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Center Strives to Build Humanitarian Assistance Preparedness

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

CAMP SMITH, Hawaii, Aug. 27, 2012 – A unique organization within U.S. Pacific Command is gathering lessons in natural disaster response from around the world and applying them to help nations improve disaster preparedness and resilience.

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U.S. sailors and Marines aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan load humanitarian assistance supplies onto an HH-60H Seahawk helicopter in the Pacific Ocean, March 19, 2011 in support of support Operation Tomodachi. U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Nicholas A. Groesch

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The Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance stood up here in 1994, two years after Hurricane Iniki – the most powerful hurricane to strike Hawaii in recorded history -- devastated Kauai.

With three subsequent hurricanes and two tropical storms hitting the Hawaiian Islands over a one-year period, the center was established to improve the state, military and interagency responses, Army Col. Phillip Mead, the center’s director, told American Forces Press Service.

The center has a unique mission within the Defense Department of focusing solely on improving disaster response, not just within the Pacom area of responsibility, but also around the world.

“Our authorities are to train, educate, conduct research and to disseminate best practices, not only through our organization, but also through partnerships within the Department of Defense and also with our key allies and partners,” Mead explained.

Nowhere in the world are natural disasters as prevalent as in the Asia-Pacific region. It sits on the earthquake-prone “Ring of Fire” and is tormented by hurricanes, cyclones, tsunamis, floods and mudslides.

“It is not a matter of if they are going to have the next disaster,” Mead said. “It is really when. If there is something common across the [area of responsibility], it is that there is going to be another disaster.”

With natural disasters increasing in number as well as magnitude, Mead emphasized the importance of building a response capacity before they strike. “There is a definite need to address this challenge,” he said. “There is a need to work together and … share good ideas and information in order to build resiliency across the region.”

That starts with education and information-sharing, which the Center of Excellence staff promotes through forums that bring together officials from across regional governments and their militaries to plan coordinated, effective responses.

Seminars and panel discussions include experts from the United States and regional partners with proven records in dealing with natural disasters.

Several countries, including the Philippines and Indonesia, have become experts in preparing for and responding to cyclones and catastrophic flooding, Mead noted. “So they have a tremendous amount of knowledge with regard to building systems, not only within the local government level, but at the national level on how to handle these specific types of natural disasters,” he said.

Meanwhile, based on its long history of responding to earthquakes, Japan has emerged as a regional expert in marshaling an effective whole-of-government response. That expertise was on full display in March 2011, when Japan suffered a devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake that triggered a tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Japan, too, has learned through trial and error. When a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck Kobe in 1995, Japan’s military leaders quickly realized they didn’t have the authorities required to launch a speedy response. Japan fixed that, and after the so-called “3/11” triple disaster rocked the country last year, some 10,000 Japanese Self Defense Force troops were able to respond within the first six or eight hours, Mead noted. Within a couple of days, that number had soared to about 80,000.

“That could not have occurred if the Japanese did not learn a lesson and then rectify it,” Mead said.

The Center of Excellence staff, which served as advisors both from its headquarters here and embedded with U.S. Forces Japan during the Operation Tomodachi response, is compiling lessons learned about that and other disaster responses in a new developmental repository that Mead hopes will improve future responses.

The repository, once complete, will include input from throughout the region. “I believe that, as we capture lessons learned from a U.S. perspective, that there is also a tremendous amount of lessons learned within our allies and partners across South and Southeast Asia, as well as Northeast Asia, that we need to capture and disseminate,” Mead said.

In support of that effort, the center will publish a journal in October on civil-military lessons learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake, he said. Among the authors are representatives of the Japanese government, including the Defense Ministry, as well as from the United Nations and partner nations that responded to the crisis.

While marshaling regional preparedness, the Center for Excellence also is working to build relationships with interagency and nongovernmental entities that would be part of a disaster response.

Pacom recently agreed to partner with U.S. business interests and nongovernmental organizations to support disaster preparedness and coordinate responses. The agreement, signed in November at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, joins the command with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Ford Foundation, the University of Hawaii and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other groups in the effort.

Meanwhile, to ensure joint force commanders and their staffs are prepared if called on to lead a real-life response, the Center of Excellence staff incorporates disaster scenarios and role players into Pacific Command’s exercise program.

The idea, Mead said, is for them to work through the challenges – equipment interoperability, communications and information-sharing, both within U.S. staffs and with partner nations – before a real crisis.

“We develop events that get injected during the exercises to stress out the joint force commander and staff, forcing them to go through a very deliberate decision process,” he said. “And all those issues you work during the exercise will be leveraged during a regional response to a natural disaster.”

By helping to build regional resilience, the Center of Excellence staff hopes to improve partners’ ability to respond to all but the most devastating disasters themselves, or with help from their neighbors.

That, Mead said, reduces their need for Defense Department support, enabling DOD and manpower to remain fixed on their primary security mission.

Using the past year as a gauge, Mead said the effort appears to be paying off. Of 80 declared disasters in the Pacific area of responsibility during the past 12 months, the U.S. military was called in to support just three.

“When [regional nations] are successful in coming together to support each other, it is a win-win for the state that is affected, a win-win for their partners that are able to their neighbors, and it is also a win for DOD,” he said.


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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps search and rescue team looks over the earthquake damage on Sendai Airport near Yokota Air Base, Japan, March 13, 2011. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageU.S. service members and Misawa residents pull a damaged vehicle from the woods near the port in Misawa, Japan, March 19, 2011. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew M. Bradley   
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