GUANTANAMO BAY

Hurricane Sandy damages war-court compound, cancels hearings

crosenberg@MiamiHerald.comOctober 25, 2012 Updated 8 hours ago

— Hurricane Sandy swept through this remote base before dawn Thursday, ripping boats from their berths, cutting power to all but emergency facilities and shutting down the Pentagon’s war crimes tribunal.

Residents were confined to their quarters until lunchtime, once power was restored after a night of cascading blackouts.

The Naval Hospital compound was visibly lit throughout the night even as the rest of the base was dark, notably the Windward portion of the 17.4-mile fence line opposite Cuban-controlled territory.

Navy police and power workers were the only people seen on the streets of this 45-square-mile base in southeast Cuba throughout the morning. Schools were closed.

Signs of the damage of the Category 2 hurricane could be seen across the war-court compound.

It shredded a tent that houses the media and tore camouflage netting off fences that obscure from the public the way captives are moved to and from court. The storm also exposed a hidden federally approved cell meant to house convicts who could someday be brought here to testify at the war crimes tribunal.

Nobody was injured, said base spokeswoman Kelly Wirfel, adding the base hospital never lost power throughout the storm. She declined to comment on what, if anything, went wrong at the usually brightly lit line of demarcation, where U.S. Marines stand watch with lights and security cameras opposite a Cuban military minefield.

"In keeping with base security policy and protocol, our office will refrain from discussing the fence line and all associated matters," Wirfel said.

The seafront detention center, where 166 foreign men are confined as war on terror prisoners, suffered "nuisance damage" — debris strewn around the compounds and pooling water, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand. No detainees or their guards were harmed.

Court sessions in the USS Cole terror case were canceled for the rest of the week and military commission participants were departing the base as previously scheduled on Friday morning. The court is expected to next convene in December, presumably time enough to repair the facility.

The Pentagon built the compound of tents, trailers and an eavesdropping-proof courthouse on an abandoned airstrip overlooking Guantánamo Bay for the Sept. 11 and Cole case war crimes tribunals. Both are death-penalty trials.

Hurricane Sandy also cut some telephone and Internet service at the base, along with the electricity. Workers were still assessing the scattered damage across the base late Thursday morning, Wirfel said.

The storm washed away a pier and several pontoon and sailboats at a recreational marina behind guest housing. It downed trees and power lines, swept away cabanas at Windmill Beach that were designated for destruction, shredded the roof on a Navy base hobby center and damaged a fire department building.

"There is quite a bit of damage but no injuries, thankfully," Wirfel said, adding no dollar estimate would be available before next week.

This week's was the second round of military commissions hearings cut short this hurricane season. In August, the Pentagon canceled hearings in the Sept. 11 case and evacuated 177 people back to Washington, ahead of Tropical Storm Isaac, which left virtually no damage.

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