UTAPAO, Thailand — While providing relief to those in need after the tsunami that struck South Asia on Dec. 26 is critical, so too is creating better access to remote areas and beginning to clean up.

Various engineer units are helping to improve land access to hard-to-reach areas and to clear debris. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Navy Seabees, a Marine engineer battalion, Air Force airfield pavement experts, even a U.S. Coast Guard environmental strike team, have joined forces in the massive effort.

The Combined Support Force 536 engineer team’s main goal, said Lt. Joe Pope, a U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps officer, “is to develop a plan to help facilitate the flow of supplies to those who need it. We’re not here to rebuild nations and we’re not looking to do any major reconstruction with U.S. military forces. We’re here to help get these countries back to the point where they can help themselves.”

So Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 40 is headed to Indonesia and NMCB 7 will be helping in Sri Lanka, as will the Marine Corps’ 9th Engineer Support Battalion. On Sunday, the 9th ESB began two cleanup projects in Sri Lanka, removing 150 cubic yards of debris.

The engineer battalions brought their typical equipment, such as bulldozers, backhoes and dump trucks. Tom Brady, plans and operations engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Pacific Command, said technical engineers are on hand, as are the expeditionary construction units. All 35,000 USACE staffers are on call to lend their expertise via communication back to the States, he said.

Brady said the engineering team’s job is to “make sure nothing obstructs operations” and ensure the right type of engineers are in the right place. They’re here, he said, to help with immediate distribution needs.

While operations are getting started in some areas, other regions still are being assessed. Pope said a USACE survey team hopes to arrive in Indonesia soon.

It probably would be based on the USS Abraham Lincoln, he said, and flown into Meulaboh, Indonesia, to survey the area and devise an assessment to allow for any needed quick repairs.

Another survey team is helping the Thai government in the Phuket region.

Pope said the engineering teams undertake such missions only when asked to do so by the host-nation government. Once asked to make an assessment, he said, they “look at a small chunk at a time,” then draft requirements.

In Indonesia, Pope said, as many as 30 to 40 bridges might be out along the only road running down Sumatra’s west coast and much of the road also is washed away. To help get supplies to remote areas, the engineers may find themselves clearing and repairing roads and repairing bridges.

With the USNS John McDonnell heading to the region, Pope said, hydrographic surveys can be done if Indonesia’s government requests them. The Navy’s Underwater Construction Team 2 also is on its way and could be put to work on underwater repairs, he said. Another 270 Seabees now on Okinawa are on “ready status” should Indonesia’s government request a larger engineer force, Pope added.

While clearing the widespread devastation and improving roads may seem overwhelming, he said, engineers live for such challenges.

“This is what Seabees do,” Pope said. “If we’ve got to be away from home on a deployment, this is the kind of work we want to do.

“It’s all for the common good … we’re just here to help countries get back on their feet.”

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