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News Briefing with Rear Adm. Michael LeFever

Presenters: Commander, U.S. Disaster Assistance Center, Rear Adm. Michael LeFever
October 24, 2005
News Briefing with Rear Adm. Michael LeFever

            (Note:  The admiral appears via teleconference from Islamabad, Pakistan.) 

 

            BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs):  Admiral LeFever, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me?   

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  Sure, loud and clear.  How about me? 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  We hear you very good.  And thank you for being with us this afternoon, our time -- this evening, your time.  I know it's late there, but we really do appreciate the opportunity to talk to you and hear from you.   

 

            This is Admiral -- Rear Admiral -- or -- excuse me -- yes, Rear Admiral Mike LeFever, who is the commander of the U.S. Disaster Assistance Center in Islamabad, Pakistan.  Admiral LeFever has been on the scene there for approximately two weeks, and he is going to give you an update regarding U.S. support to Pakistan following that devastating earthquake on October 8th. 

 

            He is joining us today by telephone line only, so we will not have his picture coming on the screen here.  And he does have a few things that he'd like to go through and give you an overview before we get into questions but then is willing to take some questions for a few minutes, then. 

 

            So with that, Admiral, let me turn it over to you. 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  Thank you, Bryan.  I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you and the rest of the press. 

 

            As you said, we have been on the ground here about two weeks in Pakistan.  I feel good about the contribution and the efforts of support by our government and the military, now about 563 strong and building, in support of Pakistan. 

 

            To give you an idea of the scope of the operation already, we've already had over 69 airlifts come in the country at the Islamabad airport, at the military side of the field, called Chaklala.  And we've delivered over 532 tons of humanitarian assistance and 53 tons of medical supplies already. 

 

            We've delivered over 31 pieces of engineering equipment by sealift, by boat or vessel, North Star and the USS Pearl Harbor.  And today we had another delivery by USS Pearl Harbor of humanitarian assistance, provided by some of the countries in the Gulf GCC states. And we're lined up for the USS Cleveland in a couple days and followed by USS Tarawa delivering more humanitarian goods to the seaport of Karachi for further transportation up into the affected region.   

 

            Our helicopters have flown to date now over 596 sorties, and they have delivered over 1,990,000 tons [sic, pounds] of supplies.  Additionally, they've probably carried about 2,600 passengers, many of them doctors, medical and people to do evaluation on the ground.  But even more importantly, on the return flight, after they've off-loaded their cargo and supplies, they’ve brought back over 2,576 folks to be casually evacuated for medical care down here in Islamabad, where treatment was not available up in the affected area in the remote regions. 

 

            They have been doing just an outstanding job, and these are the same folks of Task Force Griffin, that a day earlier were flying missions in Afghanistan in the war against terrorism, and the very next day demonstrating incredible flexibility and agility to carry out relief supplies, saving thousands of lives -- brought back for medical care and saving even tens of thousands of lives distributing much needed supplies, tents, clothing and medicines to affected areas. 

 

            So it's quite an event.  The numbers are building because we just put up the MASH 212 from EUCOM that was flown in.  They're all ready. It took them one day to set up initial capability for medical. Tomorrow by this time, we'll be able to conduct surgical capabilities at the hospital and continue to grow to be a fully staffed hospital supporting that area within a few days.  And we have our construction battalion from Okinawa joining up on some of these engineering pieces with 31 engineering pieces and generators that we've supplied, joining up tonight in fact, and moving up to just south of the epicenter at the city of Muzaffarabad and conducting road clearing work and other projects.  And they'll be engaged as early as Thursday. 

 

            And we're flowing in another hospital from Okinawa, from the 3rd MEF that will be putting the hospital up into an area of Balakot region, Chinhari, which is just southeast of that region, which was probably the most devastated city up there.  There's really tremendous ability that is coming into play to support the government of Pakistan.  And, really, a lot needs to be done as well for the people of Pakistan.  General Abizaid yesterday was on the ground, and during his visit, you know, scoped out the devastation and said, you know, the devastation is really significant, and the United States as well as the rest of the international community really needs to continue to help the people in this country because it's going to be a long-term rebuild and reconstruction effort.   

 

            And with that, I'd like to open it up and happy to answer any of your questions as best I can. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Charlie, go ahead and get started. 

