As fears of disease grow, U.S. military picks up pace in tsunami relief effort
January 3, 2005
With fears of disease and epidemic stretching across tsunami-ravaged Southeast Asia — where the death toll has soared past 123,000 — U.S. military officials in the Pacific are picking up the pace of their humanitarian and disaster-relief operations in the region.
With assessment teams on the ground and Joint Task Force 536 moving into place, led by Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman, commander of the Okinawa-based III Marine Expeditionary Force, American servicemembers are distributing food, water and medical supplies to victims of the tragedy and aiding in the search for possible survivors. An estimated 5 million people remain homeless.
“We’ll continue to flow these things in there,” said Army Lt. Col. Vi Strong, a Pacific Command spokeswoman. “Our tempo will continue. In fact, we’re calling in more people to help with this effort. Nothing is slowing down.
“There are a number of U.S. military assets already in the region, and more are headed to the region for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
A Marine spokesman on Okinawa said servicemembers and supplies are continuously being pushed out to help in the massive humanitarian-relief mission. Six flights left the island Saturday, carrying Humvees, Meals, Ready to Eat, water and communications gear.
As heavy snow fell New Year’s Eve on Yokota Air Base, Japan, officials there sent another C-130 to Utapao, Thailand. On Saturday, a C-17 from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., followed suit. Both carried additional equipment and supplies for the Southeast Asia effort, 374th Airlift Wing officials said.
Seven C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft have transported about 150 troops, equipment and humanitarian supplies to the forward-operating base at Utapao, which is being used as a regional airlift hub. The aircraft will remain for an indefinite period, delivering supplies to more remote locations.
The deployed airmen represent personnel from maintenance, medical, finance, aircrew and communications units. They’ve hauled about 49 tons of cargo and humanitarian supplies to affected regions.
“The amount of devastation is like none anyone has ever seen. Our unique talents and training make our airmen properly suited to providing support to those who need it,” Col. Doug Kreulen, the 374th Airlift Wing’s vice commander, said in a news release issued Saturday.
Air Force 1st Lt. Warren Comer, a 374th Airlift Wing spokesman, said Saturday that Yokota’s role in the mission would only expand as aircraft continue transiting through the base.
“Everything we’re doing right now is for disaster relief,” he said. “Everything is focused on disaster relief and helping out the forces down in Thailand and other areas. That mission will continue.”
According to a 7th Fleet news release, the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group began providing logistical support Saturday to disaster victims in the Indonesian province of Aceh.
“For the first time in this tragic situation, six SH-60F Seahawk helicopters from Lincoln are actively ferrying food and medical supplies from collection points in the Indonesian town of Banda Aceh to affected locations in Indonesia,” Lt. Cmdr. John Daniels, a USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group spokesman, said in the release. “Additionally, these helicopters will take injured and otherwise affected people back to Banda Aceh, where they will receive necessary medical and humanitarian attention.”
Navy officials expect additional support in the area in seven to 10 days. The amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard will provide aid to the region, along with elements from its expeditionary strike group including the USS Duluth, USS Milius, USS Rushmore, USS Bunker Hill, USS Thach and USCG Munro.
The strike group “carries 25 helicopters, which will be valuable to us again, in disaster relief,” Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director for operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week. “There are four additional Cobras that will also be instrumental, we think, in reconnaissance efforts. … The commander has also opted to move five of his pre-positioned ships out of the squadron, located in Guam. These five ships have fresh-water producing capability. Each ship can produce 90,000 gallons of fresh water a day, and of course, that’ll be extremely valuable as we have a number of requests already for fresh water supply. There is a sixth ship that has a field hospital embarked aboard, that can be phased ashore, again, depending on the results of the assessment teams, and the need.”
There are 2,100 Marines and 1,400 sailors embarked aboard the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group and 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Conway said.
Strong said a 43-member Navy Environmental and Preventive Medicine Unit is expected to arrive in Medan, Indonesia, within the next three days.
The team includes military and Defense Department epidemiologists, entomologists and lab technicians — with 31 from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the remaining 12 from Japan and the U.S. mainland.
“This team will monitor water quality, food sanitation and mosquitoes,” she said. “They’re addressing one of the big points, and that’s preventive medicine. They’ll also participate in any disease-outbreak surveillance and chemical analysis. They’ll carry a portable lab, so they can analyze things right out in the field.
“Their job is to try to work with the preventive end of it.”
The total force commitment to the disaster-relief and humanitarian-assistance campaigns has not been determined, Strong said, adding that most deployment lengths are also indefinite.
“We’ll stay until we’re no longer needed,” she said. “The assessment teams are just getting on the ground. They’re addressing immediate needs first: water purification, medical issues, preventive medicine. We’ll look at sending an engineer team, too, to open up roads and do the things required from that end.
“They’re still making initial reports on what’s needed exactly."
Fred Zimmerman and Pat Dickson contributed to this report.