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The first trucks carrying aid to Gaza roll off temporary floating pier

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.S. military has begun using a floating pier to help get food and other supplies to starving people in Gaza. The U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in that region - the Central Command says aid from the pier will include donations from a number of countries and humanitarian organizations and that no U.S. troops will go ashore in Gaza. Steve Walsh with our member station WHRO has more on this mission.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: As an Army spouse, Keley Napier has gotten into a groove.

KELEY NAPIER: It's kind of a feeling where it's Groundhog Day every day, where you just wake up. You go to work, move on with life. And then you come home, and your spouse is not home.

WALSH: Her husband, Captain Eric Napier, is among the soldiers on the U.S. mission to run the floating pier to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza.

NAPIER: A normal deployment is more so planned. Families have a timeline that they can follow. This one - it kind of came up very quickly, and we don't know a timeline of them returning home.

WALSH: Napier is coordinating the families of soldiers at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, who are deployed off the coast of Israel. The Army boats left Virginia only days after President Joe Biden announced the humanitarian effort in his State of the Union address in March. She tells families to limit watching the news, preparing them for whatever headlines will come in the next months. The boats took over a month to reach the eastern Mediterranean. The Army and Navy crew assembled the floating pier over a week ago, but bad weather has kept the operation from starting. Weather is always going to be an issue, says retired Vice Admiral Robert Murrett, but he sees a value in the operation.

ROBERT MURRETT: I think the air drops are probably a little bit more symbolic than this.

WALSH: Murrett teaches at Syracuse University. The Pentagon predicts it will spend $320 million to set up and run the pier for a couple of months. Murrett says the pier is more efficient than dropping food by air, which the U.S. has been doing since early March.

MURRETT: I think this is actually a significant - you know, it moves the needle. I think it sends an important signal to the civilian population in Gaza that we are concerned about them.

WALSH: Scott Paul is with Oxfam America. He says Israel has made the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worse, by closing land crossings and curtailing aid getting in over the border.

SCOTT PAUL: There's no need for a maritime corridor into Gaza. If the maritime corridor works, it will be because there's some special arrangement that the government of Israel has set up around the pier, not because there's something inherently better about shipping as opposed to trucking.

WALSH: Aid groups will also have the additional cost of sending cargo to Cyprus to be loaded onto ships bound for the floating dock built miles away from shore. Army boats will then drive the aid to a mobile causeway anchored to the beach. Sal Mercogliano is a former merchant mariner who teaches at Campbell University. He says the Army used to have similar equipment positioned in places like the Middle East.

SAL MERCOGLIANO: By 2019, they were looking to get rid of it entirely. It was saved at the last minute, but the ships are old. They need replacement. In many ways, this is going to be an interesting validation for whether the Army needs to retain their watercraft fleet.

WALSH: In 2010, it was used in Haiti after an earthquake, but the piers aren't designed to be set up in a conflict, Mercogliano says.

MERCOGLIANO: If you have someone throw a mortar shell at everything, everything's going to stop, so there's a lot of potential for disruption here. Ideally, if everything is going smoothly, you can achieve those numbers, but there's a lot of ifs associated with that.

WALSH: He believes the roughly 1,000 Navy and Army personnel can make a dent in the need, at least until a more effective solution can be put in place to end the threat of famine in Gaza. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.

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