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Gen. Wilhiem's Briefing on U.S. Military Relief Effort for Hurricane Mitch

Presenters: Gen. Charles Wilhelm, Commander in Chief, U.S. Southern Command
November 19, 1998

Speaker: It's my pleasure to introduce General Charles Wilhelm, who is the Commander in Chief of the Southern Command, now operating out of Miami. He came up today to brief Secretary Cohen and Deputy Secretary Hamre on our relief efforts in Central America and I thought it would be a good idea for him to come by and talk to you and fill you in on where we stand. It's a good and exciting story.

Because there's a lot to talk about, he's only going to talk about the relief efforts and not talk about other issues in his AOR. There'll be ample time to deal with those at another date, but not today.

General Wilhelm.

Gen. Wilhelm: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

On the 26th October when Hurricane Mitch struck the bay islands off the north coast of Honduras, Southern Command was reasonably well postured to take on humanitarian and disaster relief challenges that it presented. That was the case primarily because we were still in the process of cleaning up after Hurricane Georges in the Caribbean and were still looking at the work to be done in Puerto Rico and in the Dominican Republic and in Haiti after Hurricane Georges passed. We tracked the progress of the storm closely, as I think you will all remember. It initially appeared as though Belize would be where it would strike landfall. Some precautionary measures were taken there. The official -- many members of the official U.S. delegation there were evacuated. But we had done considerable contingency planning before the storm actually made landfall on the bay islands and ultimately into Honduras.

In talking to you today, I did bring along a few charts simply because I think, one, it gives you ready reference to some of the statistics that I'll be citing. And number two, I think it keeps us in the box geographically and perhaps there are some things about the storm and what it's done in terms of the total land area in Central America that has been effected that perhaps haven't been too clear to you based on previous reports and coverage.

This is kind of a stark picture, but I think it probably very clearly portrays the fact that this is really a human tragedy of enormous dimensions and we'll talk to the total loss of life and the suffering that the people in Central America are experiencing in just a minute.

Hurricane Mitch has been categorized as the most destructive storm to hit Central America in more than 200 years. And this was the chart that I referred to when I discussed the geographic boundaries of the storm damage.

All of these portions that are shaded in brown on the chart in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and in Nicaragua are the areas of those countries that were hardest hit. That is roughly 40% of the Central American land mass. Some of the people who are visiting the region right now only get to the capitals. And as you can see, Managua, San Salvador and Guatemala City were not significantly touched. Only Tegucigalpa in Honduras was really effected by the storm, and most of the clean up has been completed there. But this is widespread damage.

Now, this stands in marked contrast to another very significant natural disaster that this region experienced in the 1970s. You'll recall that in '72 and '76, both Nicaragua and Guatemala experienced earthquakes which produced wholesale loss of life. In fact, the loss of life from those earthquakes was larger than that which will probably ultimately result from Mitch. However, the damage in the countries was confined to the area of the earthquake, no where near as widespread as this map would indicate. And the grim box score, for lack of a better word, is here. As you can see, the number of dead, and these are good, reliable estimates directly out of the nations themselves. We're rapidly approaching 10,000. The hope for these more than 13,000 missing gets fainter and fainter with the passing of each day. The numbers of displaced and homeless, 3.2 million. And finally, just as an illustrative statistic on the damage to the infrastructure of Central America, 352 bridges either damaged or destroyed. And by my best tabulation, that's over 50% of the major bridges in the region. So I think that gives you some appreciation for the extent of the damage and the magnitude of the reconstruction task.

I thought it might be helpful if I discussed with you briefly the three phases of the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations as we see them right now in the United States Southern Command. Right now we're involved in phase one, which we just term the emergency assistance phase. And as indicated there, this primarily involves life saving missions and the emergency delivery of supplies and medical assistance that will be required to sustain the populations until we can at least apply some patches to the infrastructure and start the normal flow of these commodities. Our operations right now are being based out of Soto Cano by an organization we call Joint Task Force Bravo. And I would mention at this point that we have had a continuous United States presence in Honduras since 1983. So our troops at the Soto Cano Air Base rode out the storm with Honduras and we actually commenced humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations before the rain stopped. So it was an instant response with on-scene forces. At the onset of the storm, we had about 500 troops at the Soto Cano Air Base and a mixture of helicopter assets which were immediately put to work.

Soto Cano is really our anchor point in Central America. It's the base for our operations now. That is our intermediate support base. Our forward operating bases are in Managua, in La Ceiba, in San Pedro Sula, in Honduras and in Guatemala City in Guatemala. The tally on forces, and this is a very recent recapitulation, the better part of 1,400 troops on the ground right now, 39 helicopters, and 6 fixed wing aircraft, C-130s and C-27s, aircraft that can use the short runways and the unimproved runways in the region.