 

            Q     Admiral, these -- Charlie Aldinger with Reuters.  These 563 folks you have on the ground -- one assumes that most of those, as of now, are air support people.  Or does that include the engineering battalion and the medical -- the MASH unit? 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  It does.  The 563 -- to be candid -- up until just two days ago, we were probably about 400 strong, and that consisted of about 200 folks at Task Force Griffin, the command element from Afghanistan, as well as the helicopters there, the 14 U.S. helicopters, and also in close support with the four Afghanistan helicopters out at a field to be able to conduct the -- (inaudible) -- maintenance and the surge operations that they were performing, as well as close to 100 folks of the CRG Air Force ground team that has done just a terrific job.  When I say 69 airlift, that's U.S.  These great men and women, 24/7, around the clock, and have been essentially taking over and helping no matter what aircraft comes in, from Iranian aircraft to Ukrainian aircraft, AN-224s that were loaded up to the overhead with blankets and supplies, hand-packed, that took 24 hours to pack.  They, with the support of the Pakistan government, were able to off-load in four and a half hours much-needed -- over 170,000 pounds of supplies -- blankets, medical supplies and tents.  And they've been doing just a terrific job.  And then a small portion  -- (inaudible) -- the advance party initially about two weeks ago, about 11 people, working with Ambassador Crocker and his folks on the ground.  Of course, General Eikenberry at CFC Alpha was first on the scene to assess and before I was named to work for him as a part of this disaster assistance.   

 

            And so those numbers do include -- it's 120 Seabees that will close out tonight on an airlift that finishes up about 4:30 this morning, and they'll be hopping on their equipment and moving in a convoy up to Muzaffarabad, which is about an eight to 10-hour drive along the main artery from Islamabad.  But it – (inaudible) -- include the initial footprint of the MASH, which is about 60 folks now, and they'll be growing close to 200 folks here within the next day as well.  I looked at the footprint with the extra hospital probably in the vicinity of over a thousand U.S. armed forces on the ground supporting the efforts of Pakistan. 

 

            Q     You mean with the second MASH unit it will bring it up to about a thousand. 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  Yes, sir, that plus the extra aircraft and maintenance personnel we'll be bringing in to increase the number of aircraft as well. 

 

            Q     And just briefly, we understand that you were going to bring in a second engineering battalion -- (off mike) -- as well as road clearing? 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  This battalion, this company-size Seabees are available to do the road clearing that they've assisted in.  In fact, I had a meeting tonight with them regarding the areas that we're looking at, to note on the ground an incredible scene, very rugged terrain.  We're here at 1,600 feet as Islamabad, and the elevation rapidly grows to 6(,000) and 8,000 feet elevation.  Narrow roads along river valleys.  And some of these river valleys are secondary lines of communication that cut off many regions.  And we're in support of government of Pakistan in clearing those roads, clearing the rubble to open up the lines, because we know it's just not a helicopter mission to be able to do those supplies.  Much-needed supplies need to go by ground transportation as well to the affected area, and then maybe at these forward operating bases be able to reach into the areas that are cut off by the roads that have been destroyed by the earthquake. 

 

            Q     Admiral, it's Lolita Baldor with AP.  I understand that you had some difficulty -- they had difficulty getting in equipment for major surgeries, although parts of the MASH unit were able to get in.  Do you know when you expect the equipment, etcetera, for the major surgery to arrive?  And are there -- what kind of progress are you making on the roads that will allow the other MASH unit to get there more quickly? 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  We have done an engineering assessment of the roads, and with great support of the Pak military and civil authorities.  

 

            What happened with the surgical units, as we were going up the roads that we thought were probably sufficient enough to get -- and we've surveyed two routes to get into Muzaffarabad -- the one eastern route was very treacherous, and we took the western route, which seemed to be a little bit safer.  But there were some switchbacks in the road that -- with the five-ton trucks, and the trailer vans that we have that maneuver this in place were just a little bit too big for the turn, and we were afraid that clogging a main artery of supplies was not necessary. 

