U.S. Pledges $350M to Relief as Indonesia Missions Begin
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 31, 2004 As teams assessing the impact of last week's Indian Ocean tsunami report their findings, President Bush has increased U.S. aid to the region to $350 million 10 times the initial pledge made before the disaster's scope unfolded.
Estimates are that more than 125,000 people were killed when a massive earthquake on the ocean floor triggered deadly tidal waves.
U.S. ships have arrived and are flying helicopter relief missions in Aceh province, Indonesia, said U.S. Pacific Command officials.
The U.S. teams' initial findings indicate the need for financial and other assistance will steadily increase in the days and weeks ahead. "I am today committing $350 million to fund the U.S. portion of the relief effort," Bush said in a statement put out by the White House. "Our contributions will continue to be revised as the full effects of this terrible tragedy become clearer." A high-level team led by Secretary of State Colin Powell and including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose state was battered by hurricanes this fall, will head to the region Jan. 2.
The United States is leading a core group that also includes India, Australia and Japan in coordinating the international relief efforts. Canada also has volunteered to help this core group.
The scope of the damage is greatest in Aceh, officials said. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Christmas morning, followed minutes later by a tsunami that inundated parts of the island. Later, the tsunami struck Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, Malaysia and Somalia. Three military assessment teams are in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia. The teams are working closely with the host nations to assess the situation and rush supplies to the most critical areas.
Navy Capt. Rodger Welch, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command's Joint Interagency Coordination Group in Hawaii, said Indonesia "is the most impacted area" and the country will "require the most assets."
The USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Battle Group is operating off the island of Sumatra, and helicopters assigned to the group are ferrying supplies into the region and flying casualties out of the area. Assessment teams in Aceh will decide what other assistance the sailors and Marines aboard the ships can provide.
The USS Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group also is rushing to the area and is expected to enter the Straits of Malacca in a few days. The group is scheduled to move to Sri Lanka, but Welch said that may change as more information becomes available. "Some of the ships may go to Sri Lanka, while others go to different areas," he said during a teleconference from Hawaii.
Operations in the region are complicated. In Aceh, only daylight operations are possible, and pilots must fly using visual flight rules. Other areas are better equipped, and the assessment teams are trying to ascertain the status of airfields not only in Indonesia, but also around the Indian Ocean rim.
More military airlifters will go to the region, Welch said. Two to four C-17 Globemaster III cargo jets will help in the effort, as will six more C-130 Hercules transports. Twelve more helicopters six CH-53s and six CH-46s are moving to the area. The C-130s and helicopters already on the scene are ferrying relief supplies to the hardest-hit areas, Welch said. He noted that the helicopters are incredibly important, because in many cases supplies have arrived at airports, but could not be distributed out of the area. The helicopters will solve that problem, he said.
Pre-positioned ships from Diego Garcia and Guam will arrive shortly with relief supplies including water and water-making capacity. The ships also carry trucks and heavy construction equipment that will enable host nations to reopen roads.
About 350 U.S. personnel are manning Joint Task Force 536 in Utapao, Thailand. The base is centrally located for the relief effort. P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and C-130s already are operating out of the base.