I would tell you that I think a great deal has been accomplished to date. In the early days of the crisis, from about the 26th to the 28th of October, helicopters manned by U.S. servicemen and rubber boats manned by members of our Special Operations Command were active throughout Honduras. They actually plucked people off of dikes and off of roof tops whose lives would have almost certainly be lost had they been swept away by the flood waters. The number 700, quite frankly, may be a conservative number for lives that were saved during this initial, very critical phase of the operations when really the government of Honduras and its forces were essentially paralyzed.

As indicated here, food distributed to date, over two and a half million pounds. Almost a thousand pounds of urgently needed medical supplies have been distributed. I indicated the amount of clean, fresh, bottled water that's been distributed to the population, about 70,000 gallons probably baits a question. Doesn't seem like very much for the population of an entire region. Shortly after the crisis, we assembled and shipped to Central America 70% of our national inventory of iodine tablets. Somewhat of an archaic way of purifying water. It's what we used when I was a young lieutenant in the Marine Corps. And it works. On the heels of that, our troops put in two all-nighters packaging powdered bleach, hypochloride, to send to Central America. And ultimately, we sent enough down to purify adequate water for 2 million people for one week. It's the little things that bog you down in these kinds of operations. Powdered beach is a corrosive. You can't put it on an aircraft until you break it down into one point packages. So that's just sort of illustrative of the kinds of issues and problems that you work your way through when you're trying to respond to these kinds of emergencies.

As indicated here, this is a projection out until the 26th of November, which I believe is Thanksgiving day. This first phase of the operations we estimate will cost the United States about $35 million. Now, those are Department of Defense expenditures and OFDA expenditures for the relief effort for just phase one.

The next phase of the operation we refer to as a rehabilitation phase. And as indicated on the chart, the print's a little bit small, this phase will consist of repairs to the infrastructure that are required to re-establish the capabilities of the nations themselves to provide essential support and health services to their population, patches to the infrastructure, if you will.

During the second phase, we will activate and are in the process of activating at this moment, a second task force. That second task for will be at the Comalapa Air Base, which is near the capital, San Salvador of El Salvador. The division of labor is fairly simple. The second task force will take care of the requirements of Guatemala and Nicaragua, leaving the existing task force to focus exclusively on Honduras, which was hardest hit by this disaster. We've had terrific support from the government of El Salvador. We've really been given totally unfettered and unconstrained access to the air base, a tremendous help for us because the central location between the two most heavily effected countries is ideal. As the second task force stands up, they will then open forward operating bases throughout the region. And this will probably expand over the number that you see on the map right now as we identify those specific pieces of the infrastructure that Department of Defense forces will be assisting in restoring.

We will see a significant increase in the number of forces. And I believe that the First Lady announced this during her visit. And I think it's been commented on since. The total number of forces will be in the neighborhood of about 5,700. It will take about 80 C-141 equivalent airlifts to get troops and designated equipment into the region. Really, most of the assets, particularly the engineer equipment required to affect the repairs to the infrastructure will go by sea. We have four Military Sealift missions planned to get the engineers and their equipment to Central America. The size of our aviation component will grow from 39 to 59 with additional aircraft coming from the United States. And we will add another four intratheater aircraft to the inventory on the ground in Central America, more C-130 and perhaps some more C-27s.

The third phase which is still pretty much in the formative stage right now and many decisions are left to be resolved on it is what we at Southern Command have referred to as the restoration phase. And these are those long term efforts which I believe will probably be measured in years rather than months that will be required to really put the infrastructure in Central America back in place and get the countries back on their feet and really kind of restore a semblance of what they had as national capabilities and as really an economic base before the storm hit.

During this phase, we at Southern Command see this as a transition point. The role of the Department of Defense will become smaller while the role of the interagency, international organizations, private volunteer and non-governmental organizations should actually grow considerably. One of the things that we think that DoD can do during the restoration phase is to continue to execute what we call the New Horizons exercise series. This is an exercise program that has been a major part of the United States Southern Command's regional engagement program for quite some time. Really, there are four principle end products from this. We send engineers, for the most part, and medical people almost exclusively from the National Guard and the Reserve into Central and South America and the Caribbean and they do four things: they build schools, they build clinics, they drill wells and they conduct medical outreach programs. This is a standard part of our operation. A typical New Horizons exercise will build four schools and four clinics, it will drill six wells and it will conduct three very far reaching medical outreach operations. So it's a very effective tool for working with the governments of Central America, which at the same time provides very meaningful support to the populous. So we can see a very productive role for an expanded New Horizons program as we work our way through the restoration phase.

