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Southern Command Troops Aid Mitch Victims

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 1998 – Just over 1,000 U.S. service members are helping rush food, shelter, pure water and medical aid to the Central Americans made homeless by Hurricane Mitch.

Army Secretary Louis Caldera, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's personal representative, returned Nov. 8 from a trip to Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. He met with U.S. Southern Command Commander Marine Corps Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm and local officials.

Southern Command spokesman Steve Lucas said the aid effort has turned international. In addition to U.S. service members, Japanese engineers and Dutch Mexican aid workers are helping the area recover. U.S. helicopters are delivering the bulk of the supplies.

"Roads are starting to open up, but airlift is still the only way we can get food, water and medical supplies to some of the hardest hit areas," Lucas said. "Local people are overjoyed to see our helicopters come in, but the amount of aid these people will need is staggering."

Hurricane Mitch destroyed or damaged 60 percent of the infrastructure in the three Central American countries. More than 11,000 people died during the storm and thousands more face death from disease. More than 1 million people are homeless and hundreds of thousands of others cannot return to their homes to assess damage until the floodwaters recede, Caldera said.

As of Nov. 9, U.S. helicopters have flown 221 missions and delivered 376 tons of food and medical supplies. "For some of the people it was the first food they had in a week," Caldera said during a Pentagon news conference.

Relief supplies are entering the country aboard Air Force C-17 transports. The cargo is shifted to C-130 and C-27 aircraft to get to smaller, more remote and rugged airports. At those airports, the cargo is shifted to Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters to reach people cut off by road. After dropping off supplies, the helicopters are evacuating the injured.

"One young Nicaraguan girl came out on one of our helicopters," Caldera said. "She had a broken leg and had no medicine or medical care for a week."

There are 23 Army helicopters in the region now with 16 more helicopters due to arrive in the region from Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Stewart, Ga. Sixteen more helicopters have been alerted and a further 16 identified for possible deployment. Caldera is working with state adjutant generals to see if they can provide transportation for some of the thousands of tons of goods Americans have donated.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers teams arrived in the area Nov. 9 to assess the damage and help local authorities assign priorities to projects, Caldera said. The Navy's Mobile Construction Battalion 7 deployed to the area from Puerto Rico. The Seabees immediately went to work with local authorities to reopen roads and rebuild bridges.

"More than 300 bridges washed out and roads have been undermined by mudslides or covered with earth," Caldera said. "[Recovery] will take a long, long time."

Army reserve component medical teams arrived in the region Nov. 9 to combat an almost inevitable outbreak of disease. "The Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa has 25 percent of the water purification capability it had before the storm," Caldera said. "This is an area with a population of over 1 million."

U.S. National Guardsmen will help with the long-term recovery of the area. More than 3,000 National Guardsmen will rotate through the area beginning in January, Caldera said. They will help restore damaged and destroyed infrastructure.

Caldera said U.S. troops in the area began with lifesaving missions. American troops based at Soto Cano, Honduras, endured the hurricane and then took to the air. The Southern Command service members rescued more than 1,000 people stranded in trees or on roofs of houses.

"We even airlifted the president of Honduras back to the capital when he was cut off due to flooding," Lucas said.

President Clinton earmarked $30 million to Southern Command to finance the rescue work. Caldera said more money will be needed.

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