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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs > Releases > Remarks > 2005 East Asian and Pacific Affairs Remarks, Testimony, and Speeches

Briefing on the U.S. Government Relief Efforts in Asia

USAID Assistant Administrator James Kunder
Brigadier General John Allen, Principal Director Asia and Pacific Affairs, Office of Secretary of Defense, Department of Defense
Washington, DC
January 3, 2005

(10:15 a.m. EST)

MR. ERELI: Thank you for coming, everybody. We're pleased to have at the State Department today, two of the -- actually, three of the people who are very directly and intimately involved with American relief efforts to the tsunami victims. They are Mr. James Kunder, the Assistant Administrator of USAID for Asia and the Near East, and General John Allen, Principal Director of Asia and Pacific Affairs at the International Security Affairs Bureau of the Department of Defense.

The two gentlemen will brief us on an update on relief activities for the victims of the tsunami disaster and then will be available to take your questions. We'll try to keep this to about half an hour because there are other events they have to go on to.

We also have to answer questions, Mr. Bill Garvelink, who is Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID.

So we'll begin with Assistant Administrator Kunder and then go to General Allen.

MR. KUNDER: Thank you. Let me give you a quick overview because, number one, I know you have questions; and number two, I'm told you have our latest USAID fact sheet which has pretty comprehensive numbers.

Basically, at this stage, in a crisis of this magnitude, we want to focus on three things: number one is, continued assessment, we want to get eyes on the ground and make sure we know what kind -- what the most urgent needs are in the affected parts of the region; second, we want to get resources mobilized into the region; and third, we want to get those resources coordinated and distributed in the region.

First of all, as has been said before, this is probably the largest natural disaster in terms of scope, area affected, and numbers of people affected. And I'm talking about not just the estimated 140,000 killed, but the estimated three to five million people directly affected by this crisis, and the one million plus displaced. In terms of those measures, this is probably the largest natural disaster to which the U.S. Government has responded.

In terms of the three areas I've identified, number one, assessment, since we last briefed on Thursday, when Administrator Natsios was here, we have more than 135 U.S. Government employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development out in the field assessing the scope of this crisis. And I know General Allen is going to be talking about some of the military teams that are out there working -- or working together to get a clearer picture of precisely what the needs are.

This is a classic situation where the needs are going to be of such magnitude that we've got to make sure that we ready, aim, fire -- not ready, fire, aim. So we're trying to get a clear picture of what the needs are on the ground. We have now gotten international assessment teams and government teams from the affected governments into all regions of Thailand that were affected, all regions of India that were affected, all regions of Sri Lanka that were affected, the Maldives Islands. And in most regions of Sri Lanka that were affected, there are still isolated -- excuse me -- except for Indonesia -- there are some isolated regions of Aceh in which international teams have not yet arrived. They are on the ground now trying to reach those last isolated sections of Aceh.

So, in terms of assessment, compared to where we were last Thursday, we have a much clearer picture of what the needs are on the ground and we're looking both at immediate relief needs and then the needs to prevent any further deaths occurring from epidemic disease or shelter or lack of food or water; second, in terms of resources, obviously, since we last briefed you, the size of the United States Government pledge has increased from the $35 million that we were reporting last Thursday to the $350 million that the President has announced. Overall, there are on the order of $2.1 billion the UN is reporting from international donors that have been amassed and are flowing into the region; but third, and critically, it's important to get those resources managed and distributed in the region. And that is probably the single most important thing we're focused on right now.

Resources, in terms of water, medical supplies, food supplies, have reached many major hubs in Colombo, in Bangkok, in the air strips both in Jakarta and in eastern Sumatra, and we are doing what we would normally be doing at this stage of the process, which is managing the supplies that get to those hubs and establishing hub-and-spoke systems so that the relief supplies are getting out to the most isolated regions. They are flowing. There are some parts of Aceh where we've had to rely on some dropped air supplies because the situation is so inaccessible because of the roads and bridges being wiped out by the tsunami and the earthquake that preceded it. We have teams working in most of those areas now, but that is the critical part, is getting supplies out to the most isolated areas.

