Pacific Command Rallies Tsunami Relief Resources
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 29, 2004 Three Marine Corps disaster relief assessment teams are on the ground or about to arrive in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and at least two P-3 aircraft are conducting initial reconnaissance of damaged areas as a wide range of other Defense Department assets works its way to tsunami-stricken regions of the Indian Ocean.
U.S. Pacific Command has marshaled assets ranging from carrier strike groups to water purification ships to aircraft to provide emergency support for victims following the Dec. 26 earthquake and subsequent tsunamis, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Conway, director of operations for the Joint Staff, told reporters today at a special State Department briefing.
Navy Adm. Tom Fargo, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, stood up Joint Task Force 536 to coordinate U.S. relief efforts, Conway said. A forward command element has moved into a military base at Utapao, Thailand, and the headquarters is in the process of deploying. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Rusty Blackman, commander of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force based in Okinawa, will command the joint task force.
Meanwhile, the first of three Marine disaster relief assessment teams being sent to the region arrived in Thailand earlier today and a second team was due to arrive in Sri Lanka this afternoon. A third team will arrive in Indonesia Dec. 30, Conway said.
In addition, U.S. Pacific Command has committed six C-130 aircraft and nine P-3 aircraft to the relief effort. Conway said all the C-130s and four of the P-3s will operate out of Utapao. Five other P-3 aircraft will operate out of Diego Garcia.
Conway said at least two of the P-3s already are conducting observation and reconnaissance of damaged sites.
In addition, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, which was in Hong Kong when the earthquake and tsunamis struck, has been diverted to the Gulf of Thailand to support recovery operations, Conway said.
Aircraft from the strike group are checking the Malacca Straits for debris before the strike group transits the area. "If it is clear and early reports indicate it might be the five ships associated with that carrier strike group will take position off the island of Sumatra," Conway said.
Conway said the Lincoln carrier strike group has 12 helicopters embarked that he said could be "extremely valuable" in recovery missions.
An additional 25 helicopters are aboard USS Bonhomme Richard, headed to the Bay of Bengal. Conway said the expeditionary strike group was in Guam and is forgoing port visits in Guam and Singapore and expects to arrive in the Bay of Bengal by Jan. 7.
Conway said the strike group, with its seven ships, 2,100 Marines and 1,400 sailors aboard, also has four Cobra helicopters that will be instrumented in reconnaissance efforts.
Because fresh water is one of the greatest needs in the region, Fargo has ordered seven ships each capable of producing 90,000 gallons of fresh water a day to the region. Conway said five of these ships are pre-positioned in Guam and two will come from Diego Garcia.
A field hospital ship pre-positioned in Guam would also be ordered to the region, depending on findings of the disaster relief assessment teams and need, Conway said.
The U.S. State Department is leading U.S. support for the relief effort. Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, is leading the U.S. task force formed today to respond to the crisis.
Grossman said the task force will work with the regional core group, made up of Australia, Japan and India, to provide coordination and assistance. It also will help coordinate the interagency response in Washington, D.C., and encourage additional international support for the relief effort, he said.
"This is going to be a giant international requirement. Although we make a substantial contribution more than anyone else in these emergencies this is certainly not for us to do alone," Grossman said. "It is going to take a worldwide effort. We would expect and hope and believe the world will respond."
But Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, stressed that "the principal responders in humanitarian emergencies are the people themselves who live there." This, he said, includes local officials who are in charge of responding and the national disaster response teams "who speak the language, have the maps, know the transportation system."
Natsios acknowledged that these groups can sometimes get overwhelmed by the scope of a crisis and need help.
"We need to not think that these people are all paralyzed and can't help themselves, and we go in there and save them all," Natsios said. "We know that most of the best work is done by the people themselves. Our job is to support the people in the cities and in the villages who will begin the reconstruction process. So we are not there to tell them what to do, but to ask them how we can help."