By Maj. Lindsey ElderFebruary 22, 2018
Personnel and relief supplies requested by the Government of American Samoa began arriving in the capital of Pago Pago on 12 and 14 February. These items include Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - provided tents, cots, tarpaulins, clean-up materials and medical supplies to aid those who suffered damage from Tropical Storm Gita.
The storm caused widespread damage to parts of Samoa and American Samoa, with flooding and power outages also reported. Assessments of the damage caused by Gita are still ongoing, but already a local fruit shortage is reported because of the damage to crops.
Part of making relief missions possible is the expertise and coordination efforts of the Defense Coordination Element-Hawaii (DCE) who have been on the clock to assist since their activation in anticipation of the storm's landfall on February 10. The governor of American Samoa declared a state of emergency, and the President of the United States signed a Federal Declaration of Emergency on February 11.
"The role of the DCE in an event like this is to coordinate DOD capabilities as requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Government of American Samoa," said Col. Greg Anderson, the Defense Coordinating Officer.
"We train on a regular basis with American Samoa Department of Homeland Security, our Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers, U.S. Pacific Command and its service components in the region in order to be ready for this kind of emergency," said Anderson.
The Indo-Asia-Pacific remains the most natural disaster-prone region of the world. As such, teams like the DCE are essential for supporting the rapid response needs of the region.
Composed of the nine service members and civilians, once activated in support of natural or manmade incidents, the U.S. Army Pacific Defense Coordinating Element enables Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) operations through responsive synchronized coordination of Title 10 forces and resources. This supports the Primary Federal Agency (PFA) in the incident order to minimize impacts to the American people, infrastructure and environment in the State of Hawaii, Territory of American Samoa, and U.S. possessions in the Central Pacific.
The team falls under the 8th Theater Sustainment Command and operates from Fort Shafter. In response to Tropical Storm Gita, the team activated eight service component EPLOs to support operations in both American Samoa and Honolulu, Hawaii.
In concert and coordination with FEMA and other various federal, state, local, interagency, and non-governmental organization partners, the DCE helps coordinate the right level of Department of Defense support to the right place for the impacted community. In the case of American Samoa, this community also included more than 300 U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers and their families.
"A rapid onset of this kind of emergency is fairly typical of American Samoa during storm season. Fast action by our Sea EPLO generated two flights from the Fleet Logistics Squadron which deployed the majority of FEMA's Incident Management Assessment Team and Essential Support Function personnel within 72 hours. Our Air EPLOs coordinated with U.S Pacific Air Forces and Air Mobility Command to generate additional flight missions carrying materials-handling equipment materials-handling equipment and relief supplies within 5 days of the storm," said Lt. Col Douglas Richter, the Deputy Defense Coordinating Officer.
"The DCE coordinated with the 84th Engineer Battalion, 130th Engineer Brigade for two separate ground movements of tents, cots, tarps, and other items, to fill a third C-17 flight on February 20th. The overall success of the effort highlights joint service coordination," Richter said.
Sgt. 1st Class Joe Huffman Jr. was among three DCE coordinators to deploy to American Samoa, and as his first activation with the team he was greatly impressed with the readiness and resiliency demonstrated by the citizens, and how much this event will help in the future readiness for the DCE.
"Seeing it all come together was great; the people were very grateful. One of the first missions we assisted with was getting thousands of gallons of water to one of the town's tanks that was heavily impacted by the storm," Huffman said.
"Soldiers worked tirelessly to fill it up enough to continue the flow of running water to the town. This included moving 2,000 gallons at a time in trucks two miles to fill a 100,000 gallon tank," Huffman said.
He further explained that American Samoa has a very high population of veterans, and what he saw was just how hard working the entire community was, and the responding government officials. The response was very community-based, and it made it so much easier for the DCE to do what they needed to do.
"By the first day they were out there, moving their own fallen trees and debris, fixing their houses a day later- They were very resilient. Although they were already on the right path, everyone looked relieved to see the military planes come in; to be so far away but see that presence and know that someone cares," Huffman said.
American Samoa is located about 2,550 miles southwest of Hawaii. There is a saying in certain parts of American Samoa that you are looking into the future because of their close proximity to the international dateline.
Looking into the future for the DCE, Huffman said this event will undoubtedly help them improve in future planning.
"It will help us plan better, to prepare our checks and balances for response. A few members of our team are new and for more than half the team, this was their first activation. Thank God for the experienced civilians we have. They were the glue that held everything together outside of Col. Anderson," Huffman said.
While members of the team have redeployed to Hawaii, the DCE will remain engaged in the relief effort until all activated DoD assets are relieved.