U.S. military directing assets toward Japan relief efforts

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military in the Pacific is readying forces to help with disaster relief in Japan after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami rocked the country.

Japan has officially requested aid from the United States, according to Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. government has been in close contact with Japanese officials since the first minutes after the earthquake, helping them to assess their immediate and long-term needs.

"The Japanese are incredibly prepared for this kind of disaster, Toner said, but given that the “scope and size of this one are enormous,” many different options for assistance “remain on the table.”

The military is “in the process of determining what the requirements are and how we might fill them,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said Friday morning.

He said aid could take the form of sandbagging, providing medical care on shore and on ships, as well as providing shelter, food and water.

Many of the U.S. Navy assets in the Pacific that were underway to different countries have turned around to head back to Japan.

The USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group, which was supposed to make a port visit in South Korea for scheduled exercises, is on its way back toward the east coast of Japan’s main Honshu island, 7th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Jeff Davis said.

Edano said at a news conference that the U.S. was considering using the USS Ronald Reagan to support Japanese firefighting helicopters, but Davis wasn’t able to confirm.

The USS Tortuga embarked landing craft units and departed Sasebo Friday evening, he added. The ship is headed toward Pohang, South Korea, where it will pick up MH-53 heavy lift helicopters.

“We have directed most helicopter capable ships to be ready to sail within 24 hours,” Davis said.

The flagship USS Blue Ridge, which arrived in Singapore this morning, is loading a disaster relief kit and preparing to depart for Japan on Saturday morning.The Sasebo-based USS Essex, embarked with the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, was also preparing to return to Japan Saturday morning after arriving in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Friday morning.

The Marines are planning how they will respond if needed. Additionally, the USS Harpers Ferry and USS Germantown are heading for Japan.

“A number of the exercises we conduct in this region are specifically designed as humanitarian-type relief missions,” Lapan said. “Unfortunately we’ve had to do this several times in different areas in the Pacific.”

Stars and Stripes reporters Chris Carrroll, Erik Slavin and Kevin Dougherty contribued to this report.

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