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DoD News Briefing on Hurricane Mitch Assistance

Presenters: Capt. Mike Doubleday, USN, DASD (PA)
November 25, 1998 10:35 AM EDT

[Also participating in this briefing were Maj. Gen. John J. Maher, Vice Director for Operations (J-3); Rear Adm. Michael L. Cowan, Deputy Director for Medical Readiness (J-4); and Lt. Col. Wanda E. Bisbal, Logistics Readiness Center Emergency Action Officer (J-4).]

Capt. Doubleday: Good morning. Welcome to the briefing this morning.

This is another in our continuing effort to keep you updated on the efforts of the Department to support the hurricane relief effort in Central America.

With us today are two representatives from the Joint Staff. Maj. Gen. Maher is the Deputy J-3 and also there is Lt. Col. Wanda Bisbal who is from the J-4 shop.

This is going to be a single subject briefing, but we have many representatives in the room who are involved in the overall effort of moving supplies and charitable donations to Central America. If after the briefing you have any questions, those individuals are here to answer in enormous detail.

Starting the briefing today will be Gen. Maher. He actually has some charts to show you. We'll go through those. Then following that we'll answer your questions.

Gen. Maher: Thank you, and good morning. Maj. Gen. John Maher, the Vice Director for Operations for the Joint Staff.

What I want to do today is give you a bit of an update following the brief you got from Gen. Wilhelm last week. I wanted to come to you before this Thanksgiving holiday and give you just a little rundown on operations.

I think it's really appropriate as we go into the Thanksgiving holidays to share a good news story about what our Americans are doing and what DoD is doing to help us help others.

The agenda I'll cover today is listed here. Of course I'll go through our response effort, the three phases that Gen. Wilhelm described last week -- emergency, rehab, and restoration. Lt. Col. Wanda Bisbal will assist me and go through the transportation of donated supplies and our medical contributions. Then I'll wrap it up in a quick summary.

You know how tough the storm, the impact has been on the region, the number of dead and missing, and over three million displaced and homeless, and the transportation network very seriously damaged with over 350 bridges severely damaged.

I believe you know that we have a standing joint task force, Joint Task Force Bravo in Honduras at Soto Cano which was stood up; originally we had about 450 personnel assigned. It's now more than tripled in its strength in terms of personnel, and we've augmented that mission with 34 helicopters and they've flown over 420 missions and delivered over, almost, four million pounds of supplies.

There have been almost 3500 folks down there treated medically, and we'll go into detail on that a bit later.

A second joint task force, Joint Task Force Aguila, is in El Salvador now. It is not fully operational. It has 540 personnel assigned. They've received ten CH-47 medium lift helicopters just this last few days that arrived after they self-deployed. They're responsible for all countries that have been affected in Central America other than Honduras. The forces for that effort continue to flow now.

As was mentioned earlier, Gen. Wilhelm, the CINC, devised a three phased plan to assist in the region. The first phase started during the storm and runs through the 26th. Of course this was focused on saving lives. There were well over 700 lives saved, in fact probably over 1,000 lives saved by actually pulling people off of levees, rooftops, cartops, and swollen streams in the flooded areas. They delivered emergency supplies, food and water and shelter, in terms of plastic sheeting, and also assisted in making immediate damage assessments, getting the Corps of Engineer personnel as well as medical teams out to make assessments on the scene. Twenty-five such missions to do that, and then some very high profile missions for key leadership, senior leadership of the countries there as well as our country to get on the scene.

Phase two starts on the 27th of November. This is the rehabilitation phase. This focuses on infrastructure repairs. Not necessarily permanent and longstanding, but those immediate things that can be done to assist the population. It assists them in providing for their own health and basic needs.

This involves up to 5700 personnel at this point, with those personnel either on orders or prepared to deploy orders for ships, and 61 aircraft.

This effort will transition in mid-January as we go towards the restoration phase. We feel that the military here will complement the efforts of our government as well as other governments in assisting in the long term and more permanent infrastructure building in the country. We will be able to augment their efforts, to complement their efforts, and we'll do this principally through exercise NEW HORIZONS which was a previously scheduled exercise. It principally involves the National Guard, but it is a total force exercise. This would involve units rotating from the United States into the theater and working on long term projects. These projects would include schools, clinics, as well as establishing medical teams out to help the populace.

This not only exercises the readiness of our active and reserve components, it does focus on the small construction projects that are very doable, enhancing our readiness, work the total force participation in the exercise, and enhances the National Guard's readiness. So it helps us, it promotes good will, and it also works our security interests in the region. So a big payoff with that.

Lt. Col. Bisbal: This slide as well as the next slide will give you representation of what we've been doing in the logistics arena.