And, I believe at that point, I've hopefully done a reasonable job of summarizing the plans that we have right now, the three phases of the humanitarian assistance disaster relief operations as we envision them. And I'd be pleased to take your questions.

Q: After the earthquakes in the 1970s, a lot of people think that those set the stage for the guerrilla insurgencies that followed. How concerned are you about this hurricane creating a destabilizing political situation in the region?

A: Well, I think there's always room for some concerns with distressed populations. But I would tell you that in several instances, I think the nations themselves did an excellent job of responding to this crisis. And I would offer as an example, Guatemala. In March of this year, we conducted an exercise with Guatemala and the rest of the nations in Central America and a few from the Caribbean that we called Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarian. As luck would have it, the exercise scenario involved a simultaneous earthquake and hurricane. So we stepped our way through every part of the process required to first mitigate the effects of the hurricane on the front end. And I was very pleased by this. When I got off the airplane in Honduras, Gen. Espinosa, who is Gen. Shelton's equivalent in their armed forces, the first words out his mouth as we shook hands were, General, thank goodness that we did the exercise in March. He said we put to use everything that we practiced there. The Guatemalan armed forces went in. They analyzed the flood plain and very literally evacuated tens of thousands of people, which is one of the reasons, a major reason why Guatemala suffered so few casualties in a comparative sense. Less than 300. We were very pleased by that.

Their internal disaster relief organization, CONRAD, had also been a player in this interagency exercise and they had refined a lot of their internal procedures and had actually fine tuned their organization based on the things we discussed during the exercise. So that's an example of a step forward which the population is well aware of. And we're not dealing of thousands of dead in Guatemala. We're dealing with hundreds.

Honduras, of course, took the heaviest hit. I think that's always the way it is. They were the first country in the path of the storm. From Honduras, we were able to determine that the damage from this storm would not be winds, but it would be rains and water. But I think President Flores, his military -- I talked to Gen. Hung-Pacheco there -- they've done a good job of regaining their balance after a very, very catastrophic first few days. There was some looting, there was some lawlessness, but the President moved decisively. He established a curfew, suspended certain constitutional liberties, but from what I saw on my last trip through the region, which was last weekend, things appear to be on an even keel. So I think in terms of stability, we may have weathered that storm.

Q: You point out there are 3.2 million people who are displaced. Apparently crops have been destroyed. Presumably unemployment is going to rocket after this. What does that do for the general security outlook for Central America?

A: Well, I think it really underscores the need for a far ranging program to assist the nations with their recovery. Your point about the damage that it's done to essentially agrarian societies is right on the money. The banana crops have been destroyed, bean crops have been destroyed and these are the staples. The people do, indeed, need a fresh form of employment. The countries are, with international aid, forging plans to provide for the resettlement of some of their people and for the rebuilding of some of the homes that were damaged instead of destroyed during the floods. But it will take a large effort over time involving the international community to solve those problems.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about conditions the soldiers have to be weary of? Of course, disease is a threat. We've also heard a little bit about possibly mines or other things moved around by the water. Have you run into much of that?

A: Yes, those are good points. Of course, what we try to do is solve the problem on the front end before it becomes a problem, so we're very cautious of the threat of Hepatitis. We're watching closely vector borne diseases. We make sure that all of our people start Malaria prophalaxis early. We take all the prudent steps to make sure that they're properly cared for.

Your point about the mines is a very valid one. A number of mines, of course, have been displaced by the flood waters. Some of the mines were around bridges. Probably Nicaragua has been more heavily effected than any other country. That will obviously be an important factor in our force protection calculation. We will have to make sure that those areas are cleared of mines before we start reconstruction efforts. And Nicaragua has, in fact, reconstituted much of the humanitarian demining force that we had trained and they're already back at work in these regions.

Q: Where will the 5,700 come from and how long will it take them to get there? Which services?

A: The 5,700 troops will come from all of the armed forces, all four branches of the armed forces. They will be drawn almost exclusively from the CONUS base. They will come from posts and stations throughout the United States and they will be a mixture of active component, National Guard and Reserve troops.

Q: When will they be there?

A: The actual commencement of the deployment as I look at phase two, we treat that as 26 November. That's the end of phase one and the beginning of phase two.

Q: Are they moving now?

A: Some are moving now. We had two bridge companies, or excuse me, one bridge company from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, that is enroute to Honduras now and will arrive in Honduras on Monday. So some of the forces are already flowing.

