WASHINGTON (Talon News) — At a press briefing on Tuesday, Adm. Thomas Fargo, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, said that the aftermath of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunamis will “necessitate one of the most complex humanitarian disaster-relief efforts of recent history.” Fargo described to reporters some of the details of Operation United Assistance, the program designed to aid the survivors and help with the massive clean-up operation.

“At the U.S. Pacific Command, we began a planning effort in the first 24 hours of this catastrophe,” Adm. Fargo said. “Our goal was to understand how our capacity and supply could best be used to help regional neighbors in need.”

Fargo added, “Damage assessment teams were ordered to Indonesia and to Thailand and Sri Lanka within 48 hours to let us know the dimension of this catastrophe, and at the same time provide the immediate relief that we knew was going to be required, like water and medical aid.”

The U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln Carrier Group was ordered to proceed at “best speed” from Hong Kong toward Indonesia, while the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Group was ordered to Indonesia from an area just south of Guam, Fargo explained.

“We knew from our recent disaster response in the Philippines, and our 1991 response to cyclonic flooding in Bangladesh — which was Operation Sea Angel — that immediate needs were going to be drinking water and shelter and food and medical support,” Fargo said. “A key lesson from all of these events was the value of helicopter vertical lift.”

Fargo said that he sees America’s role as one of assistance, as many organizations — international, national, governmental and nongovernmental — have joined together to help.

“We’ve coordinated closely with the State Department and with USAID, and we’re in support to the host nation, who’s responsible for its citizens,” Adm. Fargo explained. “So U.S. Pacific Command and the Combined Support Force bring unique capacity quickly to support these dedicated volunteers. All of us are working together to lend a hand, mindful that we do so in a way that meets the request of our host governments, and we join with many to provide assistance and relief.”

Fargo was asked to elaborate on the value of the helicopters in providing relief. With an estimated 46 helicopters currently in operation in the devastated areas, Fargo was questioned as to whether twice as many helicopters would be twice as beneficial.

Well, there are plans to send more helicopters,” Fargo replied. “Right now we’ve got the Fort McHenry under way from Okinawa with six H-46s. We also have the Niagara Falls under way from Guam with additional helicopters. And some of our partner nations like Singapore are going to add additional helicopters. Fundamentally helicopters are a tremendous advantage because, of course, they don’t have the same restrictions as fixed-wing aircraft in terms of how many you can have on the ground at a time.”

The same reporter pushed further, asking if U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were limiting America’s ability to provide disaster assistance.

Fargo said those operations were not a factor, adding, “Well, fundamentally we had these assets in the Pacific, and we’re employing them for an array of other operations. And you know, we have a certain capacity that we always maintain in the Pacific. So we haven’t had to detriment those capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is traveling in the region with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said Tuesday that the aftermath of the tsunami is “a tragedy for the entire world.

“The United States will certainly not turn away from those in desperate need, and I think we have demonstrated in recent days our willingness to provide support, not only financial support, but the military support that our Pacific command is now providing, the presence of C-130 aircraft with helicopters from our ships at sea, with the Orion P3 planes that are performing reconnaissance missions and with the command post that has been set up,” Powell said.

The secretary of state added, “I want to especially thank the government of Thailand for allowing us to use the air base at Utapao as a central hub for support not only to our Thai friends but to other nations in the region; and it really will be playing a very important role in the days and weeks ahead.”

At a press briefing with Sec. Powell and Gov. Bush, Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai thanked Powell and the people of the United States for their assistance and condolences.

“Members of the press, I have to say that we really appreciate the assistance and cooperation of the United States,” Sathirathai said. “Sec. Powell was the first counterpart of mine to have called me right after the incident in the morning of Monday and offer cooperation and assistance.”

Sathirathai added, “The U.S. operations started since last Monday providing transport planes and Orion P-3 to detect survivors and missing people. The U.S. operation also includes special forensic experts, medical doctors and rescue teams. I would like to again take note of our deep appreciation for the prompt and very effective assistance that the U.S. government has provided to Thailand.”

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