So, in terms of how we look at this right now, we're getting a much clearer picture of the situation, we're getting assets into the region and we're getting the assets distributed.

We are already beginning now our planning for reconstruction activities. There has been some reporting about how already some signs of life are reemerging, markets being reestablished, even in hard-hit areas of Indonesia and Sri Lanka. In addition to delivering relief supplies, what we will classically do in this kind of situation is to try to get some cash in at the grassroots level to create effective demand at the grassroots level so that the normal private sector and commercial systems can start flowing.

As I think all of you know, part of the problem in major natural disasters of this kind is a lack of supplies, but an equally pressing problem is the lack of resources by those who have been directly affected. There are still blankets, food supplies, drinking water, shelter material clearly on the island of Sri Lanka. There are the same set of supplies clearly on the island of Sumatra and in the affected -- and in other parts of the region that are affected by this tsunami.

What we're doing, for example, is putting $10 million into Sri Lanka in the affected areas for cash-for-work programs. This, number one, gets people back to work and doing cleanup, but it gets some cash into their hands. We're talking about getting the affected populations, paying them to do cleanup work so that they can start going to their local shopkeepers, those local shopkeepers can start requesting food, since all of these people have been affected. The shopkeepers have been affected. The individuals who lost their homes have been affected. We're trying to get some cash into the grassroots. We're considering -- so that we can effectively draw resources that are in the region into the affected areas to supplement the relief supplies that are coming outside. We think this will be an effective initial reconstruction intervention.

This also has a separate effect because what our assessment teams are telling us, and has been reported in the media, is that the psycho-social impact of this crisis is grave, people are still disoriented, still stunned by the magnitude of the crisis, and based on our experience in previous crises of this magnitude, it is important to get people back to work. And we hope these cash-for-work programs will begin to get people back to work and engaged in the cleanup process so that they can begin the psycho-social process of restoring their lives.

Those are what I would just give you a quick overview, obviously supplemented by this fact sheet that we've handed out -- enormous magnitude of the crisis, a very, very large-scale relief operation underway, still trying to reach the most isolated regions, and the beginnings of our planning for reconstruction that will follow on the relief effort.

And I'll turn it over to General Allen at this point.

BGEN ALLEN: Good morning. I'm Brigadier General John Allen, Principal Director of Asia Pacific Affairs within International Security Affairs and the Secretary's Office of Secretary of Defense. Let me just brief you about the relationship of the Department of Defense to this relief mission, and then I'll talk about where our forces are deployed and give you some idea of what they're doing right now.

OSD, the Department of Defense and the services, are in support of this operation. We are teamed up very closely at every level with USAID and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. On the ground, at the various locations, we'll call it OFDA -- the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance -- OFDA has lead. But there are military representatives standing shoulder to shoulder with OFDA, helping in the process of prioritizing the various requirements and ensuring that we are part of the process by which these supplies are moved forward so that they're relevant and they're efficiently moved.

Within minutes of our being notified of this crisis, military planners went to work and began to plan how the U.S. military might support the U.S. Government in the process of reducing the suffering and providing relief. Within hours, U.S. military forces were underway and moving to the region. Now we're working very closely, as these forces arrive in the region, with those nations that need the assistance.

In the end, these operations are operations for the countries themselves. We work very closely with Thailand. We're working very closely with Indonesia. We're working very closely with Sri Lanka and the Maldives because it will be in those areas in which the relief process will occur and it is their relief, and we're very conscious of that and we're very, very conscious of their sovereignty and their national pride and we seek to work with them very, very closely.

