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27 January 2005

Rep. Leach Says Tsunami Reconstruction Needs Long-Term Commitment

Coordinated effort essential, House subcommittee chairman says

Social and economic reconstruction in the countries devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami will be "more complex and protracted than the initial rescue and relief efforts, but no less essential," according to Representative James Leach, chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House International Relations Committee.

In remarks before the full committee at a January 26 hearing on tsunami relief, Leach said the short-term response to the disaster has been "uniquely global, spontaneous, and successful," but he added that "In order to be credible, international assistance must extend into the long term."

Leach -- who led a congressional delegation to the Southeast Asia region January 5-13 to assess needs and review relief efforts underway --said military assistance was indispensable in the early stages of the relief effort.  "The unparalleled airlift and transport capabilities of the U.S. military were the backbone of much of the international humanitarian response throughout the region," he said.

As assistance efforts move into the reconstruction phase, the Iowa Republican said, civilian institutions must take over.

The massive response that the disaster has generated must be closely coordinated and monitored to avoid duplication and corruption, Leach urged.  But at the same time, he added, those assistance efforts must respond to local needs and be "open to direction from the communities and individuals most affected."  

Leach expressed hope that cooperative efforts to respond to the catastrophe would contribute to peaceful resolution of separatist conflicts in the region. 

"We have already seen welcome public commitments to renewed dialogue by the government of Indonesia and the rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).  Hopefully we can see a de-escalation of violence in the region, and the Indonesian government can demilitarize its approach to Aceh," he said. 

"I also am encouraged by initial reports that the government of Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, and humanitarian organizations may be exploring the feasibility of forming a tripartite approach to overseeing and coordinating the humanitarian response within that country," Leach said.

For additional information see U.S. Response to Tsunami

Following is the full text of Representative Leach's statement, as prepared for delivery:

(begin text)

HIRC Statement

Committee on International Relations

U.S. House of Representatives

Washington, D.C. 20515-0128

Statement of Representative James A. Leach

Committee on International Relations

Briefing on "The Tsunami Tragedy: How the United States is Responding and Providing Relief"

January 26, 2005

Mr. Chairman, in the wake of what we now understand to be one of the most traumatic natural disasters of the past several centuries, I was asked to lead a Congressional delegation to countries impacted by the tsunami and make recommendations on appropriate Congressional responses.  Joining me on the trip were Senators Sam Brownback and Jon Corzine, and a number of House Members, including Mr. Smith, Mr. Faleomavaega, Ms. Watson, Mr. Blumenauer, and Mr. Flake from this Committee.

During our compressed schedule, we met with heads of foreign governments and armed forces, U.N. and international aid agency officials, NGO representatives, U.S. diplomats and military personnel, and survivors of the tsunami.

Before making more general observations, allow me to describe briefly some of the circumstances we encountered, illustrated by a few photographs that should appear on the video monitors overhead.

Different areas experienced the disaster differently.  But in every region we visited, the damage defied comprehension.

Hit hardest by the tsunami was Aceh, Indonesia, on the northern tip of Sumatra.  Unlike certain areas in Thailand and Sri Lanka that were mounded with rubble, vast stretches of the Acehnese coast were wiped nearly clean.  Entire towns had been seemingly swallowed by the sea, leaving only bare foundations where numerous homes and buildings had once stood.  In one area, the local Mosque was the only structure still standing.  Engineers suggested the Mosque survived because of its location and construction; residents were convinced that more eschatological factors were in play.  In any regard, over 100,000 people died in Indonesia alone on that day.  In addition to bearing the greatest loss of life, Aceh also posed the greatest logistical challenge to rescue and relief efforts, as the destruction of its relatively limited transportation infrastructure left large portions completely isolated from the outside world.

Thailand suffered thousands of deaths, including the largest number of foreign casualties.  During our visit to the Khao Lak beach area — a destination for vacationers from around the world — we were surrounded by evidence of the deadly force of the waves, believed to have topped out at over 60 feet.  At one point, the surge swept a large police boat more than a mile inland.  The damage was rendered even more poignant by the public bulletin boards filled with photos of still-missing family members and unidentified bodies.  We were all impressed by the extent to which the local Thai population, which suffered such heavy losses, had assisted foreign survivors and begun to clear the rubble.

More than 30,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka.  The vast majority of that island’s coastline was affected by the tsunami, though the extensive damage tended to be highly localized along the shore, limited in most areas to a few hundred yards inland.  Thus, unlike in Aceh, most of the affected areas were in relative proximity to intact communities and transportation infrastructure, which helped to facilitate aid and rescue efforts.  The juxtaposition of the geographically limited damage with the massive human toll underscored the tragic costs that resulted from the lack of an early warning system.  Perhaps the most affecting portion of our trip was our interaction with tsunami survivors at a relocation camp near Galle.  There we met the remnants of families who had been left homeless.  We spoke with mothers who had lost children and husbands, and met children whose parents had been killed by waves that they described as sounding like the deafening roar of a jet plane.

Although we were unable to view damage sites in India, the briefings we received during our visit indicated that conditions there were of a similar gravity.

There are precedents for natural disasters.  There may, however, be no precedent for the size and scale of the international response to this one.  In the upward spiral of donor pledges, we have viewed the rise of a kind of competitive compassion that must be considered a welcome development in international relations.  It remains to be seen whether the paradigms and the goodwill developed in response to this natural disaster may also have utility in addressing man-made disasters and conflicts that afflict similarly large numbers of people around the world.  However, to some degree, the early focus on comparative pledges did not do justice to various national responses, particularly our own.

