NEWS

American Samoa tsunami responders still being recognized

By JTF-HD and U.S. Army North Public Affairs


Humanitarian aid supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster III at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, Sept. 30, 2009, awaiting departure to American Samoa. (Official DoD photo)
Humanitarian aid supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster III at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, Sept. 30, 2009, awaiting departure to American Samoa. (Official DoD photo)

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii – The good that came out of the devastating earthquake and ensuing deadly tsunami that struck the Pacific near American Samoa in October 2009 continues to spread as more accolades emerge. The massive earthquake triggered towering tsunami waves that gushed over the island and reportedly killed at least 170 people in the region. Within minutes of receiving word of an earthquake and the ensuing tsunami in American Samoa, the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Task Force Homeland Defense (JTF-HD) was called into action. In recognition for their coordinating Department of Defense response efforts from their home base in Oakland, JTF-HD awarded Joint Service Achievement Medals to some of the U.S. Army North’s Defense Coordinating Element (DCE) Region IX personnel and joint emergency preparedness liaison officers who participated in the response effort.

“There were so many people involved in this relief effort,” said Mr. Mel Garcia, JTF-HD Deputy J3. “The Army North DCE personnel in Oakland contributed to the success of our rapid response in the Pacific and we’re pleased that they received the recognition they deserved. Their efforts are such a big part of what we do within our joint and interagency system of operations.” U.S. Army North’s Region IX and associated joint service Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers were recognized Jan. 4 for their support efforts to FEMA during the American Samoa tsunami relief effort.

American Samoa is an unincorporated U.S. territory about the size of Washington, D.C., with a population of 65,000, located in the South Pacific Ocean. Immediately following the tsunami, President Obama issued a major disaster declaration allowing federal resources, including the DoD, to work with local government organizations and emergency response personnel to provide life support, public health and safety measures.

“Everyone involved did a tremendous job,” said Col. Chels Chae, U.S. Army Pacific Deputy Chief of Staff, Contingency Command Post and JTF-HD Chief of Staff. “We fully activated the Joint Operations Center staff with joint service augmentation in a very short period of time and pushed them daily with difficult missions – and they excelled,” Chae added.

Hawaii Air National Guard Soldiers help distribute food and supplies in American Samoa. (Official DoD photo)
Hawaii Air National Guard Soldiers help distribute food and supplies in American Samoa. (Official DoD photo)

JTF-HD is primarily responsible for defeating terrorist, and other asymmetric threats and overcoming disasters involving Hawaii and U.S. Territories and Possessions within the Pacific Command area of responsibility. During OPERATION ONE TEAM RESPONSE, JTF-HD executed Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) civil support operations as an integral part of the National Response Framework (NRF), formerly known as the Federal Response Plan (FRP).

“Responding to, preparing to respond, and response training for these events make up the bulk of our workday,” said Mel Garcia, JTF-HD Deputy J3 for Operations. “Our efforts are crucial because of the damage that can be inflicted by terrorists and natural disasters,” he said.

The center of Pago Pago, the largest city in American Samoa, sustained heavy damage by the tsunami, with its main street flooded, cars overturned, shoreline businesses damaged and main power station for the island destroyed. Response efforts were hampered by the enormous distances involved in projecting personnel and resources from the continental United States and around the Pacific Rim to the island – yet all challenges were overcome.

The Region IX DCE and Emergency Planning Liaison Officers (EPLOs) assisted FEMA and PACOM with coordinating the response, including a massive airlift of supplies, equipment and personnel to the distressed island. A U.S. Navy Frigate, the USS Ingraham, was quickly dispatched to American Samoa and was among the first U.S. military assets to arrive and join the response effort along with forward deployed members of JTF-HD Defense Coordinating Element (DCE) members, who deployed from Hawaii. U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster aircraft provided movement for responders, communications equipment, huge generators and response supplies. The Hawaii National Guard deployed 90 personnel were also deployed to provide search and rescue, communications and medical support in addition to Air Force personnel to run the forward airfield operations.

Hawaii National Guard personnel in American Samoa. (Official DoD photo)
Hawaii National Guard personnel in American Samoa. (Official DoD photo)

The overall Federal effort was led by FEMA, which deployed a federal coordinating officer and an incident management assistance team and coordinated efforts of the Coast Guard, Department of Health and Human Services, Federal Aviation Administration, the American Red Cross and the Army Corps of Engineers.

“That’s our mission. That’s what we do,” said Lt. Col Robin Lau, JTF-HD Chief of Operations. “Once the tasking came down from U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) we manned our Joint Operations Center 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts,” added Lau.

Headquartered at Fort Shafer, Hawaii, JTF-HD’s mission is to execute domestic Land Domain operations, in close coordination, with civil authorities, to defeat terrorist threats to the U.S. Homeland (defined as the U.S. States and Territories, Possessions, Commonwealths; and Compact Nations in the Pacific), and when requested/validated, to conduct civil support [Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) or Foreign Humanitarian Assistance (FHA)] operations for all hazards including responding to, and recovering from, natural or man-made disasters across the Pacific.