This first slide shows you what we've shipped to date as under the humanitarian assistance cargo program down to Honduras in the last 14 days.

I'd like to point out that this has been a great effort between the Guard, the Reserve, and the active duty force -- together, combined, we have lifted a total of 2,013 short tons of cargo, and I say that projected through the 28th of November.

Today alone we have two missions that are scheduled to go down, leaving Gulfport, Mississippi, with another seven missions projected to depart between now and Saturday. There are no missions that will be departing on Thursday. We'll pick up again Friday and Saturday. But this is the combined effort, again, under the humanitarian relief assistance donations coming out of the U.S. going into Honduras.

This next slide is to give you a picture of the medical response we've provided to date. We started off, of course, with the JTF Bravo medical presence. There, our first attempt there was lifesaving, disaster injury treatment immediately as well as providing MEDEVAC as soon as conditions permitted our helicopters to fly. We also had immediate deployments. We had health assessment teams that went down. We had mobile medical teams, and we continue to deploy medical assistance teams to go down. We anticipate all the medical assets that have been requested to date will be there on the 5th of December.

Our end state and where we're focusing now is preventing disease, as well as provide basic medical care.

Gen. Maher: To summarize, DoD was in place with forces in Panama, specifically at Howard Air Force and in JTF Bravo at Soto Cano. That forward presence allowed us to immediately initiate support in the emergency phase, provide medical assistance and save lives as required, and get emergency supplies forward.

The rehabilitation force deployment is ongoing now. The forces are en-route or presently there, and it's on track. The funding that we have for this is coming out of our internal DoD sources outside of $5 million that we get from OFDA, the remainder of the $149 million that we have committed to the effort is coming internally from DoD, from operational funds, from funds that were previously identified out of ODACA funding for demining and also some CINCs' initiative funds, some of them that we had looked to spend on Y2K. So we consider this effort important enough to divert funding to help our American neighbors.

Our restoration effort, exercise NEW HORIZONS, principally is something that will complement the inner agency and our government's efforts to work on the longstanding infrastructure.

That completes our briefing for you. What we'd like to do is entertain any questions that you may have. We have experts throughout the room, so if I don't know the answer I'll refer those.

Q: How long do you foresee the 6,000 projected troops remaining in Central America?

Gen. Maher: Around mid-January is when our funding expires for that effort. We would see that we would draw down about that time unless additional funding were forthcoming.

Q: So that doesn't necessarily mean that the task will be completed, it's just what you have funding for?

Gen. Maher: We expect that in terms of infrastructure there's a very long term task there, and it will take a large effort which we can only complement.

We have been able to scope our task down. The CINC has come forward to the Chairman with a recommendation on what projects can be completed. For example, he has said there's about 250 kilometers of roadway that he can repair. And that's one of the priorities, for instance.

So we have set our limits within what we're authorized to spend. If we do get additional funding from external sources, of course we have a quite capable force with troops there with very high morale, and we would be able to contribute much more.

Q: I wanted to follow up on all of that. So if you don't get additional funding the 6,000 goes down to what level in mid January?

Gen. Maher: Tom, you might be able to help me on that. With the NEW HORIZONS exercise we're looking at rescoping it. The units that are involved in that are, for instance, an engineer unit that's about 500 people, and their personnel will be rotated in as will medical units and support and signal units.

I do not have an exact figure on that now and I'm not prepared to give it to you. We can do a follow-up with you.

Q: Is the idea that if you don't get more funding it just sort of goes back to what it was at Soto Cano plus the NEW HORIZONS exercise?

Gen. Maher: What we would do is we would revert to that which has been sourced and budgeted and which we're legally able to spend, and the NEW HORIZONS exercise is a $34 million exercise.

Q: Could you just go back over because I didn't quite catch it all, the $149 million, is that the level of spending you have through mid January?

Gen. Maher: That is correct.

Q: That is DoD money?

Gen. Maher: That is DoD money minus $5 million which came from OFDA.

Q: And so what would you like to see happen after mid January in terms of funding and personnel levels?

Gen. Maher: It's something I probably wouldn't address. I think it would be speculative on my part. We have plans. Again, we have a very capable force and should funding be available we're prepared to go back in and say this is what we can contribute.

Q: I guess what I was really asking, is the Pentagon or the Joint Staff or the military, do you have a proposal for additional funding after January? Would you like to stay there, stay with the program beyond a cutback effort to NEW HORIZONS?

Gen. Maher: If we were funded we could see some very useful things we could do with our force. It's a robust, capable force that's quite willing to accomplish the tasks assigned.

Q: Is SOUTHCOM proposing, has SOUTHCOM got any proposal before you to...

Gen. Maher: They do not have any official proposal here because our guidance is to work within the existing funds.