Q: And what will they be doing? What will their -- primarily, are they medical assistance, engineers, what?

A: All of the above. As was indicated on the one chart with the clouds on it, most of the predominant units are engineering and medical. We have units, bridging units, we have vertical construction units, naval mobile construction battalion seven is already on the ground with the majority of its advanced element. We will have people with earth moving capabilities where bridges are not required. We'll do fords and bypasses. We'll take those steps that are necessary to repair the infrastructure as quickly as possible and restore the country's ability to take care of their populous.

Q: Can you give us a historical perspective on how this compares to any other humanitarian effort in Latin America by the United States in the last decade, two decades, three decades? Do you have any feel for that?

A: I would say that it's the biggest task undertaken in the context of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations by Southern Command in recent history. Quite frankly, I don't know what the level of our involvement was in the earthquakes in 1972 and 1976, but certainly, nothing since '76 has approached this in size or scope.

Q: Can I ask a question on the personnel numbers? The 5,700, is that in addition to the 1,300 you have right there?

A: No, that's a cumulative total. Those 1,377 troops that are on the ground today will remain and they are rolled into that number, 5,700.

Q: Actually, you're sending about another 4,300 or so?

A: You're probably better at arithmetic than I am. Yeah, it's 1,377 plus what it takes to yield 5,700.

Q: And you think they'll all be there by -

Q: ... 26 November?

A: No. We're actually starting the flow. Those are the earliest arrival dates for the additional forces. Now, it's important to note that a lot of these forces are moving by ship, so you have to factor in about seven to eight days for movement. But of course, as is readily apparent, engineer units with earth moving equipment with lots of outsize and overweight cargo move more efficiently and more effectively by ship than by air.

Q: But by early --

A: They will close -- they will close -- the majority of forces will close by the end of the first week of December.

Q: And they'll stay how long?

A: That remains to be determined. The assessment process of the damages that have been done within the countries are on-going. After we identify the total number of gaps that have to be bridged, then we have to sit down with the countries themselves. They determine the relative priorities. And we have 26 countries involved in the relief effort, so then there's an international division of labor that we have to consider as well. So the precise requirements will emerge over time as the assessments are completed.

Q: Wouldn't they almost certainly be there through Christmas?

A: That's dependent on a variety of factors. I couldn't tell you at this point how long they'll be there. It would probably be a disservice to guess.

Q: But even weeks or months?

A: I would say probably we can measure it in months, a month or more.

Q: Cost of phase one you estimate at $35 million. Is there an estimate for the later phases?

A: I'll tell you quite frankly, at Southern Command, we don't do the money side of it. I would really refer your questions on the financial side to Mr. Bacon, to OSD or perhaps the State Department or OMB.

Q: When they're building bridges in a situation like this, are they really temporary bridges or can they build some permanent stuff?

A: Combination of the two. We really have three options. We have two military bridging capabilities that we will send to the theater. The first is medium girder bridge. Each medium girder bridge will span a 50 meter gap. The next size bridge up is a ribbon bridge or a floating bridge. That will go as far as 705 feet. Then the next category of bridge is not a military bridge, the Bailey bridge. That is a fabricated commercial bridge, but our military engineers are proficient in using them. The difference is that the medium girder and the ribbon bridge are table of organization equipment. We put them in and we have to take them out and return to the United States with them because that's part of our warfighting stocks.

The Bailey bridge, on the other hand, once its put in can stay. So that would, quite obviously, be a powerful factor in some of the decision making processes on which bridging we use. But those are our three options.

Q: Can you --

A: I'm sorry, I didn't mean to ignore the right rear side of the room.

Q: Can you discuss -- with all the problems in the next few months with disease, what kind of, what specifically are the medical teams going to go out there and address the disease?

A: What we're doing right now is simply this. I have put first emphasis on getting preventive medicine technicians in rather than treatment people on the front end. Logic is that is if we can stop epidemic level disease in the countries, we'll be far ahead in the long run. Now we do have treatment specialists on the front end as well, but our emphasis is on preventive medicine. We're already involved in vector control, in spraying operations, trying to essentially solve the problem before it emerges. That's part of the attention to the water supply. Much of it has been contaminated and as we all know, where there's contaminated water, typhus and cholera and other problems are right on its heels. So we're trying to address that as well. So it's a preventive medical approach, but with treatment capabilities as well on the front end.

Q: What upper respiratory problems they're having? I was just reading in all the countries, they're having hundreds and sometimes thousands of respiratory illnesses.

