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U.S. Marines and Tanzanian soldiers participate in a ceremony in Msata, Tanzania. Some U.S. troops in Exercise Natural Fire could be diverted to provide flood relief in Ethiopia, officials said Saturday. About three dozen Seabees already have been sent there to help out.

U.S. Marines and Tanzanian soldiers participate in a ceremony in Msata, Tanzania. Some U.S. troops in Exercise Natural Fire could be diverted to provide flood relief in Ethiopia, officials said Saturday. About three dozen Seabees already have been sent there to help out. (Joseph Giordono / S&S)

MSATA, Tanzania — While hundreds of U.S. troops are involved in a regional disaster response exercise in eastern Africa, about three dozen others are on their way to provide help in a real catastrophe farther north.

On Saturday, 35 Navy Seabees and security troops were on their way from Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, where hundreds are dead and thousands missing and homeless after massive flooding.

“The priorities for relief assistance at this time are shelter and sanitation,” according to a news release issued by the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa command.

“However, CJTF-HOA is poised to provide additional relief assistance at the request of the Ethiopian government. Civil Affairs medical teams are coordinating with local authorities and [non-governmental organizations] in the area to determine what medical assistance may be needed.”

Indeed, U.S. military medical specialists participating in the exercise in Tanzania said late Friday they had been put on alert for a possible real-life mission to Ethiopia.

The Seabees, members of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5, were dispatched with 52 tents, which can shelter some 6,000 flood victims now being housed in local schools. The Seabees are also to construct emergency sanitation facilities, officials said.

All told, the relief assistance is valued at close to $1 million, a spokesman said.

According to Ethiopian officials, the death toll from the flooding has increased to more thane 900, mainly in the remote Omo River Valley and other areas in the south, east and north of the country. Close to 10,000 people remain stranded in villages cut off by the flood waters, government officials said Saturday.

Ethiopian military aircraft were dropping food, water and blankets to some of the villages, but had been unable to land and evacuate many of the people cut off by the flood waters. Now, officials are worried about the outbreak of disease.

“The people are in need of urgent help because there is an increased risk for malaria and other waterborne diseases,” Atu Lema, of the Ethiopian Red Cross, was quoted as saying by news services.

The flooding has been caused by heavy rains in dry, low-lying regions. More rains are expected in the coming days, including in the eastern city of Dire Dawa, where the U.S. troops are heading.

Some 1,500 U.S., Kenyan, Tanzanian, and Ugandan troops are wrapping up Natural Fire, an anti-terror and disaster response drill being done in the three east ern African nations. The troops have performed a combination of military-to-military training and civil affairs programs. The scenario for the drill was reportedly a response to a devastating regional earthquake.

The U.S. contingent includes reservists brought in from the States, along with troops assigned to CJTF-HOA in Djibouti.

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