JTF-HD Springs into Action during Tsunami Warning

By Darrell D. Ames, JTF-HD Public Affairs

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii – "I just got out of art class when I noticed I had three voice mails alerting me to what transpired in Japan," said Joint Task Force Homeland Defense (JTF-HD) Geospatial Intelligence Specialist Ms. Marie Kennedy. "I didn't even go home. I stayed on the highway and headed straight for the operations center," Kennedy said. "There was no time to waste. It was turn and burn for all concerned," said Army Lt. Col. Shane Elkins, JTF-HD operations officer. "The alert went out around 9 p.m. Hawaii time and I believe we had everyone in place by 9:30," said Elkins.

The alerts Ms. Kennedy and Lt. Col. Elkins refer to were the catastrophic messages that a devastating earthquake and an even more deadly tsunami had struck Japan. "It was a massive 8.9 to 9.0 magnitude earthquake that hit the Pacific Ocean nearby Northeastern Japan at around 2:46 p.m. local time on March 11 in Japan," said Mr. Mel Garcia, JTF-HD Deputy J3. "The earthquake was bad enough, but the ensuing tsunami brought wide-sweeping horrendous results," said Garcia.

Severe damage, blackouts, and fire from the earthquake were followed by the extremely lethal tsunami that has, at last count, left more than 10,000 dead and another 17,000 missing in Northern Japan. The large earthquake triggered a tsunami warning for countries all around the Pacific.

"We were at the 2011 National Joint Defense Support of Civil Authorities Symposium in Orlando, Fla. when the earthquake occurred," said JTF-HD's Defense Coordinating Officer (DCO), Army Col. Curtis King. "Northern Command (NORTHCOM) set up an operations center so we could manage the Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) activities with the Department of Defense (DoD)," King said. From his seat in Orlando, alongside the other Defense Coordinating Element (DCE) and Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers (EPLO), King was able to witness the carnage as it unfolded. "It was pretty terrifying to watch on the big screen," said King. "I can just imagine how horrible it was to actually live through the experience."

For more than two terrifying, seemingly endless minutes on Friday March 11, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan shook apart homes and buildings, cracked open highways and unnerved even those who have learned to live with swaying skyscrapers. Then came a devastating tsunami that slammed into northeastern Japan killing thousands. JTF-HD personnel manned their stations at their operations center at Fort Shafter, Hawaii to coordinate efforts with their partners across the pacific and locally as the tsunami headed east. In less than an hour after the first alert the JTF-HD operations center was a flurry of activity. "We had the maps on the wall, data was posted and being shared to all partners across the pacific, and all working parts were running smoother than anticipated," said Ms. Kennedy. As the violent wall of water swept away houses, cars and ships in Japan, JTF-HD was monitoring the situation even before the tsunami warning was issued for the state of Hawaii.

The offshore quake was the biggest to hit Japan since record-keeping began in the late 1800s. It ranked as the fifth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, scientists said. "We weren't sure what kind of tsunami we were in for," said Elkins. "We always prepare for the worst and hope for the best," he added.

Responding to disasters across the pacific region is a staple of what JTF-HD does. In October 2009 JTF-HD coordinated disaster relief efforts following the earthquake and tsunami in American Samoa. The following February JTF-HD responded to another tsunami warning following an 8.8 earthquake in Chile. "We are designed to respond to these situations in our area of operation," said Garcia. "And it doesn't take long for us to get into place. We're basically on duty 24/7," he added.

When all was said and done the damage across JTF-HD's area of operations was minimal although the world is now focused on the state of emergency that exists at the Japanese nuclear power plant, damaged by the earthquake when the cooling system lost power, and the possible spread of radiation across the pacific. The Fukushima Daiichi facility near the city of Onahama, about 170 miles (270 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo experienced surging radiation levels inside the facility, nearly 1,000 times more than normal.

"Everyone across the pacific is keeping an eye on this situation," said Elkins. "Organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and all the other federal, state and pacific jurisdictional partners are monitoring the system closely," Elkins said.

The tsunami hit Hawaii before dawn Friday March 11, with most of the damage coming on the Big Island. The waves covered beachfront roads and rushed into hotels. One house was picked up and carried out to sea. Low-lying areas in Maui were flooded by 7-foot waves. Marinas and harbors in California and Oregon bore the brunt of the damage, estimated by authorities to be in the millions of dollars. Boats crashed into each other in marinas and some vessels were washed out to sea.

Officials across the pacific warned of waves of possibly up to 6 feet (2 meters) high, but waves of only 4 inches (10 centimeters) were measured. The Northern Mariana Islands were spared of large waves although Islands across the South Pacific were hit by bigger-than-normal waves, but no major damage was reported. Surges up to 26 inches (66 centimeters) high were reported in American Samoa, Saipan and islands in the region.

At the present time U.S. military forces are continuing to work alongside their Japanese counterparts providing aid as the country digs out in the aftermath of the massive earthquake and tsunami. Operation Tomodachi (Japanese for "friendship") finds U.S. military assets mobilized in the area with a wide range of equipment, air, sea, and ground capability and expertise. Through it all JTF-HD continues to monitor the situation from their operations center in Hawaii.

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.