U.S. Military Assistance During Disaster Events Joint Service Support for Stability Operations
by Cmdr. John Wrenn, USN (Ret)
Serviam magazine, September-October 2008
Natural disasters are not confined to any one portion of the globe. Although the news contains reports of volcanic eruptions in South America, earthquakes in China and Africa, hurricanes in the Caribbean, and typhoons in the Pacific, the United States has recently experienced disaster at home. Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and more recently Hurricane Ike in September 2008, have devastated the southern Gulf Coast, causing untold damage and loss of life.
The U.S. military is a frequent sight overseas helping reconstruction operations. However, the U.S. military also provides relief for domestic crises. Although it is common during emergencies for governors to call out the National Guard, recent hurricanes along the Gulf Coast have forced states to rely on the U.S. military to provide disaster relief assistance.
Because of their forward presence overseas, the Navy/Marine Corps team is often first to arrive and provide assistance. Ships provide staging areas and serve as command posts and floating hospitals, while generating electricity when moored. Meanwhile, troops provide much needed manpower to help reconstruct destroyed areas, as well as much needed transportation. At home, the Coast Guard frequently arrives first to assist in personnel recovery. The Air Force, along with the other services, furnishes much needed airlifts, bringing in critical supplies and services. Together, the services create a joint military team that can rapidly respond to worldwide crises and perform stability operations.
2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
Without warning on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the ocean floor just off the western coast of northern Sumatra. Felt as far away as the Maldives in the west and Singapore in the east, the earthquake generated a monstrous tidal wave, with the power of 26.3 megatons of dynamite, that wreaked havoc along much of the rim of the Indian Ocean.
The tsunami hit the countries of India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand the hardest. Many other countries,
including Australia and some in Europe, had large numbers of citizens traveling in the region on holiday who were swept away by the tsunami. Overall, about 230,000 people were killed or lost, while tens of thousands more were injured and more than 10 million were left homeless.
Besides death and injury, the tsunami caused widespread destruction, creating food and water shortages
along with economic damage. Because of the high population density and tropical climate, disease was a major fear.
The disaster created a large need for humanitarian aid with extensive damage to the infrastructure. Humanitarian and government agencies’ main concern was to provide sanitation facilities and fresh drinking water to contain the spread of diseases and reduce the death toll. Because of a quick international response, these concerns were mitigated.
Responding to the catastrophe, donor nations along with the World Bank provided more than $7 billion in aid
to the damaged regions. In addition to monetary aid, the United States provided extensive military assistance.
The U.S. Navy initially displaced a P-3C Orion patrol aircraft and the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group to assist with relief operations. The P-3C performed survey operations, including search-and-rescue efforts, while cargo planes shuttled supplies back and forth from Thailand to the affected areas. The Abraham Lincoln battle group provided a base of operations, along with medical facilities and humanitarian supplies.
The military designated the relief event Operation Unified Assistance (OUA) and set up Joint Task Force 536
(JTF 536) in Utapao, Thailand, to provide command, control, and communications. The Military Sealift Command (MSC) combat stores ship USNS San Jose and hospital ship USNS Mercy joined the Lincoln strike group in assisting the stricken areas. The San Jose provided supply replenishment and served as a staging area for Navy helicopters supporting the Mercy.
Overall, the U.S. military flew more than 9,000 hours, delivering 12.5 million tons of supplies and treating more
than 2,200 patients. The stability operation involved more than 12,600 troops, 21 ships, 14 cargo planes, and 90
2006 Philippine Landslide
On Feb. 17, 2006, during a weeklong rainfall, a 2.6 magnitude earthquake weakened the cliff face above Guinsaugonbarangay on the Philippine island of Luzon, burying the village and killing 1,126 people. The landslide also affected another 8,000 people who had to be relocated to evacuation centers that were quickly established in schools and churches.
Philippine military troops who were operating in the area quickly formed rescue teams. However, the continuing rain, deep mud, blocked roads, and washed-out bridges severely hampered relief efforts. A minor earthquake further slowed rescue efforts, as the ground remained extremely unstable.
Responding to the disaster, the United States authorized the Philippine Red Cross to use $50,000 in emergency relief funds that had been granted for use in an earlier disaster. The U.S. government also donated $100,000 worth of disaster equipment to the Philippine Red Cross, along with $560,000 worth of food and nonfood items provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Philippine Red Cross also asked the United States for helicopters to help with rescue and relief operations.