 

            We brought those back in the same day and in fact off-loaded those onto flatbed trucks that were a little bit smaller in shape and the back of jinga trucks, and those in fact have arrived this evening. And we'll be putting those surgical pieces together with the assistance of cranes provided up there in the region by the government of Pakistan.  And we expect to be conducting major operation surgery, along with the ICU beds, starting tomorrow night, no later than 1800. 

 

            Q     Hi.  This is Vicky O'Hara with National Public Radio. There have been reports of earthquake supplies being siphoned off to groups that are not necessarily earthquake victims, and I wonder if you can be certain that the supplies you're bringing in are actually getting to the victims of the earthquake. 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  We haven't confirmed any of those reports, although we've been hearing -- some of that has been supposedly reported.  I have not seen it or witnessed it.  I know that the supplies that are coming in are all the -- particularly the U.S. supplies that are off-loaded by our folks of the CRG -- we kind of have a little separate kind of a yard, so to speak, of that equipment and supplies that have come off.  And the DART and the USAID team that have been superb have been arranging for NGOs to provide the jinga trucks and loads, and we've been placing those loads on those jinga trucks to be transported up by ground.  The other equipment have been going over in support of the government of Pakistan, and the Pak mil that have been putting the loads on the helo aircraft from the international force that's here.  The many helicopters that are here are rigged for certain areas with certain set of supplies, and those we know are getting into the affected areas. 

 

            Q     Can I follow up?  I just wonder if there are U.S. personnel with each of the shipments and seeing it to its final destination? 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  Well, we do know that the ones that are going up in our helos -- our great men and women off-loading those helicopters at their drop zones.  I can guarantee that those are getting to the affected areas and being distributed at the landing zones, and in some cases, in very treacherous areas because of the terrain, we've been lowering -- dropping out of the helicopters in a low hover and in one case landing, you know, and moving that stuff out.  We know that's been going on. 

 

            When the U.S. supplies go into to the trucks, to the non-government organizations -- and there's a host of them that USAID and DART's working with -- we are pretty certain that those -- because the particular NGO takes custody of them -- that those are getting to the affected areas without any trouble. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Otto. 

 

            Q     Otto -- Admiral, Otto Kreisher, Copley News Service.  When Cleveland and Tarawa arrive are they simply going to off-load cargo, or are you going to bring additional personnel ashore? 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  They're strictly in off-loading cargo for right now as we continue to assess the needs of what people need to be up here to assist the government of Pakistan.  So it's supplies only, and we'll be turning them over to NGOs for transport up into the affected area.  They're in Karachi, and they'll transport them up by road or by rail to the affected area. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Yes?  Go ahead, please. 

 

            Q     (Name inaudible) -- from Agence France Presse.  Sir, how much of these efforts which you mentioned would be able to alleviate the concerns of the Pakistani authorities, who say they don't seem to be getting a handle of the situation due to the magnitude of the disaster?  

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  I want to make sure I understood your question right.  In fact, could you repeat that last part; if you could, please?  I want to make sure I answer your question. 

 

            Q     The efforts you mentioned, how much of these efforts will be able to alleviate the concerns of the Pakistani authorities, who are worried in recent days that they will not be able to meet the expectations of the relief efforts because of the magnitude of the disaster? 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  I guess to answer that, we think the government of Pakistan and the Pak military have been doing a superb job.  They have been on the ground since day one.  Their different armies have been out in the regions.  Their Army Aviation Corps has been heading the charge.  And we're in full support of the government of Pakistan. 

 

            There is quite an effort going on, I think, in response because it is such a devastation.  The number of people, you know, continually grows, the number we think died in this tragedy, and the number of people that are homeless, that, you know, continued international effort is definitely needed to help alleviate the concerns -- the concerns expressed by the government of Pakistan, because it is absolutely overwhelming, partly because of the terrain, partly because of the access to people that live up in this gorgeous area of the Himalayas that are separated now by the only means of roads to be able to be resupplied.  And so it is a daunting task, but there are -- they are working at it very methodically and logically, and they keep reaching out and reaching far out into the areas.   

 

            It's heartwarming, I'm sure as you've seen in the press, not only the helicopter, but it gets to the distribution points, and in some areas we have seen the mule trains head up into the hills to provide supplies to really the remote villages.  Tomorrow we start C-130 drops, airdrops of supplies, at the request of the government of Pakistan, to areas that are very remote to be able to get some bulk supplies into those regions that are particularly packaged with food, blankets, tents and medical supplies for the areas.  And so they are continually reaching out to the affected areas.   

