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Service Members to Deploy to Central America

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 23, 1998 – More than 5,700 U.S. service members will go to Central America to aid the region in recovering from Hurricane Mitch, said Marine Corps Gen. Charles Wilhelm, U.S. Southern Command commander.

At a Pentagon news conference Nov. 19, Wilhelm said Hurricane Mitch ravaged more than 40 percent of the Central American land mass. "There is widespread damage throughout the area," he said. "It was the most deadly hurricane to hit Central America in more than 200 years."

The official death toll is 9,860 in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. More than 13,000 people are still missing, and more than 3.2 million people are homeless.

He said disease threatens the region. Mitch contaminated many water wells. Wilhelm said he has rushed in medical professionals to work on preventive measures. "We have treatment personnel, but if we can prevent the spread of disease we will be that much further ahead."

He called Southern Command "reasonably well-postured" to handle the emergency. The command, he said, is still in the process of clearing up after Hurricane Georges' swath of destruction through Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys.

About 500 members of Joint Task Force-Bravo rode out Hurricane Mitch at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras. "Even before the storm was over, these personnel had begun rescue operations," Wilhelm said.

At a conservative estimate, Joint Task Force-Bravo troops rescued about 700 people, and delivered about 2.5 million pounds of food, almost 100,000 pounds of medical supplies and 70,000 gallons of water. Southern Command rushed 70 percent of the U.S. stockpile of iodine tablets to the area and bagged enough chlorine compound to provide 2 million people treated water for a week. Wilhelm said that was enough time for local wells to clarify and for Central American authorities to find untainted water sources.

Southern Command has 39 helicopters in the area along with a number of C-130 and C-27 aircraft capable of landing on rough runways.

Wilhelm said the loss of life would have been even higher had not the nations in the region participated in a Southern Command humanitarian exercise held in March 1998. "They were able to work many of problems before Mitch hit," he said. "In Guatemala, the authorities evacuated thousands who would have been endangered."

To date, the effort has cost DoD $35 million.

Wilhelm said the lifesaving phase of emergency has ended and the command is moving now into a rehabilitation phase. "We need to provide support and 'patch' the infrastructure so local authorities can take over," he said. Beginning Nov. 23, active and reserve component soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will begin deploying to the region. Wilhelm could not say how long the troops will be needed.

Active duty units deploying are elements of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force and ,Marine Corps 2nd Force Service Support Group, both of Marine Corps Station Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Marine Corps 8th Engineer Support Battalion, Camp Lejeune; and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 7 (Seabees) of Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, and Gulfport, Miss.

Also deploying are the Army's 1st Corps Support Command, 18th Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, N.C.; the 539th Corps Support Group, Fort Lewis, Wash.; the 55th Engineer Company, Fort Riley, Kan. (Medium Girder Bridge); the 46th Engineer Battalion, Fort Polk, La.; Headquarters, 36th Engineer Groupn and the 63rd Combat Support Equipment Company, both of Fort Benning, Ga.; and the 68th Combat Support Equipment Company, Fort Hood, Texas.

Air Force units deploying are the 819th Civil Engineering Squadron (Red Horse), Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., and the 820th Civil Engineering Squadron (Red Horse), Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

Wilhelm said the U.S. military will send 20 more helicopters to the area to help in the rehabilitation effort. Ships are on their way to deliver heavy engineering equipment.

Wilhelm said Southern Command personnel have worked well with the international aid effort. "In many cases [Joint Task Force-Bravo personnel] had the only equipment," he said. "They didn't wait for orders, they just went on and did the job."

Joint Task Force-Bravo's distribution statistics for the Hurricane Mitch relief effort, as of Nov. 18:

94,500 pounds of medical supplies

2,458,000 pounds of food

588,200 pounds of clothes, mattresses, plastic tarps,

diapers and other supplies

78,000 gallons of water

1,829 people moved

2,146 people medically treated

162 fixed-wing airlift missions

345 helicopter airlift missions

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSgt. 1st Class Luis Fontanez, Non-Commissioned Officer-in-Charge of the water delivery operation spearheaded by Army Forces Headquarters and Support Company stationed on Soto Cano Air Base Honduras. (U.S. Navy photo by PH2(PJ) Micheal J. Tuemler)  
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