The American people have reason to be deeply proud of our country’s response.  The unparalleled airlift and transport capabilities of the U.S. military were the backbone of much of the international humanitarian response throughout the region.  To cite one example, the helicopter crews from the USS Abraham Lincoln were the sole lifeline to numerous isolated communities in Aceh, maintaining an exhausting operational tempo ferrying clean water and provisions that saved many lives and helped deter the spread of disease.

I was inspired and gratified by the self-giving response of so many American servicemen and women, our AID workers, our professional diplomatic corps, and the large numbers of Americans working for faith-based and other non-governmental organizations in the region.  These private and public servants, who had been working largely without sleep since the disaster, are a credit to our nation.

I would like to cite two discussions involving military personnel.  The first was with Vice Admiral Douglas Crowder, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.  Admiral Crowder noted that he had never seen more enthused, committed sailors and Marines, even though they had never been precisely trained for this kind of mission.  Knowing that those under his command lacked precise expertise for the task undertaken, he gave them a simple command:  "Do good" -- and then authorized them to develop techniques to fit the circumstance, i.e., to use individual initiative.  I believe somewhere on a wall at the Naval Academy ought to be chiseled Admiral Crowder’s command:  "Do good."  Its simplicity implies grandness of mission in the finest tradition of the United States Navy.

The second conversation was with a Brigadier General with the United States Marine Corps.  I told him my impression was that the difference the U.S. military made in the wake of the tsunami reminded me of the Confederate cavalry officer, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was known to have argued that the key to all military strategy was getting there "firstest with the mostest."  He laughed, but said the more apt analogy might be that of Rommel, who noted that amateurs speak tactics, professionals logistics.  We think of our armed forces principally being trained to be put in harm’s way in a wartime setting.  But one of the lessons of this tsunami is that no institution in the world is better prepared to assist in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster than the military.

In the long run, civilian institutions must take over, but in the short run the armed services have an important role to play.

Here, a note about faith-based efforts is in order.  In Sri Lanka, our Ambassador informed me that he had just received a call from the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, which had raised $10 million for relief assistance.  Two days later, I met with a representative of the Federation in Delhi and she noted that she was prepared to consider giving assistance for the rebuilding of schools, such as the one the Marines had cleared the rubble from in Galle, Sri Lanka.  She also said her organization hoped to be able to work with the Sri Lankan Buddhist monastery which was serving as a relief station for refugees, and perhaps even with groups in Aceh, Indonesia, where Muslim political activism is so widespread.

I cite this as one of many examples of American outreach to illustrate that America is more than government.  We are a society of individuals who make private as well as public charitable commitments.  It is the manner in which the public and private sectors interact that characterizes American governance.

I certainly do not mean to imply that the United States stood alone in these efforts.  Numerous countries, including some of those hardest hit by the tsunami, quickly made their own sacrificial commitments.  I would particularly like to commend the cooperation and contributions of the Kingdom of Thailand, whose air base at Utapao has served as an invaluable hub for the transport of essential relief materials throughout the affected area.  Our interlocutors in the region also noted with appreciation the prompt dispatch of humanitarian assistance by countries such as Singapore, Australia, Japan, India, Spain, and the Nordic countries, among others.  In addition, I would like to commend the work of various UN agencies, particularly in Sri Lanka, where they have taken the lead in providing assistance in Tamil-controlled parts of the country.

The short-term response to this disaster has been uniquely global, spontaneous, and successful.  The World Health Organization recently reported that although the situation remains precarious, the strength of the international response has so far helped to keep the threat of large-scale disease outbreaks at bay.

As was beginning even during our visit, the focus of the international response will necessarily shift from saving lives to rebuilding livelihoods and the many local economies that were devastated by the tsunami.  At present, many thousands of fishermen, subsistence farmers, and shopkeepers are without the modest capital inputs necessary to begin providing for their families once again.  Similarly, many women widowed by the waves find themselves unequipped for their sudden, untraditional role as breadwinner.  Countless men, women, and children who were traumatized by the terrors of that day will require sustained attention to their mental and emotional well being.

This process of social and economic reconstruction will be more complex and protracted than the initial rescue and relief efforts, but no less essential.  In order to be credible, international assistance must extend into the long term.  Furthermore, this massive developmental response must be centrally coordinated and monitored to avoid duplication and corruption, at the same time that it must be locally responsive and open to direction from the communities and individuals most affected.  We have an obligation to ensure that resources given from the highest of human motives to meet the most basic of human needs are spent in ways that are efficient, effective, and transparent.  Thus, it is obvious that these endeavors will require both funding and careful oversight from the Congress in the months ahead.

On the political front, I am not alone in my hope that these unforeseen tragedies may yet have unforeseeable but positive consequences in catalyzing a peaceful resolution to longstanding separatist conflicts in the region.  We have already seen welcome public commitments to renewed dialogue by the Government of Indonesia and the rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).  Hopefully we can see a de-escalation of violence in the region, and the Indonesian government can demilitarize its approach to Aceh.  I also am encouraged by initial reports that the Government of Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, and humanitarian organizations may be exploring the feasibility of forming a tripartite approach to overseeing and coordinating the humanitarian response within that country.  The United States should ensure that any aid provided is distributed on an equalitarian basis and, on the political front, should support these delicate processes of reconciliation in whatever ways are helpful and appropriate.

On the environmental front, it appears that the January 26 tragedy may have galvanized the political will necessary to implement a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean basin and, more broadly, warning systems for various natural disasters on a worldwide basis.  The U.S. should play an active role in such endeavors.  I will leave it to my Democratic colleague, Mr. Blumenauer, to expand further on these issues, which are of longstanding concern to him.

In conclusion, let me stress that the tsunami of December 26 cannot be viewed through a national tragedy prism; the events represented a human tragedy affecting the world community.  We share in the grief and recognize that tragedies of this nature demonstrate our human vulnerability and common fate.  Thank you.

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(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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