 

            Q      A quick follow-up, sir.  How is the U.S. military cooperating with NATO, for instance, in terms of relief operations? 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  A great question, because tonight Admiral Stufflebeem and his party will be arriving.  We have already been working closely.  It's really a wonderful multinational effort there at the Chaklala airport.  There was a small ground -- it was a dirt field when I first arrived, and now it's kind of an international tent city.  And all of the nations and NGOs seem to be working quite well together.  We've set up kind of an aviation shop where all the pilots can get some briefings, as well as at the -- Major General Javit the Pak military heart, head of Army Aviation, but here's an area that they can come to as well to take a look at some charts and maps.  NATO has been there.  We have been coordinating with some of their staff.  We've been coordinating with the Japanese that have   entered.  And several other of the countries seem to congregate in that area.  It's a wonderful international flavor that seems to bypass all the bounds or issues that you might face, because we're all focused on one thing and that's humanitarian and saving lives for people that have been devastated.  So it's a wonderful atmosphere.  It's incredibly professionally rewarding to see the cooperation and effort on everybody's part. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Vicky. 

 

            Q     Admiral, Vicky O'Hara, National Public Radio again.  I wonder if you have enough of the overview of the humanitarian crisis to assess the level of international aid response.  Is it adequate? Is it a drop in the bucket?  Do you have any assessment? 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  Vicky, great question.  And I know, in fact, in a few days, on the 26th, there's a U.N. donors conference in Geneva, and I believe that's going to be a major, major topic.  My initial assessment is, you know, there is quite a bit of devastation, and this is not a, you know, quick, immediate kind of the 9-1-1s that everybody provides, but it is going to be a very long-term rehab and reconstruction in these areas, and it will require continued international support, probably for years to come. 

 

            Q     Hi.  Gordon Lubold from Army Times.  I'm sorry, sir, if I missed it earlier, but can you just say, what is the end state for what U.S. forces will be contributing in the coming weeks?  Is there a goal in terms of number of people and equipment, anything like that? 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  Gordon, right now we're responding to the needs of the government of Pakistan.  They've requested some, obviously, help in clearing roads and some medical help, and of course the much-needed helicopter airlift that we're providing, as well as the strategic lift and humanitarian assistance supplies not only from us but from other contributing nations that we've been able put on our strategic air and move in the theater, particularly the tents and blankets and shelter material that's desperately required.  So that continues.   

 

            We continue to assess on the ground what's required and support our friends.  It's probably tough to say that there's any finite number.  As General Abizaid said yesterday, you know, we're here for the long haul with our friendship here in Pakistan.  They've stood by us and they're undaunting, and that's what friends do, and that's support them.  And it's clearly -- we're here for the long haul to support them and their needs. 

 

            Q     Admiral, did I misunderstand you, or did you say that these C-130 drops that you're starting tomorrow will be the first?  I thought you'd already had some C-130 drops.   

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  Yes, we've had some C-130 drops prior to that. And what we were doing was working with the government of Pakistan, the Pak military to assess the right areas to be able to drop, and at their request going into other areas to drop.  And they'll start up again, I guess I should say tomorrow, and we -- and we'll be continuing that at their request in the areas that need it. 

 

            Q     Thank you. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Well, admiral, I think we've run out of questions here.  It's obviously a tribute to a very thorough overview that you've given and to the very focused questions of the press corps here that I think we actually are able to end a little early. 

 

            But we appreciate you taking the time late this evening to be able to do this with us.  And maybe in a couple of weeks we can have you back and get another update on how things are going there. 

 

            Thank you very much. 

 

            ADM. LEFEVER:  Bryan, thank you.  It was great to do that, and I'll look forward to the follow-up and the progress of how we're doing and the efforts that are ongoing.  As I said earlier, it is incredibly professionally rewarding for the joint forces that come together in the efforts that they're doing, saving lives every day, by the casualties, and thousands of lives by what they're doing.  And it's just so heartwarming to see. 

 

            Thanks so much.  And I look forward to talking to you in a couple weeks. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Very good, admiral.

 

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