The forces that we have in the theater right now, just north and slightly west of the northern tip of Sumatra, near Banda Aceh, is a carrier group, carrier strike group called the Abraham Lincoln, which is one of our major carriers with support ships; en route, and it should be arriving in the next day or so, is an expeditionary group known as the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group. It is a element of ships that has at its core an amphibious ready group, three ships. One looks much like an aircraft carrier, the Bonhomme Richard, and there are some other support ships along.

There are 24 helicopters coming with the troops aboard the Bonhomme Richard, and there is a Marine Expeditionary Unit that is embarked in that expeditionary strike group. There are 19 helicopters aboard USS Abraham Lincoln, and those units are in fact involved right now, the Abraham Lincoln, and the Bonhomme Richard group, will be involved as well.

The other forces that are coming to the theater, surface forces, is an organization known as the Maritime Prepositioning Ship Squadron Three. These are very large container ships, which are prepositioned military equipment, but they have tremendous capacity to support units ashore. They can store up to 90,000 gallons of fresh water. They can produce tens of thousands of gallons of fresh water a day per ship; six of them are coming. They also have helicopter flight decks. And there are other capabilities aboard those ships, which may, as the assessments and the needs are identified, play and tell seriously in providing the relief.

As well, from all around the world, air force airlift aircraft are converging on the scene, carrying in tremendous amounts of supplies; in fact, the air force has delivered, at this juncture, 430,000 pounds of supplies into the region: C-130s are converging on the region -- there are about 17 on the ground now; strategic airlift, C-17s, C-5s, are also bringing in needed supplies; bringing in other equipment necessary for the relief as well.

So, as Mr. Kunder properly depicted it, the military response, in conjunction, as a part of the U.S. Government response, has been significant, it was instantaneous, and I would call it massive. And it is probably one of the largest military operations in support of humanitarian assistance or disaster relief that we have mounted in many, many years.

So, with that, I think I'll end my introduction, and perhaps transition to questions.

QUESTION: Just a quick fact question.

GEN ALLEN: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: I possibly missed it. Where did you say the Bonhomme and the container ships are head -- are all three of these major forces going to the same point?

GEN ALLEN: They're all converging on the disaster area.

QUESTION: Well, the area is a large area.

GEN ALLEN: I know. And there are needs and assessments that are being done, based on the capabilities, and as those assessments are done, as those needs are identified, then we'll shift resources constantly throughout the theater in order to meet the needs as they exist and as they emerge.

QUESTION: Is there a pivotal point, or is there --

GEN ALLEN: Yes, there is.

QUESTION: And what is that point?

GEN ALLEN: On the ground, at a place called Utapao, which is an air base in Thailand, has stood up an organization known as Joint Task Force 536. Joint Task Force 536 is the central hub for the orchestration of these military forces that are arriving in the region.

Now, in Indonesia and in Thailand and in Sri Lanka, there will be something stood up called U.S. support groups, and these U.S. support groups are both a military entity but also very closely tied with the other U.S. Government elements that are there. They will orchestrate the relief for those countries on the ground.

Does that answer your question, sir?

QUESTION: Yes, sir, it does.


MR. ERELI: Andrea, do you have a question?

QUESTION: Sure. Actually, General, if you could please explain a little bit more about how these different ships and helicopters are going to be used and where exactly? You had mentioned at the beginning that the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group was going to be near Banda Aceh. Is that correct?

GEN ALLEN: The Abraham Lincoln is just to the north of Sumatra now. It has a number of helicopters, H60 model helicopters, which are flying off the Abraham Lincoln, in essence, 24 hours a day.

As you know, the west coast of Sumatra was very badly devastated by the effects of the tsunami. Its logistics infrastructure was affected tremendously -- road networks, bridges, means of communications. All of that has created the situation where the ability for us to move things by surface has really been reduced, and in fact eliminated, for many of those regions.

So right now, the helicopters are flying off that aircraft carrier and delivering those very desperately needed supplies, whether they're just water or food or shelter or clothing, to those points which are, at this juncture, assessed to be the in greatest need. And we're cooperating very closely with the Indonesian authorities to ensure that their identification of needs drives the process by which we are moving these.

