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03 January 2005

U.S. Officials in Sri Lanka Focus on Organizing Tsunami Relief

Personnel, supplies distributed across wide region of devastation

By David Shelby
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Coordinating the movement of relief personnel and equipment across the region devastated by the December 26 tsunami is a key challenge as relief efforts move forward, according to U.S. government officials briefing reporters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 1.

“What the U.S. Government is trying to do is balance where these assets go.  How many helicopters should be sent to Indonesia versus Sri Lanka?  How many C-130s? said U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jeffrey Lunstead.

He added, however, that the United States is prepared to make the necessary resources available to address the needs across the region.  “When I talk to Washington, they say, ‘Tell us what you need, we’ll get it for you if it’s within reason. What is it that you need?’ he said.

The United States has been working with the United Nations and other donor nations as well as local governments to assess the needs in the various countries affected by the disaster.  U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) representative Bill Berger explained that, in Sri Lanka, the donor nations had divided up the country into regions to carry out a global needs assessment.

The Sri Lankan government is now taking charge of the relief coordination effort based on these initial assessments.

“We’re working together in coordination with the Sri Lankan government, who is setting the priorities for us and telling us what it is they want help with, to determine exactly what the mission will be, said Lt. Col. Richard Girven, defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo.

The U.S. military expects to deploy about 1,500 Marines and several helicopters, C-130 Hercules aircraft and hovercraft to Sri Lanka in order to help support the relief effort.  Lunstead said the United States is delivering plastic sheeting, to provide temporary shelters, and water bladders, to transport and distribute fresh water.

Once the Marines are in place, they will also begin carrying out engineering missions, such as removing debris and repairing the infrastructure.

“We’re looking at the medium and long-term reconstruction needs because the immediate needs of providing food, shelter, and medicine will pass quickly.  The destruction is enormous throughout many areas of the country.  It will need to be rebuilt, Lunstead said.

Col. Tom Collins, a member of the Defense Department’s Disaster Response Assessment Team, spoke of the need for careful planning in the deployment of troops and equipment.

“The point is, not to get everybody here at one time because we just can’t handle the throughput, he said.  He explained that it would serve no purpose to have the troops “standing around waiting for the equipment to come in.

Berger also said that USAID would begin giving contracts to nongovernmental organizations to carry out some of the relief work.  He said that working with local organizations would allow USAID to take advantage of the resources available in the country.  “We would much prefer to do local purchase and only bring those things that are absolutely needed from the outside.  If you spend the money in the country it has a double advantage, he said.

Lunstead added that local procurement also reduces transit time.

As the situation evolves, the number of U.S. troops and equipment assigned to the disaster relief effort may change, according to Collins.  “We’ve done the initial assessment of what we think we can do to help the Government of Sri Lanka, he said.  “Once we get in here things may grow in terms of number of aircraft and personnel and supplies.

Berger characterized the situation as “very fluid, saying that the United States is prepared to make adjustments to the mix of personnel and supplies that it brings.

He added, “We’re all trying to make all the pieces work together as much as possible.  Coordination is a very important element.

For additional information go to U.S. Response to Tsunami and Earthquake in Asia <http://usinfo.state.gov/sa/south_asia/tsunamis.html>

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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