A: Yes.

Q: In other words, are there going to be, epidemiologists coming out? Do you have any of that?

A: All of those specialties are included in the medical units, some of which are deployed there now, more of which will be following in the second trench of forces that's going in. But yes, we'll be prepared to look at all of that.

Q: What's the longer term solution on water? If you sent iodine and that was enough for a week, I think you said?

A: No, that was the hypochloride, the powdered bleach. That was enough for 2 million people for a week.

Q: Are we still in that one week period right now? And what do you do next?

A: No. The countries are doing a pretty good job now of identifying alternative pure water sources for their people, but we needed to buy them a little time. A couple of weeks. Yes. And some of the wells are starting to clear now as the water tables drop.

Q: Do you think you're past the risk point of epidemic yet or are you past that danger point?

A: Probably a doctor ought to answer that, but I'll take a stab at it because I've been there. No, I don't think we're out of the woods. We have to worry about mosquitoes that are, of course, hatching in the stagnant water that's left behind from the floods. Quite frankly, things like animal carcasses are a problem because they also produce vectors. So no, I don't think we're out of the woods.

Q: Secretary Caldera was here reporting on his initial visit and saying that they would probably be using a lot of National Guard and Reserves.

A: Yes.

Q: Is he coordinating with you or how has his role as the designee from the Secretary, I think, in terms of military aid down there? How is he connecting with you?

A: Our coordination with Secretary Caldera is close and continuous. We talk on the phone probably on an average of about two out of every three days. I touch base with him before I go into the region and after I come back. He does the same with me. It's been very, very helpful. And of course, I think he's forged some very effective relationships with some of the national leaders in Central America. So it's been a great help having someone of his stature to go into the region and really to sort of act as -- he's an extension of Southern Command and in a sense, we're an extension of him. So it's a good relationship and it certainly gives us better coverage within the Department of Defense.

Q: Have you had any trouble getting Reservists or anything like that? There was some hint that the situation with Iraq was interfering with flights down there or the scheduling. Has that eased or what's that about?

A: Really, there are two questions there. First, we haven't yet really made our widest use of the National Guard and the Reserve. That's yet to come. It takes a little bit longer to mobilize them for all the obvious reasons, so up until now, the preponderance of the forces that have gone into the region have been active component. But now we're identifying tasks for the National Guard and Reserve and some of the units that will be going down in the second trench of forces will certainly be National Guard and Reserve.

As far as the effect of Iraq on the operations in Central America, it wasn't as severe as you might think. We had initially planned to use wide body aircraft for the deployment of some of our forces. When those aircraft became no longer available because they were committed to the Gulf, we did put in a couple of all night sessions converting our deployment planning to sea lift. But did that rather quickly. I would say transportation command, the United States Transportation Command did a terrific job. They turned all of this around, got the sea lift contracts out as the air lift fell out. And I'll tell you, to be very honest with you, we didn't lose very much. Except sleep.

Q: Are they giving you the aircraft back or are they telling you --

A: Right now, we're using primarily C-141s and we're using C-130s and our own organic C-27s. And quite frankly, for the units we're deploying, that's just about what we need. The job's getting done, getting done on schedule, so I have really no complaints at all about the transportation support. It's gone remarkably smoothly considering the disturbances caused by other situations that arose around the world.

Q: Secretary Caldera said that the airports were pretty well packed with aircraft. Has that eased up any and is that looking better or more open (inaudible)?

A: Well, first, I think we probably need to make the point that airports as we refer to them are kind of few and far between in Central America if we're thinking in terms of an international airport, which you and I most commonly think about with hangars, parallel taxi ways, parking space on the ramps. Then there are a great number of unimproved dirt strips and asphalt strips around the country, which of course, won't handle large airplanes. Yes, there was considerable congestion in the airport at Tegucigalpa in Honduras. Mexico committed a large contingent of its military with both fixed and rotary wing aircraft. The parking ramps got pretty crowded in Guatemala City as well. But most of that, I think, has been pretty well managed now. And I don't think that we really lost the effectiveness of any operations because of airport crowding. But it was a challenge for a while.

As an example, I might point out one of the most capable runways in the region is at the air base at Soto Cano. And our people there had the material handling equipment and they were actually offloading virtually every aircraft irrespective of its nation of origin as the relief supplies began to flow through. We did that primarily because it was a good thing to do, but secondarily, the quicker we got the airplanes off the ramps and off the taxi ways and back into the air, the quicker we could free the runways and ramps up for the other aircraft that were waiting to come in. So it was hectic, but the job got done.

Q: Thank you, General.