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Secretary Caldera's Briefing on his trip to Central America

Presenter: Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera
November 09, 1998 2:00 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: It's my pleasure to introduce the Secretary of the Army, Louis Caldera, who has just returned from Central America. He visited Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua to supervise and review the operations of our relief efforts there. He has a report on that and he'll take your questions after that.

I'd like to say that if any of you would like him to answer questions in Spanish or make a statement in Spanish, he'd be glad to do that, but we'd like to do it at the end of the briefing rather than in the middle or at the beginning. But we'll have time to do that afterwards.

Secretary Caldera?

Secretary Caldera: Good afternoon.

On Friday, Secretary Cohen asked me to go down to Central America as his personal representative to evaluate the efforts that DoD personnel had made in responding to Hurricane Mitch, and also to help oversee the efforts that we're providing here at the Department of Defense supporting the CINC, Gen. Wilhelm, as he attacks this mission.

We went down to Honduras and had an opportunity to meet with Ambassador James Craigen and President Carlos Flores in Honduras, as well as the Minister of Cooperation, Moises Starkman, who is coordinating their recovery efforts. We also went to Nicaragua and met with Ambassador Lino Guitierrez, Foreign Minister Montealegre, and Vice Minister of Defense Jose Guerra. And in Guatemala with President Alvara Arzu, Ambassador Donald Plantey, and Minister of Defense Brigadier General Barrios.

The foreign individuals we met with were all uniformly very appreciative of the support that the United States has provided to date. They're very somberly looking not just at what needs to be done in the immediate timeframe to preserve life and to distribute emergency supplies to outlying areas, but also starting to look forward to what is going to need to be done to rebuild the infrastructure and the economy in these areas.

United States forces under Gen. Wilhelm were up and running on the very first day that they were able to operate. We have soldiers stationed in Soto Cano, Honduras with helicopter airlift capabilities. They suffered through the storm, but as soon as they were able to get their helicopters up, they were able to go to those areas where the weather would permit them to fly and begin a lifesaving operation that resulted in saving more than 1,000 lives, people caught in fast rising water and being plucked out of trees and off of rooftops.

Today that effort has transitioned more to the distribution of emergency supplies, food, water purification kits, plastic sheeting for shelter, medicine, medical evacuation of individuals who were injured in the original catastrophe but had not had an opportunity to be attended to, as well as preventive medicine to try to prevent the outbreak of diseases in the area, and to start doing an assessment of what it is going to take to help these countries recover.

To date, U.S. forces have flown over 221 missions in the country. They've delivered over 376 tons of food and medical supplies. It's coming in from all over the world, but it comes in on Air Force C-17s. It gets broken down and put on C-130s and C-27s that are able to land in shorter runways and on dirt runways, where it gets transhipped onto Army Chinooks and Black Hawks, and then gets further distributed out to the remote areas which today are still completely inaccessible except by airlift. In some cases they're taking food to people for the first time in a week now they've been able to get something delivered to them.

Units are arriving every day. In the next two days, 16 additional helicopters will be arriving. There is a second package of 16 helicopters that has been put on alert; and a third package of 16 helicopters that has been identified and the process is beginning to assess where and how those units would be used, or if they're the units that we need at this time.

We also have a Seabee construction battalion, Navy Seabees, on the ground who are helping open roads.

The damage to the infrastructure was tremendous. It's estimated that 60 percent of the infrastructure was damaged or destroyed; that there are over 300 bridges that have been damaged or destroyed and will need to be replaced. There are places where the roadside was washed away or where landslides undermined and covered the roads or completely obliterated them such that in order to open the major traffic routes by which supplies can be delivered overland and that will permit the economy to start functioning again. There's going to be a tremendous amount of effort that's going to be needed.

We have Corps of Engineer assessment teams arriving tomorrow that will be out doing precisely that kind of assessment of bridges and roads in order to prioritize where the effort needs to go.

I've had a chance to brief Secretary Cohen since I've been back. He's asked me to go back to the area in the next couple of weeks, but at this time we're doing a number of things to help deliver U.S. assistance. We're going to call all of our National Guard Adjutant Generals throughout the country asking them to assess what resources they may be able to provide, including airlift for the tons of donated goods that Americans have gathered around the country. We're asking them to contact the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance which has the process by which approval for transshipment of those goods under the Denton Program can be arranged.

We're also looking at our program that we had scheduled for Honduras in 1999, the New Horizons National Guard engagement program which is scheduled to take 3,000 National Guard soldiers to Honduras from January to June of this coming year, working on engineering projects, and to consider how we can enhance and retarget the efforts of those engineer units to meet the highest priorities in those countries.

We are also going to look at the planned engagement activities that we have, not just in the coming year, but in the following, in the years following, to see how we can enhance those programs because the recovery effort to rebuild the infrastructure in those affected countries is going to be a long term effort, and certainly one that we can help contribute to.

President Clinton's initial commitment of support in this area included $30 million for military support. We're going through that pretty fast and we're evaluating what other sources of funding there may be to support what the CINC, Gen. Wilhelm, says we need to be able to do to continue to provide this critical support to that area.

