SOUTHCOM, partners prepare to respond to natural disasters

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
Putting lessons learned from the 2010 earthquake response in Haiti into practice, U.S. Southern Command has entered this year's hurricane season ready to provide timely, effective aid should another disaster strike the region, command officials reported.

"We remain deliberately prepared," Southcom commander  Gen. Douglas M. Fraser reported to Congress in the lead-up to hurricane season, which kicked off this month.

"As we look at the hurricane season, we prepared for that, not only within our own headquarters, but with our partners in the region," Fraser said.

SOUTHCOM's area of responsibility, which includes Central and South America and the Caribbean, is no stranger to natural disasters. The largest earthquake recorded worldwide in the 20th century occurred in 1960 in Valdivia, Chile. Mount Pelee's 1902 eruption in Martinique caused more than 30,000 deaths, and the 1985 Nevada del Ruiz eruption and mudslide in Colombia killed 25,000 people. Major flooding in northern Venezuela in 1999 left more than 20,000 dead.

Haiti has been tormented throughout its history with cyclones, hurricanes, tropical storms, torrential rains, floods and earthquakes. Haiti's 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January 2010 left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. That disaster sparked the SOUTHCOM-led Operation Unified Response mission in support of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Relief.

At the peak of that mission, Joint Task Force-Haiti included 22,000 service members -- 7,000 land-based and the rest operating aboard 33 Navy and Coast Guard vessels, 262 fixed-wing aircraft and 57 helicopters. They reopened the heavily damaged international airport at Port-au-Prince, repaired port facilities and delivered 2.6 million bottles of water, 2.9 million food rations, 17 million pounds of bulk food and 149,000 pounds of medical supplies into Haiti.

The task force also provided one of the largest medical outreach efforts in history, with humanitarian and engineering support continuing long after the six-month disaster response in Haiti concluded.

The mission proved to be a "tremendous learning experience" for SOUTHCOM that underscored the importance of close interagency and non-governmental cooperation, Army Maj. Gen. Gerald W. Ketchum, SOUTHCOM's director of theater engagement, told American Forces Press Service at the organization's headquarters here.

The response effort led to revisions in the command's disaster response plan, increases in its disaster-response capabilities and expanded disaster-preparedness outreach across the region, Ketchum said.

Coincidentally, the SOUTHCOM headquarters staff was getting a demonstration of a new computer-networking tool to promote collaboration in the event of a natural disaster the very day Haiti's earthquake hit. The All Partners Access Network, initially introduced at U.S. Pacific Command, provides a standardized platform for coordinating efforts between the various interagency, non-governmental organization, international and military responders. The scenario being used to demonstrate the APAN system was a notional hurricane hitting Haiti and taking out its emergency response command-and-control capabilities.

But based on real-life events, the SOUTHCOM staff quickly took the demonstration live and hundreds of organizations began using APAN to coordinate a faster and more efficient relief response that saved lives. SOUTHCOM is now using the system as part of an improved framework for military support to civilian-led disaster relief operations, Fraser noted in his command's 2012 posture statement.

Meanwhile, SOUTHCOM is collaborating with regional partners to increase their ability to prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Fraser described a three-part effort through SOUTHCOM's humanitarian assistance program, disaster preparedness projects and annual humanitarian assistance exercises.

Last year, those efforts included building disaster-response warehouses, wells, potable water systems and emergency operations centers, he said. In fiscal year 2011, SOUTHCOM also conducted 169 projects designed to increase disaster preparedness in Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

In addition, the command supports the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, a regional effort to increase disaster resilience and response capabilities among the 18 Caribbean nations involved.

A new project SOUTHCOM sponsored in the wake of the Haiti earthquake involves forward-staged kits that provide disaster-response teams with essential services, including potable water, hybrid renewable power, communications and situational awareness.

"Past experience has demonstrated that one of the biggest challenges in providing an effective response is the ability to accurately assess the situation on the ground after communications go down and transportation infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed," Fraser noted in his commander's blog.

Pre-positioned Expeditionary Assistance Kits, or PEAKS, developed in partnership with the National Defense University, "enable decision makers to gain a better understanding of how best to deploy relief efforts," he said.

The kits underwent a joint capability technology demonstration last year at Soto Cono Air Base, Honduras, less than a year after the program's inception, Fraser said. Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras, SOUTHCOM's main expeditionary organization, and members of Honduras' military and civil-relief agencies, put the kits to the test under realistic field conditions.

Meanwhile, Fraser emphasized the importance of training to ensure the SOUTHCOM staff is prepared to support USAID, the lead federal agency for international disaster response, if called upon. This includes a joint operations course it hosts, with classes presented by USAID.

"This recurring training guarantees that when disaster strikes, U.S. Southern Command is ready to assist," Fraser said.

And to ensure regional nations are as prepared as possible for disasters when they occur, many SOUTHCOM-sponsored exercises incorporate disaster-response scenarios or training activities that enhance capabilities and cooperation, Ambassador Carmen Martinez, SOUTHCOM's civilian deputy to the commander, said.

The Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarias annual exercise series, sponsored by SOUTHCOM and executed by U.S. Army South, helps bring together regional militaries, civilian disaster management agencies and first responders to train in disaster relief and recovery efforts. The 2011 exercise, held in Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala, included 640 participants from 27 nations to practice the national and international response to an imaginary earthquake.

Martinez credited these efforts with building partner-nation capability, noting that no U.S. military forces were called on during last year's hurricane season to provide support.

"I think that is the direct result of the constant training and exercising and assisting of these nations, that they were able to take care of things themselves," she said. "And I think that's a real tribute to the host nations. But it is also a tribute to the programs that U.S. Southern Command has conducted in the region."