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Marine, Navy Engineers Making a Difference in Sri Lanka

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Jan. 17, 2005 – U.S. Marine Corps engineers and Navy Seabees are making a difference, demolishing heavily damaged buildings and hauling away debris, in this small island nation.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz today got a first-hand look at how Sri Lanka already is beginning the recovery process after the Dec. 26 tsunami that heavily damaged 700 kilometers of coastline.

Sri Lanka is perhaps the least devastated of the three countries Wolfowitz visited on this trip. He had been to Thailand and Indonesia over the past two days.

Still, the scene in Sri Lanka is sobering: more than 30,000 people dead and 10,000 missing and presumed dead. Plus, half a million more were displaced, and the country's fishing and tourism industries -- important sources of income -- have been decimated. There is visible damage along the entire southern and east coasts of the island.

At a news conference later in the day, Wolfowitz called the tsunami "a cataclysmic catastrophe" throughout the region.

"We have a different situation here," Army Lt. Col Rich Girven, who is assigned to the U.S. Embassy here, said. "The swath of destruction in Sri Lanka was 500 meters deep and 700 kilometers long."

The scope of the tragedy here, with Sri Lanka's pre-tsunami population of roughly 19 million, would equate proportionally to 750,000 people dying in the United States.

The effects of the damage here have been mitigated somewhat in that India, a close neighbor, immediately responded with humanitarian aid. The U.S. military also quickly arrived on the scene with the USS Duluth, with three helicopters aboard, and two pre-positioning platforms quickly arrived from Japan and began supplying clean water.

Another mitigating factor is that Sri Lankans have "a very strong work ethic," said Girven, who is assigned to the U.S. Embassy here. "Two days after the tsunami had hit, you found 60- or 70-year-old people out in the village, moving boulders, clearing rubble, trying to get their lives back even before the military efforts were on the ground."

U.S. Marines from the 9th Marine Expeditionary Support Battalion and sailors from the 7th Seabee Battalion are providing engineering support in various parts of the country. U.S. officials in Sri Lanka explained the engineers started at a point on the southwestern edge of Sri Lanka and have been moving northeast, repairing what they can in terms of infrastructure and demolishing and clearing what's unsalvageable as they go.

After arriving in the country's capital of Columbo this morning, Wolfowitz and his traveling party were flown aboard Sri Lankan air force helicopters on an aerial tour of some of the damaged areas and on to the town of Galle.

There, he briefly visited some U.S. servicemembers making great progress in demolishing and clearing debris from several schools and colleges. Marine Lt. Col. Ed Bowen, commander of the Marine engineers here, met Wolfowitz in Galle and showed him the Marines and sailors laboring in sweltering heat.

The line of their progress was clearly evident during Wolfowitz's visit. With dozens of Sri Lankans looking on, U.S. Marines and sailors have cleared large swaths of devastation with bulldozers, other heavy equipment, and often, good old American elbow grease.

The locations they've already cleaned up are free of debris and resemble the early stages of any American construction project. Marine Brig. Gen. Frank Panter, commander of Combined Support Group Sri Lanka, said he wished Wolfowitz could stay longer than is 30-minute visit. "There's guys doing some great work here," he said.

Wolfowitz later said the attitude of the Marines is "enormous satisfaction in being able to be of help, and a good deal of pride."

But just over the next rise, the damage is plain to see. Short cement buildings are surrounded by debris: fallen trees, splintered building materials, and the detritus of everyday life. Some of the buildings are missing a wall or two, others a roof. None are inhabitable. A set of railroad tracks is twisted and broken, fallen trees cover the tracks, and in some places the trestle has been washed out from below the rails.

In Galle, Wolfowitz noticed a group of perhaps 20 women standing off to one side watching the goings-on intently. He climbed over a small berm to speak to them.

Wolfowitz expressed condolences to the women, a group of schoolteachers, for the losses and damage their country suffered. He told them the United States and other countries would help them recover from this ordeal. The women's smiles and excitement seemed to show the liked what they heard from the deputy secretary.

"I just can't imagine what it's like to lose people on this scale and this sudden," Wolfowitz said a short while later, at his news conference. Specifically referring to his earlier visit to Galle, he said he was impressed by "how resilient people seem to be and how quickly they're back rebuilding their lives."

In Columbo, Wolfowitz met with Sri Lankan President Chanika Bandaraiki Kumaratunga, her ministers of state and defense, and the country's top military officer to discuss the way ahead for reconstruction.

The main difference between the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka and that in Aceh province, Indonesia, is that many roads and ports are still intact here. Relief supplies can be trucked in or arrive by sea. Helicopters are nice to have, but not critically needed.

"The requirement for helicopters here was never as large (as in Indonesia) and is largely going away," Wolfowitz said.

In Aceh, everything has been destroyed in many areas: roads aren't just damaged; they're gone. Piers are gone from coastal villages; large chunks of them can sometimes be seen beached or floating a short distance from shore.

In places the entire character of the coastline has changed. Beaches were washed away, and shallow pools of fetid water dot the landscape. In Aceh, helicopter support to deliver humanitarian supplies is still a matter of life or death in many remote locations.

"An important point is that Sri Lanka seems to be moving very rapidly past emergency relief into reconstruction.

Relief officials here are focusing not so much on immediate life-saving measures -- those have largely been taken care of. What's important now is to provide the Sri Lankan people with a livelihood. In some places, U.S. Agency for International Development experts are focusing their efforts on "cash-for- work" programs. They're hiring local civilians to help clean up their own coastal communities.

The World Bank is also working to provide grants and loans to Sri Lankan fishermen to help them get back on their feet financially.

"Happily, I think Sri Lanka is much farther ahead (than other countries with damage) in dealing with this problem," Wolfowitz said. "That's not a surprise given the scale of catastrophe."

Contact Author

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz

Related Sites:
DoD Special Report on Tsunamin Relief Efforts
State Department Background Notes on Sri Lanka

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