Now, a lot of the supplies are coming out of Banda Aceh and Madan, and as is the case normally with relief evolutions like this, as the world responds -- in this case, as the United States responds, as the neighbors, countries who are neighboring respond, as the world responds -- lots of things flow in. They flow in very quickly and they flow into airports and what we'll call airheads and to port facilities that were not affected that can sustain them.

So, if you're not careful, pretty quickly you have a buildup of supplies that you now must move forward. And the commanders who are on the scene are using those helicopters now to move as much of those supplies forward as they possibly can to ensure that those people who are isolated, those people who are in the greatest need, are receiving as much support as these helicopters can provide.

QUESTION: What about the container ships? The container ships and the Bonhomme Richard?

BGEN ALLEN: The Bonhomme Richard has, as I said, a number of helicopters aboard. Those helicopters are the CH-53 heavy-lift helicopters; CH-46, which is a medium helicopter; there are some light utility helicopters called the UH-1, the Hueys. Those helicopters will go immediately to work, as soon as they reach the objective area, and will assist in the process that is already underway through the Abraham Lincoln and continuing the process of moving relief supplies forward from those airheads that I mentioned before, Madan and Banda, and they'll continue that process. And the intent is to start flowing through the helicopters as quickly as possible the forward movement of those supplies.

There are landing craft aboard some of these ships and we intend to use some of those landing craft that have unique capabilities, so we can, again, bypass the devastated infrastructure to be able to deliver to areas where the supplies are needed. And then in the MPS ships, as they're called, there is significant capacity on those ships to produce fresh water, significant capacity to store fresh water, and those ships can be offloaded by helicopter. They all have flight decks. They can be offloaded by hose over the side into barges to barge the water ashore.

So, obviously, through the assessment process we'll determine whether those ships can go pierside anywhere, but the effects of the tsunami, in terms of port facilities have also been dramatic, in terms of decreasing the draft that these ships can attain in the water.

QUESTION: Have there been military rescues that you could tell us about?

BGEN ALLEN: Military rescues?

QUESTION: I mean, survivors are still -- fishermen turned up yesterday. The helicopters get down awfully -- well, it's kind of a two-point question. I heard a reference on radio, I guess, over the weekend that it's very hard for the helicopters to get where they'd like to go best, where they most would like to go because of the chaos and the confusion. And then, you know, people think -- and maybe it's wrong, maybe it's misguided, maybe it's based on movies -- but people think of helicopters as a very valuable rescue craft that can see what is going on and can focus rescue opportunities.

Can you get into that a little bit, if you think it's germane, I mean, if you think something's going on there?

BGEN ALLEN: Well, I think that, as with any crisis along these lines where people's lives are instantaneously changed forever, where the social fabric of the society that they've known hasn't changed over a period of time -- it's changed like that. When that occurs it becomes, in many cases, an issue of just human survival, and in some of these areas there have been days with no contact and no relief. So there will sometimes appear to be desperation, as these helicopters are heard, as they're approaching the LZs, the landing zones, and as they're trying to get into the landing zones.

We recognize that and we will operate that equipment, we will operate those aircraft, in every way possible so that there can be no injury to those people. We're desperately trying to help them and try to reduce their suffering. I believe Mr. Kunder talked about the fact that there had been some drops, free drops of some of the gear. We're just not going to kick it out the door. We're going to make sure that if we drop it, it's somewhere nearby but it's not going to hurt someone. We're going to work very hard to minimize any potential for that.

So --

QUESTION: (Inaudible), but I mean --

BGEN ALLEN: I understand.

QUESTION: -- not being able to drop exactly where you'd like to --

BGEN ALLEN: You're going to do the best you can to make that aircraft and its cargo relevant to the need on the ground. And if it's possible to set that bird down in that landing zone right next to the village, we're going to do it because we want to reduce the amount of work we've got to put the people through. But if we can't get into that landing zone for whatever reason, we're going to get as close as we possibly can. The point is we want to help them and we'll adjust the tactical situation to account for the need.

QUESTION: And have you found any unfortunates bobbing in the sea or something? Have there been any dramatic U.S.-driven rescues?

BGEN ALLEN: I have no information in that regard.

MR. ERELI: Christophe.

QUESTION: Yes, General, during your preliminary remarks you said that you were very conscious of the sovereignty of the different states in the region and their national pride. Does that mean you are meeting -- I don't know -- some resistance or some reluctance in certain places to cooperate with your forces?

BGEN ALLEN: I have no reports of that. It is the going-in position that we have that these countries are responsible for their rescue and for their relief, and ultimately for their reconstruction. And as Mr. Kunder said, we're here to help them. And in the process of helping them, we want to ensure that they're comfortable with what we bring to the table and they're comfortable with the manner in which we interface with them so that they are, in fact, responsible for their relief. And that's very important to us. It's very important, I know, to the team that we have developed, the U.S. Government team that's on the ground, and ultimately, I'm sure, the neighbors that are arriving offering help and the international community that is seeking to offer help.

QUESTION: Tell me if I'm wrong or mistaken, but did I hear you mention India in the list of countries with which you are cooperating? You mentioned Indonesia and others, but I don't remember India.

BGEN ALLEN: Yes. Oh, yes. We talk to India constantly. And, of course, they have a significant capability to provide assistance and they are very much committed to that. I'll let India speak for India, but I know they're very committed to being relevant and assisting. They have a very close and historic relationship with Sri Lanka and we are talking to the Indians constantly on this issue at many different levels.

QUESTION: Early on, the Indian Government said it would take -- thank you very much, but we're sufficient, this very proud statement that we will take care of our own problems. Maybe there are two different things here, India helping Sri Lanka --

BGEN ALLEN: That's correct, and that's what I'm referring to.

QUESTION: But so far as India's damage, India takes care of that?

BGEN ALLEN: We're working about Sri Lanka. My comment is directed with regard to the relief of Sri Lanka and we're coordinating with India in that regard.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on the same subject, I don't believe you've mentioned Myanmar/Burma. Is there no contact at all? I mean, I understand the difficulty, political difficulties, but can you bring us up to date on any contact?

MR. KUNDER: I don't believe we have any operations --

BGEN ALLEN: There was no disaster declaration there so we --

MR. KUNDER: The thing that would trigger an official U.S. Government response would be a disaster declaration either by the U.S. Ambassador or, in the absence of a U.S. Ambassador, the senior-most State Department official responsible. We had no disaster declaration for Myanmar.

And if I could just elaborate on this last point, I mean, please understand, the nature of working -- first of all, the general is absolutely right. The Indians are assisting, and you'll recall that the President announced the formation of a group with the Indians, the Australians and the Japanese, a core group to respond within the region. So, clearly, the Indians are actively involved.

Within India itself, I mean, not only do we naturally have an embassy there, but we have an ongoing U.S. foreign assistance program in India. We have good bilateral arrangements with the Indians. And what has happened is that, in cooperation with the Indian Government, we have diverted some of our regular development assistance program in India to assist in cooperation with the Indian Government some of the affected populations in India.

MR. ERELI: Tammy.

QUESTION: Do you have any assessment of how many areas near Banda Aceh remain isolated, how much you've actually been able to get in there now with the helicopters and how much you think it's going to increase, asses it's going to increase, once the Bonhomme Richard and more helicopters and MPS ships are there? Are there any numbers?

MR. KUNDER: I wish I could quantify that. Would you -- I wouldn't want to quantify. We talked about it just this morning. I mean, you have a very dynamic process going on right now of U.S. military helicopters landing in some of these isolated areas, our teams trying to push out.

Now, we have worked previously -- you know, again, there is a U.S. foreign assistance program in Indonesia, a very substantial one, and while there were some limitations on working in Aceh because of the conflict there, we did have, through our Office of Transition Initiatives, some activity, some peace-building activities in Aceh Province. So we have some established partners on the ground, NGOs, nongovernmental organizations. So we're also working with those nongovernmental organizations. The UN agencies, which have their own substantial programs, like UNICEF, like the World Food Program, like the World Health Organization, also have assessment teams going out. We're trying to coordinate this range of international assessment teams.

I can say that we've reached many of the isolated areas of Aceh. In the next couple days, we'll reach many, many more. And I'm hoping that within a matter of days we'll be able to tell you that we've reached every isolated area. But bridges were wiped out and this is a very large, and as you know, very isolated area.


QUESTION: A question for the Assistant Administrator. There were some reports over the weekend that perhaps some of the assessments coming out of India understated the kind of devastation in that country because of the tsunami. Could you talk about what kind of effects you have seen based on the assessments from your people on the ground in India about what kind of devastation has occurred in India?

Also, you mentioned the cash-to-work program in Sri Lanka. Are there any plans to have similar programs elsewhere in the areas of devastation?

And a question for the general. Are there -- is there a cycle set up, a rotation for these planes to come in? You mentioned that you have C-130s coming in. Is there going to be some sort of daily rotation or a weekly rotation where they come in, fly out, fly in? Is that what we're going to see in terms of, you know, resupplying the areas of devastation?

MR. KUNDER: Well, our assessment of the situation in the affected areas of India is as stated in the fact sheet that you have there. I'm not aware of the allegations that the -- that they might have been underestimated. In fact, we have, based on the latest reports from our assessment teams and the Indian Government, we've actually revised our initial figures downward in terms of deaths in India, some of the -- you know, some of the limited good news out of this crisis. But I'm not aware of any underestimation.

I think what you would normally expect in a crisis of this magnitude, where communications are disrupted, is that you're going to get a lot of fragmentary anecdotal early reporting which could be almost anywhere across the board, and that's exactly why the military sends assessment teams, we send assessment teams, international organizations send assessment teams, so we get a clearer picture. And it's normal for those figures then to be revised accordingly once we get better data and better eyes, professional eyes, on the ground; second, we are looking at doing similar cash-for-work programs in other affected regions, but we have only announced it thus far in Sri Lanka.

And I'll let the general talk about the C-130s.

BGEN ALLEN: Strategically, we have airlift that is coming from the United States and other places where they're based in the world, and they are delivering the large quantities of supplies, they are delivering equipment and so on, into the region. Operatically within the region, the C-130s then are distributing those supplies to smaller airheads so that they can be further pushed out to the tactical needs.

So we have the strategic airlift delivering it into the major region. Within the region we have the C-130s and probably some of the heavy-lift helicopters moving it to some of the smaller airheads, and then from those particular points then the helicopters will take up individual loads and deliver them down to the points where there is need.

Now, all of this is being coordinated so that it is as efficient as we can make it and as effective as we can make it to put the right kind of supplies against the right need as quickly as we can possibly move it.

MR. ERELI: I think we have time for one more question. Andrea.

QUESTION: Could either one of you gentlemen speak to whether or not your various organizations are involved in trying to find Americans who are still listed as missing in the areas, whether or not you've had any success finding them, and if you have any idea what the figures are right now of Americans who are still unaccounted for?

BGEN ALLEN: I know the State Department is tracking that.

MR. KUNDER: We would defer to the State Department on that. The consular officers would normally have primary responsibility.

QUESTION: You're not involved at all in trying to bring assistance to --

BGEN ALLEN: I can't speak for the State Department, but I know that questions are being actively pursued with respect to the whereabouts of Americans, and as best possible to investigate those questions and respond to families or to loved ones who are asking.

MR. ERELI: Thank you very much.

# # #

Released on January 3, 2005

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