In addition to the money and aid, the United States sent two naval vessels to the area to provide assistance.
The USS Essex, USS Harpers Ferry, and elements of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade from the 31st Marine
Expeditionary were already in the country to participate in Exercise Balikatan 2006, an annual Philippines-U.S. bilateral combined exercise.
Just as in OUA, the Indian Ocean tsunami stability operation, the ships provided food, water, and medical
supplies to the disaster victims. In addition to transporting food and supplies to survivors, the Philippine and U.S. militaries also used helicopters to transport dead persons out of the disaster area to prevent the spread of disease.
Hurricanes Katrina and Ike
Hurricane Katrina formed over the Bahamas and first made landfall over Florida as a Category 1 Hurricane. Crossing the Gulf of Mexico, it struck southeastern Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005, as a Category 3 hurricane, creating massive damage throughout Louisiana and Mississippi. While Katrina damaged much of the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas with a high storm surge, the major damage occurred in New Orleans, where levees designed to prevent flood damage failed.
To prepare for Katrina’s impact, the U.S. Coast Guard began pre-positioning supplies on Aug. 26, and activated
more than 400 reservists. Rescue aircraft were staged from Texas to Florida. After the hurricane came ashore, Coast Guard aircrews began 24-hour rescue operations along the Mississippi and Alabama coastlines and in New Orleans.
The Coast Guard rescued more than 33,500 of the 60,000 people stranded in New Orleans. Despite the rescue efforts, the confirmed death toll was 1,836, with Louisiana counting 1,577 and Mississippi counting 238 of the total. More than 700 people are still missing along the Gulf Coast. The total property damage from Katrina is estimated at $81.2 billion.
In addition to the Coast Guard, the U.S. Northern Command established Joint Task Force (JTF) Katrina based
at Camp Shelby, Miss., to act as the military’s on-scene command post. More than 58,000 National Guard members from all 50 states were mobilized and sent with federal troops to Louisiana. Large numbers of local law enforcement agents from across the country were temporarily deputized by the state to assist in peacekeeping. The Department of Defense also used volunteer members of the Civil Air Patrol for search-and-rescue operations.
Besides ground forces, the Navy sent a contingent of ships to the devastated area to participate in the stability operation. The USS Bataan acted as a floating command center, using its helicopters to rescue stranded people. When it docked, it generated electricity to assist in the reconstruction efforts. The USS Harry S Truman was home to 40 Navy and Army helicopters, and was able to generate more than 400,000 gallons of fresh water per day. Amphibious ships USS Iwo Jima, USS Shreveport, and USS Tortuga arrived from Norfolk, Va. to assist, while the USNS Comfort, sister ship to the Mercy, later joined the relief efforts. In
addition, the salvage ship USS Grapple deployed to assist in obstacle clearance. Mine clearance ships from Ingleside, Texas, also helped with channel clearance and obstacle removal. Along with the ships, naval construction battalions contributed to the rebuilding efforts.
Like Katrina, Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf Coast, rumbling ashore at Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 13, 2008.
Although Ike was only a Category 2 hurricane, it devastated Galveston and the greater Houston area. It is blamed for 48 deaths and the initial estimate is more than $18 billion in damage. In addition, the hurricane drove up the price of gasoline, as a significant amount of U.S. refining capacity is located on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Also like Katrina, U.S. military units pitched in to help with the stability operation. U.S. Northern Command
assumed control, and staged rescue equipment and aircraft prior to the hurricane’s landfall and directed Air Force units’ support of evacuation operations. After landfall, rescuers plucked 2,000 people from houses and flooded areas. At Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, 100 medics worked around the clock assisting hurricane evacuees. TheArmy provided two CH-47F Chinook helicopters from the 1st Cavalry Division, which flew to Orange, Texas, to provide food, water, and supplies to storm-battered residents.
The Navy directed amphibious assault ship USS Nassau to a position off Galveston Island to assist first responders and supply emergency response assistance to affected citizens. In addition to large ships, Northern Command also deployed large and small boats to assist in search-and-rescue operations. The initial sea support effort was 88 high-water vessels and 21 small boats.
As recently demonstrated, the U.S. military supports stability operations worldwide. The joint military team not only responds to overseas disasters but also provides relief for domestic crises. Based on lessons learned around the world and from Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. military is better trained and equipped to respond to natural disasters and assist in reconstruction operations.
John Wrenn is a retired U.S. Navy Commander and former faculty member of the Joint Forces Staff College. He has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma.