By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort is due to leave its home port in Norfolk, Virginia, on Friday for deployment to the hurricane-battered island of Puerto Rico, its first civilian disaster mission in seven years, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.
The USNS Comfort, equipped to carry as many as 1,000 hospital beds, 12 operating rooms and one of the largest trauma units in the United States, is expected to arrive in Puerto Rico by the middle of next week, according to Defense Department officials. It takes up to four days to load and prepare the vessel.
The vessel's departure date was set a week after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and three days after former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton urged Republican U.S. President Donald Trump in a Twitter message to deploy the ship.
Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis "should send the Navy, including the USNS Comfort, to Puerto Rico now. These are American citizens," Clinton, who served as secretary of state under Trump's predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, tweeted on Sunday.
Critics of Trump's disaster response in Puerto Rico seized on the Clinton tweet, launching a petition on the website Change.org that drew some 260,000 supporters for the idea and igniting a #SendtheComfort social media campaign.
The Pentagon did not explain why the vessel was not dispatched sooner or say whether Clinton's admonition was a factor.
But a Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said earlier this week that the Comfort was not deployed before then because the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which is overseeing disaster relief on the island, had not requested it.
Asked why the Comfort had not been prepositioned in case of a deployment request, the official said weather conditions in the Caribbean and the incoming hurricane would have made it difficult.
Maria, the most powerful hurricane to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, cut a swath of destruction across the island last Wednesday with roof-ripping winds, torrential rains and pounding surf.
The storm claimed at least 16 lives on the island, knocked out the territory's entire power grid, unleashed severe flooding and caused widespread heavy damage to homes and infrastructure. Governor Ricardo Rossello called it an unprecedented disaster for the island.
Medical facilities were especially hard hit, many of them left wind-damaged, flooded and short-staffed. A majority of the island's 69 hospitals were without electricity or fuel needed to run backup generators, according to a Defense Department assessment.
The 890-foot (270-meter) Comfort, originally designed to treat U.S. troops wounded in combat, has taken on a secondary mission during the past decade as a major asset for the Navy to deploy in response to natural disasters.
Its last civilian relief assignment was in Haiti following a devastating earthquake there in January 2010. The Comfort also was dispatched to the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and was sent on months-long goodwill humanitarian missions through Latin America and the Caribbean in 2007 and 2011.
The ship, equipped with a large helipad, typically anchors offshore and takes aboard patients ferried to the vessel from land by helicopter or small boats.
The Comfort will not be the only Navy ship sent to Puerto Rico. Two amphibious ships were previously deployed there - the USS Kearsarge and the USS Oak Hill.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)