Tsunami’s devastation salved by helicopter relief effort

 - February 20, 2007, 3:44 AM

If ever there was a time for rotorcraft to prove their worth, it was during these past five weeks assisting in the relief effort for victims of the Southeast Asia tsunami.
According the latest United Nations figures, more than 236,000 people are listed as dead or missing in Indonesia along with another 36,000 dead or missing in Sri Lanka. An additional one million survivors have been displaced as entire towns and villages were washed away by the killer wave. In Indonesia’s hardest hit province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, roads between major population centers are largely impassable and continue to deteriorate while reconstruction crews concentrate on rebuilding washed-out bridges.

Standing water and the destruction of transportation infrastructure in areas hit hardest by the tsunami left survivors in areas accessible only by helicopter, or in some cases, marine craft. The military services of several nations, including Australia, France, Japan, Switzerland and the U.S., moved quickly to aid in the relief efforts with helicopters, ships, landing craft and personnel. At the height of its contribution, the U.S. dedicated as many as 50 Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force helicopters, including 17 from the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, 25 from the USS Bonhomme Richard expeditionary strike group and eight land-based rotorcraft. A mix of CH-53 Sea Stallions, CH-46 Sea Knights, MH-60G Pave Hawks, CH-47 Chinooks and other U.S. military aircraft has flown more than 2,800 relief missions and delivered more than 4,000 tons of aid to Aceh province alone, out of more than 11,000 tons of aid moved by U.S. military forces in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other parts of the region.

Swiss helicopters have been used to shuttle 18 metric tons of shelter materials, including lightweight tents, plastic sheeting, hygiene kits and blankets, from an operational base at Calang on Aceh’s west coast to the village of Krueng Sabe, eight kilometers south of Calang. The tsunami swept away an estimated 50 percent of Krueng Sabe’s population and displaced more than 4,000 others.

However, while military assistance poured into the region within days of the tsunami, relief agencies systematically refused assistance from commercial helicopter operators who wanted to volunteer their equipment and crews for the relief effort.

“As soon as we found out about the tsunami, we tried to activate our members,” HAI president Roy Resavage told HAI Convention News. “We contacted several agencies, including the United Nations, FEMA, the Red Cross, USAID and others, to see if we should put out a call for assistance. All of the agencies told us that they needed money more than they could use the helicopters, and that we should donate to the relief effort if we wanted to help out.”

Although the tremendous assistance provided by military assets justified part of the refusal for private rotorcraft assistance, Resavage said that the major reason private help was refused was that the agencies simply didn’t have the capacity to coordinate individual relief efforts.

“It was fortuitous that the U.S. Navy was able to divert carriers and their helicopters to the region to take care of immediate needs,” Resavage said. “The agencies didn’t have any means of getting [private] aircraft over to the region, there wasn’t enough fuel available and they didn’t have the infrastructure set up to coordinate private efforts.”

Now, five weeks after the tsunami struck on December 26, Indonesian officials are bristling under the “invasion” of foreign military personnel and have actively campaigned to remove a majority of foreign personnel and assets out of the devastation-torn country.

On February 2, Indonesian Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab revealed a plan to reduce the number of foreign helicopters distributing relief aid, replacing U.S. and Australian rotorcraft with 20 ships capable of carrying up to 70 tons of cargo each. A story posted on the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Web site (www.reliefweb.int) indicated that all foreign military personnel involved with aid distribution efforts in Aceh would be replaced with civilians by March 26. The site quoted Shihab as saying, “Such a plan does not mean that we don’t need foreign personnel any longer, but we merely want the foreign military troops to be replaced with civilians.”

The drawdown has already begun as U.S. service personnel in the region currently number 10,000, down from 15,000 during the height of the relief efforts. The Abraham Lincoln prepared to leave Indonesia yesterday, after more than a month of relief operations in Aceh province. Other U.S. military ships and personnel remain in the region to continue relief efforts, including the U.S. Navy hospital ship Mercy, which left its base in California four weeks ago and docked in Indonesian waters late last week. However, in what’s being touted as an “unusual move,” the U.S. Navy has turned over operation of the ship to a private American group, Project Hope, which will operate it more as a medical and relief logistics base than as a hospital.

As a partial replacement of military efforts, the United Nations has established the Subang Humanitarian Air Hub (SHAH) managed by the World Food Program in Malaysia. Composed of three elements–cargo movement and handling, humanitarian air service and coordination of agency requirements–SHAH is expected to be fully operational by February 28.