The largest display of naval firepower in Key West since World War II has begun.
Naval Air Station Key West is hosting a multinational maritime exercise that has drawn 14 destroyers and amphibious assault ships from the U.S. Navy and other allied nations as part of UNITAS Atlantic 2012. They will in town through Thursday.
The slew of naval ships -- the most ever to port in Key West in the modern age that the Navy can remember -- will be docked at the Outer Mole Pier, Truman Waterfront and Coast Guard Sector Key West, according to 4th Fleet spokesman Corey Barker.
UNITAS, Latin for unity, is the largest and oldest multi-nation naval exercise and has been taking place for half a century. During the annual event held in different locales, participating nations learn about each other's capabilities in anti-terrorism, counter-narcotics and security.
It also includes live fire exercises, humanitarian assistance and disaster response training. After the opening phase, the rest of the exercises will be conducted in the Caribbean Sea, Barker said.
Key West was chosen because its central location in the Caribbean Sea is ideal, Barker said.
The first of the ships, the USS Underwood, a guided-missile frigate from Mayport, arrived Friday. More were scheduled through the weekend, said NAS Key West spokeswoman Trice Denny.
By today, nine more ships will be docked at the Mole Pier and two additional vessels will dock at Coast Guard Sector Key West, Barker said. Another ship will meet up with the fleet out at sea.
This year's UNITAS exercise includes vessels from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the U.S. The nations will train together in undersea operations, interdiction, air defense, electronic warfare and special warfare operations. The relationships that develop from the exercise are intended to foster understanding between participating countries, Barker said. Such exercises help when disasters strike, such as the earthquake disaster in Haiti.
Thousands of sailors and families were expected to descend on Key West the same weekend as the Poker Run, when Duval Street was crowded with bikers. The Navy will have shore patrol sailors out in force to help visiting sailors find tourist sites and assist police if necessary.
Businesses can expect to see an influx in business from sailors who have been briefed on watersports and other things the island has to offer, Barker said.
Keys nonprofits will also get a boost of Navy muscle as hundreds of sailors will be assisting charities during their stay, including Habitat for Humanity, Sigsbee Charter School and St. Mary's Star of the Sea food pantry, Denny said. NAS Key West commander Capt. Patrick Lefere said local sailors are ready for the event.
"We here at Naval Air Station Key West are honored and excited to host the 53rd annual UNITAS exercise," Lefere said in a prepared statement. "Seeing this many ships down at the Truman Waterfront will certainly be a first in almost 40 years and we look forward to showing our UNITAS partners how much support this community gives our military men and women."
The city also is ready for the influx, said Assistant City Manager David Fernandez.
"We expect a positive economic impact this weekend," Fernandez said. "More importantly, this will expose many sailors to Key West and hopefully they'll come back. It's the most ships we have seen since World War II and we hope to have more and more coming back."