The Tragedy of Morro do Baú – A Lesson Learned
By Dialogo January 24, 2011To my noble classmate Col. Kern: All the praise in the world would not be enough to thank you and pay tribute to your work, performed with exemplary professionalism. The Brazilian people, especially from the state of Santa Catarina, are proud to know that they have an officer with your qualities in the corporation. Congratulations. May God be with you. Cabral
In a week in which the world is witnessing with dismay the drama of thousands of families from the mountain region of Rio de Janeiro State, affected by the greatest natural disaster in Brazilian history, to which over 750 deaths have already been attributed, it is also the moment to remember another large-scale disaster that happened in the state of Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, in 2008 and mobilized the Armed Forces and Public Safety Forces, and to draw some lessons from that operation.
At the end of that year, Santa Catarina faced a natural disaster without precedents. Rain, floods, and mudslides caused a tragedy in the region of Vale do Itajaí. With no communications and all roads blocked, the only way to carry food, to provide medical assistance, or to rescue victims was by air. The largest aerial-rescue and humanitarian-aid operation in Brazilian history began.
Operating under adverse meteorological conditions, in a limited airspace in a region of mountainous terrain, twenty police helicopters and 150 crew members carried out 733 missions, rescuing 1,250 people.
The commander of the Aviation Battalion of the Santa Catarina Military Police, Lt. Col. Milton Kern Pinto, was at the head of the entire operation. Lt. Col. Kern had the responsibility of coordinating all aerial operations by the Santa Catarina Civil Defense. The operation attracted international attention. Journalists from around the world arrived in the region. State police helicopters and those that came from federal agencies all over the country took off for the affected areas on missions of the most varied kinds. The operation was a success. Within scarcely thirty-six hours, aircraft from the most diverse parts of the country were mobilized, joining the search-and-rescue and humanitarian-aid operations.
The Brazilian model needed to be exported. The American embassy sent a delegation to the Aviation Battalion of the Santa Catarina Military Police to learn how the entire aerial operation was managed and to take back to the United States the knowledge acquired in a real operation in Brazil.
To learn the background of this operation, Kaiser Konrad went to Santa Catarina and interviewed Lt. Col. Milton Kern Pinto of the the Santa Catarina Military Police.
Kaiser Konrad – Regarding the helicopters, did they accomplish their missions well?
Lieutenant Colonel Kern – From the multi-mission perspective employed, the helicopters accomplished their missions very well. They were all deployed according to their capabilities and always seeking to improve the use of their resources. The Squirrels were used in all kinds of missions due to their durability and ability to change configuration quickly (rescue, police operations, transportation, transportation of supplies). The Jet Rangers and Bell 407s were also widely used for removing people from at-risk areas and for transporting food, and the EC120s were used more for transporting medicine. On the other hand, the Brazilian Navy’s Super Puma was used to transport cargo. The crews carried out the immediate removal of people from at-risk areas, carrying drinking water, milk, food, mattresses, blankets, diapers, basic hygiene and cleaning supplies, and clothes in the aircraft.
Kaiser Konrad – How were the operations coordinated and missions distributed to each crew?
Lieutenant Colonel Kern – All requests were made through the Civil Defense and through aircraft returning from mission locations. As soon as they received the requests, the operations officers prioritized the responses and passed them on to the dispatchers who issued the mission orders. Many missions were also passed on via radio and via mobile and landline phones when the aircraft were away from the base.
Kaiser Konrad – How were control of the regional airspace and integration with the Armed Forces carried out?
Lieutenant Colonel Kern – Control of the airspace was a factor of concern, since there were many aircraft operating in the Morro do Baú region and surrounding areas. Besides the rescue aircraft, some aircraft tried to approach the region to obtain images of the tragedy. Therefore, with the support of the Brazilian Air Force, an official notice was issued forbidding access to the area to any aircraft not involved in the Civil Defense Operation. Besides this, the layout of the parking area at Navegantes Airport was modified to be able to accommodate the aircraft. All the Civil Defense requests were made through our Air Operations Coordination. The Air Force ended up interacting with us, making available some of its aircraft. For some days they operated jointly, and later the operation was integrated, but not joint. The Brazilian Army was focused more in the Blumenau region, and in practice, there was not much interaction. Whenever we had a mission in that region, we tried to establish contact to avoid duplication in deploying the aircraft, but since the demand was very high, I believe that it might have happened at some point.
Kaiser Konrad – You were at the head of the largest aerial humanitarian-aid operation ever carried out in the history of Brazil. What were the lessons learned? What do you believe should be improved so that future operations of this kind also have the same success?
Lieutenant Colonel Kern – That the state Civil Defense should always take the lead on any disaster or catastrophic event that impacts a state, either partially or entirely, and that it maintain a defined aviation operational vector, whether on the state or federal level, in order to alleviate the suffering of the victims.