Q: You said this is coming out of current operating funds. You mentioned that some of it would normally go for demining activities. What are some of the other things that this money would be normally used for?

Gen. Maher: Just to put things in the ball park, the first $75 million that we had were drawdown funds. They're simply authorizing the services to spend money out of their operational accounts. $50 million coming out of ODACA are funds that were identified initially to complement that which has already been approved in the demining arena for the year, so our flexibility to spend additional money in the demining arena is reduced to zero unless there is some supplemental funding.

I mentioned the CINCs' initiative funds. These were funds where we were going to divert some money to pay for operational evaluations to assist the Commanders-in-Chiefs around the world in their operational evaluations of Y2K tests. We will now have to come up with other sourcing for that because those tests must be done. But this is money that is readily available, and it's available for this disaster, and the decision has been made to commit it to this worthwhile effort.

Q: You mentioned that one of the priorities is 250 kilometers, I think, of roadway. Any idea how many schools you might rebuild or how many bridges you might put up or anything like that?

Gen. Maher: I do have an idea, however I will tell you we haven't responded back to the CINC at this time and we're staffing a reply to him. I'd prefer to hold that until we get the Chairman to approve that. We hope to do that today.

Q: Do you have any update on the medical situation? Do you think that you've now alleviated epidemic outbreaks?

Gen. Maher: Mike, I'll defer that question to you, our Joint Staff surgeon.

Adm. Cowan: I'm Adm. Mike Cowan. I'm the Deputy for Medical Readiness in J-4.

In this kind of disaster, the predominant thing that happens to people is they're displaced. The number of injuries are not enormous, unlike an earthquake, so the very first thing we responded with was preventive medicine and veterinary units to help reestablish drinkable water and do the sort of surveillance things to prevent those epidemics.

Although there are sporadic disease outbreaks, individuals, we've seen no trend lines, or we've had reported no trend lines of things that we would truly call epidemics at this point. Obviously that's a big concern; watching that very closely.

Q: Is there still a concern about cholera, for example, or do you think you're now, I just don't know, would you now be past the point you have to worry about that?

Adm. Cowan: No. Until people are reestablished with their infrastructure and get reliable sources of drinking water things like cholera and other infectious diseases, malaria, yellow fever, all become very dangerous threats for these folks.

Q: Have you been working or do you plan to continue working with other, armed forces of other countries of Latin America?

Gen. Maher: Yes. The countries affected as well as the command, Southern Command, have been working with arrivals of other countries. As you know, the Mexicans assisted, the Japanese assisted. Clearly the latest news we have is the Spaniards have some shipping in-bound with bridging assets, meters of bridge that will be able to be used.

But we have all that coordinated down in the theater and the countries involved also coordinate those efforts.

Q: The medical assistance, I hear that Defense Department is giving support to the doctors, Cuban doctors who are in Central America. That's true?

Adm. Cowan: I have no specific knowledge that we are specifically supporting Cuban doctors. I would not be surprised, because what we're doing is acting as an intermediary to get materials there that come from private sources. Then they're distributed in the theater through a variety of means. But as far as us directly supporting them, I've not heard anything to that effect.

Gen. Maher: I'd like to just say, to make sure I give you the proper impression on this phase three, our phase three talks about our participation with interagency and the government, our government, in working hand in hand with the governments in Central America and the long term infrastructure rebuilt. It took decades to build the infrastructure that's there now: obviously the improvements that have been made. The storm has devastated a great deal of the infrastructure. That has long term impacts with their agricultural base.

We will only be able to assist them. The major effort clearly is well above DoD, but there are things that we're able to do with the funding that we already have that will truly complement this effort. And we're able to assist in items like getting overhead imagery, working with other agencies to get the most economical imagery so that they can make the best estimate they can of the damage to their land so they can best plan their way ahead...but a complementary effort during this third phase and we're prepared to support as led by our USAID and interagency effort.

I think you all know there is a task force that has been formed here in Washington to pave the way ahead on that. They had their first meeting yesterday.

Q: Do you know historically, is this the largest disaster relief effort by the DoD?

Gen. Maher: It is clearly the largest that USAID has executed overseas. We only follow USAID in disaster relief. We follow OFDA's lead. This is clearly the largest disaster that they have ever dealt with.

Thank you.

Capt. Doubleday: Before you all leave I just want to point out that there are two pieces of paper on the table before you depart. One of them detailing the many units who have participated in the airlift portion of moving donated goods down to Central America; and another one which reviews the sealift portion of the effort not only in terms of moving some of the heavy equipment and bridges that are going to the area but also in the utilization of some of those lift opportunities to move large quantities of donated goods.

Press: Thank you.