System Takes Shape for Military Disaster Relief in Americas

System Takes Shape for Military Disaster Relief in Americas

25 January 2011

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USA — A system is in the works that will strengthen the ability of military services to contribute to civilian-led disaster response in the Western Hemisphere, a Defense Department official said here yesterday.

Paul Stockton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and Americas security affairs, spoke at the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs.

Stockton was joined by Frank O. Mora, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere.

The United States is working with partners in the region, Stockton said, to plan for and better coordinate the international influx of help that follows deadly disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

“When the earthquake struck, there were plenty of partner nations who stepped up to the plate, eager to provide assistance,” he said. “The problem was … we didn’t have a database of the capabilities specific countries could bring to the fight. And we had no way to match up Haiti’s most important requirements with the kinds of assistance that nations were able to provide.”

The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck in January 2010 killed an estimated 230,000 people and displaced one-third of Haiti’s population, U.S. Southern Command officials said.

Southcom established Joint Task Force Haiti to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in support of the U.S. Agency for International Development. It was the largest disaster response mission in modern U.S. military history.

“Civilians will always be in charge of disaster response,” Stockton said. “Defense will only be in support of those civilian leaders. But in a catastrophe, let’s face it, sometimes defense establishments are where the capability is. We need to be able to harness those defense capabilities to serve the requirements established by civilian authorities in the country that’s been struck by the disaster in a way that’s much more effective than we had in Haiti.”

A mechanism to improve the integration of defense capability and civilian authority in response to natural disasters was introduced during a November conference Western hemisphere defense ministers in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. There, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates strongly endorsed a proposal based on consultations among partners as well as on September workshops in Washington and in Lima, Peru, and lessons learned from relief operations in Haiti.

The proposal, co-sponsored by 14 countries, called for:

— Standardizing a system for military collaboration during disaster relief operations through a Military Assistance Collaboration Cell;

— Adopting a common platform for information sharing; and

— Establishing working groups to develop the framework for military support for civilian-led disaster relief operations.

“We are now in the process of organizing a workshop to be held in South America where the details of all this will be ironed out, institutionalized and, hopefully, implemented,” Mora said.

Stockton said such a system would help a country struck by a natural disaster detail its most urgent priorities and allow those providing assistance to match those needs with international contributions.

“Let’s have a database, purely voluntary,” he said, “that enables countries in advance of an event to offer up what they might be able to provide so that can be fed in to the consultative process.”

Stockton noted that 128 days remain before hurricane season begins June 1 for the United States and countries in the Caribbean, and earthquakes can happen year-round.

“We have standing working groups, and we’re making progress on this because in our hemisphere a [natural] catastrophe is not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” Stockton said. “So we are moving out in a way that’s focused on saving lives in partnership with the nations of the region.”

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