SOUTHCOM: Much More than Wishing Storms Away

SOUTHCOM: Much More than Wishing Storms Away

By Dialogo
April 12, 2013

The Peruvian city of Chiclayo is highlighted with a red dot recently drawn on the map at the United States Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Humanitarian Assistance Program office.

A Disaster Management Center was inaugurated there in March, joining a long list of projects that SOUTHCOM developed for nations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean to enhance their regional response capacity in case of natural disasters.

Comprised of an Emergency Operation Center, a disaster relief warehouse, and a search and rescue training center, the complex is the result of joint efforts between SOUTHCOM, the government of the Lambayeque region (where Chiclayo is situated), local authorities, the Peruvian National Institute of Civil Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The project cost $1.2 million, granted by SOUTHCOM.

However, Chiclayo is only one of many colored dots with which the team from SOUTHCOM’s Humanitarian Assistance Program monitors the progress of activities it executes throughout the Western Hemisphere.

In total, SOUTHCOM completed 108 collaborative projects in the field of humanitarian assistance and disaster response during the 2012 fiscal year only, with a budget of $15.8 million. “Our team’s mission is to collaborate with each of these countries so that they are better prepared to cope with natural disasters,” program director William Clark stated.

According to Clark, the command’s participation in this sort of activity can be traced back to the 60s, with the most significant moment being the paramount response by SOUTHCOM after the 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti. Operation Unified Response, as the effort was called, included mobilizing 22,000 U.S. troops, 33 U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels, 262 fixed-wing aircraft, and 57 helicopters to the Caribbean nation. In only a few hours, food, water, tents, generators, and medical supplies arrived in the Haitian capital Port-Au-Prince.

The U.S. agency in charge of responding to aid requests from nations affected by natural disasters is USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). It is up to OFDA’s coordinated efforts with the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, foreign governments, and other institutions to determine if U.S. Military support is, in fact, needed.

In addition to providing aid when disasters wreak havoc, SOUTHCOM permanently works on three fundamental areas: building facilities, training rescuers and medical first responders, and supplying material resources, such as ambulances, fire trucks, communication radios, and global positioning systems (GPS), among others.

Where Does Help Go?

During 2012, one of the most important endeavors was the inauguration of a Disaster Relief Warehouse in the Costa Rican Pacific coast’s Parrilla district. Built at a cost of $650,000, the facility will serve as a central point for aid distribution to other Costa Rican cities.

Other projects took place in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panamá, Paraguay, Dominican Republic, and Saint Kitts and Nevis.

Nevertheless, the country that continues to receive the most assistance is Haiti. “Since 2010, we have invested $35 million to construct emergency operation centers, warehouses, and fire stations in each department,” Clark states, pointing to the southwest Haitian port city of Les Cayes on the map.

Between 2011 and 2012, four humanitarian assistance clusters were built in Les Cayes for the population displaced by the earthquake. Each humanitarian assistance cluster features a school; a clinic with dental facilities, a pharmacy and a lab; a community center that can serve as a shelter; and a well, essential to a nation where access to drinking water is a highly-valued asset.

“We also do some really off the wall stuff,” Clark adds, explaining that one of the initiatives developed by his group emerged from lessons learned after another devastating earthquake, this time in Chile, in February 2010. Blocked roads, destroyed phone lines, and collapsed cell phone towers made it impossible to access the places most shaken by nature.

“With that experience, and building on FEMA’s [U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency] response vehicles, we provided Chile with 11 vehicles that can be loaded onto their C-130 aircraft and transported to the most affected locations,” he says.

Equipped with UHF, VHF, HF radios and satellites, as well as computers for four operators, these vehicles work as mobile emergency operation centers performing similar functions to those of the emergency operation centers like the one at the Disaster Management Complex recently opened in Chiclayo.

“Activities are being coordinated with SOUTHCOM to enhance the regional governments’ capabilities, and even though several emergency operation centers have been built in Peru, the Chiclayo project is the only one that has three elements in one,” states Retired Peruvian Army General Alfredo Murgueytío Espinoza, director of the National Institute of Civil Defense in the South American country.

Last February, when streets, homes, and businesses were destroyed by copious rain in several locations of Arequipa province, one of the emergency operations centers donated by SOUTHCOM served as the liaison between regional and national authorities. “The information received through the center in Arequipa allowed the national government to declare a state of emergency there and send the help they needed,” he states.

General Murgueytío also said that SOUTHCOM’s Humanitarian Assistance Program is currently working in coordination with the Peruvian National Institute of Civil Defense in order to develop emergency operation centers, disaster relief warehouses, and search and rescue centers in Cuzco, San Martín, Puno, Ayacucho, Piura, Huaraz, Huancavelica, Loreto, Junín and Tacna.

The inauguration of several projects in a myriad locations are scheduled for 2013. For instance, a National Emergency Operations Center will be inaugurated in Nejapa, El Salvador.

With regard to the possibility of U.S. budget cuts affecting future endeavors, Clark simply states that his team will continue to work just as before. “By the way,” he adds, “we have not had to respond to a disaster in the last two years. I would like to believe this is because our partner nations have more resources to confront an earthquake, a tropical storm, or a low-scale hurricane. This lauds our partners’ accomplishments, as well as those of our program.”