By Bill Erwin, U.S. Army Pacific Public AffairsOctober 2, 2009
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii - Within minutes of receiving word of an earthquake and tsunami in American Samoa, on Tuesday, Sept. 29, elements of the U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC) were busy gathering information and preparing to provide humanitarian assistance or disaster relief.
An 8.4 magnitude earthquake struck near the Samoa Islands region causing devastating 15-to-20-foot-high waves to cascade inland across the South Pacific archipelago, including the eastern side of American Samoa, a U.S. possession.
In particular, two organizations -- the Defense Coordinating Element (DCE) and Joint Task Force-Homeland Defense (JTF-HD) were activated shortly after receiving unofficial notice of the tsunami through the news media. Both organizations are headquartered here.
The Defense Coordinating Officer (DCO), who is also the commander of the 196th Infantry Brigade, a USARPAC unit, heads the DCE, which consists of representatives from all uniformed services. The DCO makes the determination if assets are available from the Department of Defense (DoD) when assets are requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and local, state and/or territorial governments.
The DCO, Col. James George was one of the first emergency responders on the ground in American Samoa and for several days he was elbow-to-elbow with territorial Governor Togiola Tulafono and FEMA's Region IX Emergency Coordination Officer as search and rescue and damage assessment got underway.
"Once we got a request for assistance, our staff did the analysis and made the determination as to whether the Department of Defense had the ability and assets," Col. George said. "In most cases, we were able to do what was asked."
Joint Task Force-Homeland Defense (JTF-HD) is charged with coordinating DoD support to civil authorities during a natural or man-made disaster. It also supports federal, state and local governments to coordinate and execute a response to a disaster.
The JTF-HD staff was also operating shortly after learning of the disaster in American Samoa. The staff gathered data and determined what Department of Defense assets could be used at the request of FEMA and territorial officials. Members of the JTF-HD staff also deployed to American Samoa to assist in evaluating support requirements on site.
Meanwhile, Army Corps of Engineers and subject-matter experts stationed here worked on power regeneration and handling issues related to debris and waste water. The request for Defense Department assistance in providing medical triage, hazardous material response, mass casualty care and strategic airlift came from FEMA.
FEMA maintains well-stocked warehouses in Guam and Honolulu and is deploying resources to support 70,000 survivors in American Samoa survivors over the coming week. U.S. Department of Defense assets can be used for assistance to governments following a disaster declaration from the president.
A declaration was issued by the White House at the request of American Samoa's governor within hours after the tsunami devastated some of the territory's coastal regions.