Due to its unique capabilities, the U.S. military has often served as part of the first responders in Asia’s worst natural disasters. Within hours of the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean, for instance, 15,000 U.S. military personnel were on the scene aiding local authorities in search and rescue efforts. Within a week 17 U.S. Naval vessels and a Coast Guard Cutter were en route to Southeast Asia. Operation Unified Assistance, as the U.S. military named the humanitarian operation, would last for months afterward as the region tried to overcome the massive loss of life and property.
The U.S. military also sprang into action following Japan’s tragic earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. In what the Pentagon would call Operation Tomodachi—Japanese for “friendship”– the U.S. military was again on the scene within hours helping in the search and rescue operations. The Defense Department immediately allocated $35 million, which was supplemented by another $8 million from the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID). Less than a month later the U.S. 7th fleet had 14 ships, 130 aircraft and 13,893 personnel involved in Operation Tomodachi, flying 160 reconnaissance flights in search of victims, and delivering more than 260 tons of relief supplies to survivors.
Now, with the U.S. Eastern Coast slammed by Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. military has been busy assisting federal, state, and local authorities reaching those people still in need and helping to restore services to affected households. As the storm made its way to the U.S. mainland after raging through the Caribbean, the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) began coordinating operational plans with domestic agencies.
NORTHCOM's first action came hours before Sandy would reach land near Atlantic City, New Jersey when HMS Bounty, a 180 foot tall ship, sent out a distress signal that was picked up by the 5th Coast Guard District Command in Portsmouth, VA. Two Coast Guard rescue helicopters were promptly dispatched and reached the scene Monday morning around 6:30 a.m. local time. Fourteen of the sixteen crew members were rescued by the Coast Guard after they were found floating on two life rafts off the coast of North Carolina. Monday evening the Coast Guard authorities located another crew member, who was transported to a nearby hospital for medical treatment but unfortunately passed away Tuesday. As of Tuesday night the captain of the ship was the last crew member still unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, U.S. military officials and national guardsmen were dispersed across the affected areas aiding federal, state, and local officials in their response to and recovery from Hurricane Sandy. According to a Department of Defense press release from Tuesday Afternoon:
"There are approximately 7,400 National Guard forces on state active duty or in the process of activating for duty in support of the governors of NY, MA, VA, NJ, DE, CT and MD. These forces are providing critical assistance to local first responders and FEMA with support at evacuation shelters, damage assessments, route clearance, debris reduction and removal, search and rescue, and delivery of essential equipment and supplies.
DoD has staged four medium rotary wing utility aircraft and four medium rotary wing Search and Rescue aircraft at Hanscom AFB, MA, for potential logistical and search and rescue operations along the coasts of MA, CT, and RI in support of FEMA.
DoD has approved a request for District of Columbia National Guard support for traffic control points and high-water evacuations.
DoD installations throughout the North East are available as requested by FEMA. These include Westover Air Reserve Base, MA; Joint Base McGuire-Dix, Lakehurst, NJ; and Ft. Devens, MA.
DoD has placed medium- and heavy-lift helicopters, para rescue swimmers, and aerial refueling aircraft on 24-hour prepare-to-deploy status in response to anticipated FEMA requests to mitigate or respond to the effects of the storm.
Additional engineer units and logistical support units are preparing to support the response in anticipation of any requests by FEMA."
And the clean-up continues….
Zachary Keck is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.