Collaboration Drove Earthquake Relief, Commander Says
By Judith Snyderman
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 23, 2009 In the aftermath of last month’s devastating earthquakes in Indonesia, rapid response and cooperation led to a successful humanitarian relief effort there, a Navy commander said.
Rear Adm. Richard Landolt, commander of the Amphibious Force 7th Fleet based in Okinawa, Japan, described the operation, lessons learned and his use of social media to keep the public informed during an Oct. 22 “DoDLive” bloggers roundtable.
Landolt was tracking seasonal storm activity when a series of powerful earthquakes and aftershocks erupted in and near Sumatra, Indonesia, on Sept. 30. While the USS Denver, which already was under way to the Philippines, and the USS McCampbell headed to the region, Landolt flew in with a humanitarian assistance and survey team.
“There was some benefit in not having forces at the ready, because it allowed us the opportunity to really focus them when they got there, by allowing that [humanitarian assistance and survey team] to survey and decide where help was needed,” Landolt said.
When he arrived, Landolt said, three out of four hospitals were leveled in Padang, a city of about 1 million people. In the countryside, virtually all structures and roads were destroyed. The 353rd Special Operations Group out of Kadena Air Base, Japan, quickly set up communications, and a newly operational Air Force Humanitarian Assistance Ready Response Team turned a soccer field into a hospital.
Good cooperation took place among the Indonesian government, the U.S. Embassy and international relief organizations, including a team from Australia that brought reverse osmosis water purification units, Landolt said.
These factors contributed to a successful operation that offers positive lessons for relief operations, he noted.
One lesson learned is to take care of densely populated urban areas before moving to the countryside, he said.
“If you have water, sanitation, hygiene and people living in tents, they are not going to migrate; they are not going to become refugees or internally displaced people,” Landolt said.
As an experiment, Landolt augmented his daily meetings with officials by keeping the public informed via the social media sites Facebook and Twitter.
“I tried to use Twitter as a way to try to talk to somebody, say in the fifth grade, he explained. “As I learned something that I thought was useful, I would [send a ‘tweet’] out and post it; a factoid on what we were doing or what kind of capacity a CH-53 helicopter has, for instance.”
Quick and coordinated actions to provide essential aid in Padang stabilized the situation and prevented what could have been an outbreak of infectious disease. When the USS Denver arrived Oct. 8, Landolt said, they immediately were able to focus on airlifting tents, water and food to people in remote areas.
Within four days, he said, they delivered more than 100,000 pounds of cargo to people in need.
In the midst of relief operations, it can be difficult to discern when conditions have improved enough to wrap up work, Landolt said. He received some good, light-hearted advice on the subject from a member of another relief team, which he shared in his final Twitter update.
“You always want to leave when they’re still smiling at you and waving at you with all five fingers,” Landolt said, repeating his ‘tweet’.
The social networking updates have garnered positive feedback and now serve as a permanent record of what went right during the relief operation, Landolt said. The full account is available on the “Amphibious Force SEVENTH Fleet” Facebook page.
(Judith Snyderman works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)