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DoD Forms "Eagle Force" to Expand Mitch Relief

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 30, 1998 – DoD active duty and reserve personnel are delivering thousands of tons of humanitarian aid to the Central American countries of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, all devastated recently by Hurricane Mitch.

DoD officials announced the creation of a second joint task force: Joint Task Force-Aguila -- Spanish for "eagle." The first, Task Force-Bravo, operates from Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras.

More than 10,000 people died when the hurricane, called the most destructive in recorded history, slammed into the region. Flooding, mudslides and landslides caused most of the deaths. Some areas received 50 inches of rainfall during the storm.

Army Maj. Gen. John J. Maher III, the Joint Staff's vice director for operations, said the new joint task force, based in El Salvador, is responsible for that country and Nicaragua. "[The new task force] has 540 personnel assigned," he said. "They've received 10 CH-47 medium-lift helicopters." They have begun to fly missions.

Through Nov. 28, DoD aircrews -- active duty, Air Guard, Air Force Reserve and Naval and Marine Reserve -- have airlifted 2,013 tons of cargo to the region.

Plans call for 5,700 U.S. service members in the area through mid-January, Maher said.

Joint Task Force-Bravo began the rescue phase of the operation even before the storm was over, DoD officials said. U.S. service members saved more than 1,000 people from flooded villages and farms.

More U.S. service members are deploying to begin rehabilitation, the second phase. "This [phase] focuses on infrastructure repairs -- not necessarily permanent and long-standing, but those immediate things that can be done to assist the population," Maher said. "It assists them in providing for their own health and basic needs."

He said the cost of efforts is $149 million.

DoD has been helping the countries with medical support. Task force medics, medical assessment teams and medical assistance teams all deployed from U.S. bases and have treated thousands of storm victims.

"People are displaced," said Rear Adm. Michael L. Cowan, the Joint Staff's deputy director for medical readiness. "So the first thing we responded with was preventive medicine and veterinary units to help re-establish drinkable water and do the sort of surveillance things to prevent those epidemics."

Cowan said there have been isolated outbreaks of diseases, but nothing to indicate an epidemic. The region, however, is not out of danger, he noted.

"Until people are re-established 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," he said.

Maher said DoD will shift into a restoration phase in mid-January. In this third phase, troops -- mostly from the National Guard -- will travel to the area and help the inhabitants rebuild their countries. Called New Horizons, the long- planned Southern Command-sponsored series of exercises is being "refigured" to help the area get back on its feet.

"Projects will include rebuilding schools, clinics, as well as establishing medical teams to help the populace," Maher said.

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