy, Mercy would get underway in the next several days and could arrive in the Philippines sometime in December,” the Navy’s Pacific Fleet said in a statement.

Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, tore through the central Philippines on Friday. It flattened the coastal city of Tacloban and destroyed all but two hospitals there.

The death toll is still unclear. But more than 670,000 people have been displaced by the storm, the United Nations said, and survivors have become increasingly desperate as essential supplies have dwindled.

On Wednesday, one U.S. official said relief operations were picking up pace now that some logistical hurdles had been addressed.

“It’s been a very difficult first few days wading through some of these logistical obstacles – that’s not unusual in this kind of a crisis,” the official said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity. “We’re getting a better handle on that and feel like we’re starting to turn a corner.”

The Mercy would join other U.S. ships, including the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, which is expected to arrive off the Philippines on Thursday along with cruisers USS Antietam and USS Cowpens, the Navy said. The destroyers USNS Mustin and USS Lassen have already arrived off the Philippines, the Navy’s Pacific Fleet said.

Other U.S. vessels, including the amphibious ships USS Ashland and USS Germantown, are expected to arrive in the Philippines in about a week, it added.

The number of U.S. military personnel on the ground could also triple to more than a thousand in a week, from just over 300 now, one U.S. official estimated, speaking on condition of anonymity.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart- editing by Christopher Wilson)

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