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What to know about the N.J. military base set to shelter thousands of Afghan refugees

The base is one of four U.S. military facilities designated to house Afghan evacuees, with others in Wisconsin, Texas, and Virginia.

Task Force McGuire-Dix Airmen are briefed on the arrival of Afghan evacuees.
Task Force McGuire-Dix Airmen are briefed on the arrival of Afghan evacuees.Read moreU.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joseph Morales

New Jersey’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst has already begun welcoming evacuees fleeing Afghanistan, and plans to shelter thousands, officials said Friday.

The base is one of four U.S. military facilities designated to house Afghan evacuees, chosen based on its capacity and the region’s ability to support evacuees, U.S. Northern Command Commander Gen. Glen VanHerck said Friday. Other facilities sheltering evacuees are located in Wisconsin, Texas, and Virginia.

This weekend, Philadelphia International Airport is expected to become the second in the nation — after Dulles International Airport in Virginia — to welcome people evacuated from Afghanistan. Those flying into Philadelphia will likely be bused to Camden for processing, and many without clear immigration status could end up at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst for further processing and resettlement.

» READ MORE: How to help Afghan refugees: Where you can volunteer, donate, and more in Philadelphia

What is Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst?

The South Jersey military base is located on a sprawling 42,000-acre campus spanning 20 miles east to west across Burlington and Ocean Counties.

The facility is a combination of three military installations: the old McGuire Air Force Base (once known as Rudd Field); the Army’s former Fort Dix; and what was previously dubbed the Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst — perhaps most well-known as the site of the Hindenburg disaster in 1937. The three facilities merged in October 2009 to create Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and the site is the only Department of Defense base to consolidate the three branches.

What is the base’s role in sheltering Afghan evacuees?

One of four military installations welcoming Afghan refugees, the Air Force has proposed Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst provide shelter for up to 9,500 evacuees “who assisted the U.S. and our allies,” according to a news release from the base.

On Friday, VanHerck said the South Jersey base currently has the capacity to house 3,500 evacuees, and has received 1,192 since Wednesday. They arrived at the base via bus and plane, a base spokesperson said. VanHerck said the military hopes to increase capacity at the base to shelter around 10,000 refugees —part of an effort to expand nationwide capacity to 50,000 by Sept. 15.

» READ MORE: First Afghan families arriving in Philly as resettlement agencies prepare for a surge of newcomers

An Air Force draft proposal outlines plans to provide the newcomers shelter in three of the base’s billeting areas, as well as in temporary “tent city” housing, set on 26.4 acres of the Doughboy Parade Grounds. There, the Air Force estimates its 378 tents can house up to 4,500 evacuees.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia-area Afghans wait with anxiety and hope for their loved ones’ safety: ‘This didn’t have to happen this way’

The temporary lodging can house families of up to a dozen people, and will be powered by electric generators, the report said. Showers, restrooms, meal services, medical services, religious support, COVID-19 testing, and child and youth services would also be made available, according to the draft proposal.

Up to 1,500 military personnel will support the operations, which could provide evacuees shelter for six months to a year, the Air Force’s draft proposal said.

“We’re prepared to house them and feed them as long as it takes to get them through the process,” VanHerck said. “They’re coming here starting over with what they bring with them. We’ve been incredibly supported by the local communities, the non-governmental organizations, etcetera that have jumped in to help these families with things of need such as diapers, formula, clothing, you name it … We’ve been tremendously blessed to have great support.”

What is the base’s history in providing refugee housing?

This isn’t the first time the site has served as a stopping point for evacuees in the wake of catastrophe.

In 2010, the joint base became a relief center for evacuees following a devastating earthquake in Haiti. In 1999, then-Fort Dix received and provided temporary shelter to hundreds of Kosovo refugees amid the Kosovo War. And from 1955 to 1957, Fort Dix housed Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet repression.

Staff writers Jonathan Tamari and Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.