With that, let me stop and take whatever questions you may have.

Q: The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, is that the State Department?

A: Yes, it is.

Q: Is there any discussion of bringing forward this National Guard operation, the 3,000 National Guardsmen?

A: Much of that has already been planned in terms of when it would go there and what kinds of projects they would do. Because those are individuals who have jobs and have to plan for when they would go, we probably would not change the flow of when they would go but we might change what projects they would do to make sure they're the ones that are the most important at this point. A lot of it's going to be helping build bridges and rebuild the infrastructure.

Q: Do you know where they'll be coming from? Which units?

A: Those units are coming from throughout the United States and they're already planned to come. We have Governors and TAGs out there like Governor Wilson from California, who has indicated that he would like to be supportive, that he has Air Guard units and National Guard preventive medicine teams, for example, that could be available and that we're looking at how we would be able to use those resources.

Q: So it's possible that you'll have more than 3,000?

A: Yes.

Q: Or is that over a rotation of the six months?

A: The 3,000 is a rotation over six months, but we're looking at how we can enhance and retarget that program.

Q: These 48 helicopters -- 16 going in, 16 alerted and 16 more ID'd. Are they active duty, reserve?

A: Those are active duty helicopters.

Q: Where are they coming from?

A: Right now they're coming from Fort Bragg and from Fort Stewart.

Q: Any foreign military involvement? Any of our allies sending helicopters, etc.?

A: There are other foreign governments who are there on the scene, both military and civilian agencies, and of course the local countries are the ones who are directing the relief effort in their areas. So they look at all the resources they have available to them and then task out the missions. At this point we have been supportive of all the missions that we've been asked to do.

There are some critical needs. In Tegucigalpa they only have 25 percent of the water capacity that they had prior to the hurricane for a city of over a million. So, for example, they're looking for water pipes and asking for assistance in transporting those water pipes so they can get their system back up and running. But infrastructure, water, roads, fuel, are all critical needs at this time.

Mr. Bacon: Anymore questions? Any questions in Spanish?

Q: Yes. You can answer in English. You were saying that this $30 million that you had allotted is running out pretty fast. Do you have any idea of how much it will take and for how long will the U.S. have to contribute to this relief?

A: (Spanish)

Q: (Spanish)

A: (Spanish)

Q: (Spanish)

A: (Spanish)

Q: Could you repeat that last... (Laughter)

A: We committed $30 million to this, for authority to draw down $30 million to support this mission. We're going to go through that pretty fast, just in terms of blade time for helicopters and maintenance and what it takes for the logistics to keep that up and going. So we're now just evaluating where that additional funding is going to come from. There are a number of options of what that may include, including additional draw down authority. But we're fully supporting the CINC, Gen. Wilhelm, in what he feels we need to do to be able to accomplish this mission, and clearly there is much more that will need to be done.

The devastation there is tremendous. They lost whole crops that are going to result in extreme poverty and joblessness. Indeed, you've got over a million, in some cases, homeless individuals, and hundreds of thousands of displaced individuals who cannot yet go back to their homes. So helping rebuild those economies and the physical infrastructure, the roads and bridges that help goods and markets work is going to be a daunting task.

We're going to transition away from those. Those aren't the military missions that we can accomplish. There are other international and U.S. led agencies who will start to pick up those missions.

In the meantime, we're doing what we can do which is ferry emergency supplies, do the damage assessment that needs to be done, that's going to be a basis for some of those further activities, as well as the preventive medicine kinds of activities to prevent the spreading of disease that always occurs in these kinds of disasters.

Q: How many U.S. servicemen are involved in this effort right now?

A: We have something less than 1,000, a little less than 900, but that number keeps increasing every day.

Q: It seems to be pretty crowded down there now...

A: It is. One of the challenges for bringing more helicopters and other assets in is just simply where do you base them out of and the limited places that they have to operate from. Some of them are already in forward deployed areas and operating out of those remote areas. But you can choke the operation by trying to bring too much in. So the things that are coming in are really very targeted at the next phase of needs that are arising.

Q: Where are the helicopters? Are they all working out of Soto Cano, or --

A: No, they aren't all working out of Soto Cano. There are a number in Managua in Nicaragua and in Guatemala. They're also in about four different locations in Honduras.

So, the fixed wing aircraft push the supplies forward, and then those helicopters are there to transship them and ferry them out to the remote locations.

Q: How about medical teams?

A: We had two preventive medicine teams that should have arrived today. So they're on the ground. If you look at the list of things that are being asked for -- water purification kits, medical supplies, etc. -- all of that is being attended to.

The soldiers that I talked to, the helicopter pilots, they're in some cases as they drop off food they're medevacing back out individuals. They talked about one young girl who had a broken leg without any medication for seven days, but we're able to bring her back out and get her to a hospital. So a lot of that continues to occur.

But where you have so much death in terms of animals, human, and standing water, other kinds of problems, you have a great potential for disease, and efforts are being made to try to minimize that.

Press: Thank you.