Rumsfeld Sends General to Coordinate Guatemalan Disaster Relief
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
TAMPA, Fla., Oct. 11, 2005 Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has dispatched a senior U.S. general to assess relief efforts in hurricane-stricken Guatemala, officials said today as Rumsfeld prepared to travel to Miami for a meeting of Central American defense and security ministers.
Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, commander of U.S. Southern Command, arrived in Guatemala Oct. 9. In a conference call with Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Peter Pace this morning, Craddock assessed the preparedness of the Guatemalan military as good.
He said they had pre-positioned supplies, but the scope of the disaster is overwhelming capabilities to get aid to remote, mountainous areas of the country, Roger Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere security policy, said today. The need for helicopters is particularly great in areas where bridges have been wiped out, often cutting off the only means to reach isolated villages.
Heavy rains and severe flooding from Hurricane Stan have led to mudslides that have claimed entire villages in remote areas of Guatemala. Other areas, which exist in extreme poverty during normal conditions, are completely cut off from food and other aid. A stationary weather front is expected to dump more heavy rain on the region over the next week to 10 days. Officials estimate this is the worst natural disaster to hit Central America since Hurricane Mitch killed up to 10,000 people in 1998.
Rumsfeld called the situation in Guatemala "heartbreaking."
"It looks like it's a terrible natural disaster," he said as he prepared to depart for Miami.
The secretary spent the weekend dealing with disaster-relief operations in Guatemala and Pakistan, where officials estimate an Oct. 8 earthquake killed up to 40,000 people. "All weekend I did nothing but phone calls and secure videos on Pakistan and Guatemala and a series of other things that we're working on," he said.
The United States has sent nine helicopters, a combination of Black Hawks and Chinooks, to Guatemala, Pardo-Maurer said. Another six are expected in the region in coming days. Four C-130s are lifting aid supplies into devastated areas, as well. Supplies being airlifted in include food, water, plastic sheeting and medical supplies. Much of the U.S. assistance has come from Joint Task Force Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras.
In many areas, homes have been washed away, leaving any people who survived exposed to the elements in heavy rain, while temperatures hover in the 50s at higher altitudes.
Craddock is considering requesting deployment of a full helicopter company to the region, Pardo-Maurer said. Officials are also considering sending a medical unit from the Arkansas National Guard, which has a partnership agreement with the Guatemalan military. In addition, the U.S. military may provide communications support to cutoff regions where infrastructure is damaged.
Craddock estimated the United States would be involved in disaster-relief operations in Guatemala for at least 30 days, Pardo-Maurer said.
Rumsfeld is traveling to Miami today to attend a meeting of defense and security ministers of Central American countries. Officials said this is the first time ministers from all seven Central American countries will meet with a U.S. defense secretary.
The secretary said counties in the region are making good progress on cooperating to deal with natural disasters and other security concerns affecting them and the United States -- "the problems of hostage taking, narcotics and terrorists, all of which are things that concern our country (and) concern all of those countries," Rumsfeld said.
Two of the countries, Costa Rica and Panama, are constitutionally prohibited from having militaries. These countries deal with such challenges using police forces. Rumsfeld said he is glad those countries still choose to participate in this conference.
Implementing the Central American Free Trade Agreement, disaster relief, U.N. peacekeeping operations and regional security concerns, such as terrorism and narcotics trafficking will be main topics of discussion at the conference.