By Ian Graham
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
Aug. 13, 2010 - The flood in Pakistan has caused unprecedented damage and left millions of people across the country homeless. The problem is beyond comprehension, and international support groups, including the U.S. military, are doing what they can to help.
Army Brig. Gen. Michael Nagata, deputy commander of the U.S. defense representative's office in Pakistan, joined a "DoD Live" bloggers roundtable today to discuss the details and operational aspects of ongoing U.S. military flood relief operations in Pakistan's Swat Valley.
In response to an urgent request from the Pakistani government for helicopter support, six helicopters from the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade deployed from Afghanistan Aug. 4 to Ghazi Air Base in Pakistan. Since then, they have been shuttling food and other supplies to refugees and rescuing stranded victims. The flood has killed more than 1,600 people and submerged massive portions of the country.
"The magnitude of this disaster is beyond anything anyone was prepared for, in Pakistan or across the world," Nagata said. "No one can remember a flood this bad, which had such far-reaching consequences. We have to rise to the level of damage and harm this disaster is causing."
Reports have come out of Pakistan estimating that the scale of the flood may outpace the disastrous tsunami that destroyed so much in Southeast Asia in 2004. Though the death toll is on par with recent natural disasters, United Nations officials estimate that 13.8 million people will need aid in the aftermath.
Though the Army's four CH-47 Chinook and two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and their aircrews have delivered more than 160 metric tons of supplies and rescued more than 3,000 people, the Ghazi contingent has been hampered by rain in the valley.
"Weather is certainly a factor," Nagata said. "Of the available flying days we've had, we've only been able to effectively fly about half that time."
The Swat Valley hasn't had to face the same issues other parts of the country are dealing with, especially concerns over waterborne disease. While flooding in the lowlands of Pakistan has left massive amounts of standing water – breeding grounds for bacteria as well as infectious-disease-carrying insects – the water in Swat is moving very rapidly. Nagata said the big concern there is getting to people who have been stranded, because bridges and roadways were washed away so quickly.
Should health concerns become a bigger issue, Nagata said, U.S. medical personnel assigned to Ghazi, as well as the entire medical corps of the Pakistani military, will handle it. International organizations also may play a role if disease becomes a critical issue.
Some media have speculated about concerns of Taliban activity in the region, as one of Pakistan's recent major military offensives against the extremist group was focused in Swat. Nagata said he hasn't seen any evidence of extremist activity, but noted he's paying more attention to relief efforts and allowing Pakistan to handle security issues.
"What fills our radar screen is the urgent need to get support to the people," the general said. "We're not here to conduct anything but disaster response and relief."
Today, two Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters and a Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter from the Peleliu Amphibious Ready Group and 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrived in Pakistan as part of the continued U.S. humanitarian assistance to Pakistan in support of flood relief efforts.
The three aircraft are part of the contingent of 19 helicopters ordered to Pakistan this week by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. The aircraft flew into Pakistan from aboard the USS Peleliu, which is positioned in international waters in the Arabian Sea. They will join two other CH-53E helicopters that arrived at Ghazi yesterday, bringing to five the total number of aircraft in Pakistan from the USS Peleliu.
The remaining aircraft will arrive over the next few days and will include two more Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters and 12 Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters. The U.S. helicopters will operate in partnership with the Pakistan military throughout the country's flood-affected areas.
The 19 aircraft will relieve the six U.S. Army helicopters, which will soon return to duty in Afghanistan.
The total U.S. military presence in Pakistan, Nagata estimated, is a few hundred servicemembers, all of whom are there at the invitation and request of the Pakistani government.
Nagata emphasized the U.S. commitment to helping Pakistan recover from the disaster and praised the courage of Pakistanis during this difficult time.
"We will be here so long as the government of Pakistan requests and requires our assistance," the general said. "This is an enormous disaster. The people of Pakistan are courageously battling against the elements to get to people in need, repair bridges, and help their fellow Pakistanis who are in distress. Whatever we can do to get to those people in distress to support our Pakistani counterparts is well worth doing, and we're proud to be here."
U.S. military support to Pakistan is just one piece of a much broader U.S. government response. The United States has pledged to provide about $76 million in assistance to flood-affected populations in Pakistan, which includes both financial assistance and the immediate provision of urgently needed supplies and services, drawing on unique U.S. capabilities and resources.
Since the floods began on July 29, the United States has contributed:
-- A month's ration of food to about 181,000 people through the partnership with the World Food Program;
-- Humanitarian contributions that include $11.25 million for the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees and $5 million for International Committee of the Red Cross, bringing the total U.S. commitment to about $76 million to expand existing emergency programs in all flood-affected parts of Pakistan;
-- $3 million to the World Health Organization for the expansion of Pakistan's disease early warning system (and to establish the first 15 treatment centers for water-borne illness in high-risk flood-affected areas;
-- $4.1 million to Save the Children for food vouchers that enable flood victims to purchase food in their local markets;
-- Through yesterday, U.S. helicopters assigned to the Pakistani interior ministry's 50th Squadron rescued 1,019 people, airlifted 78,473 pounds of supplies and engaged in other support missions;
-- More than 1,100 rolls of plastic sheeting and 14,000 blankets, which arrived in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad on Aug. 10 and will benefit about 11,100 families or 66,000 people once they're transported to Punjab province for distribution;
-- A total of 436,944 meals delivered via U.S. Air Force airlift to civilian and military officials in Pakistan, a contribution of about $3.7 million;
-- Emergency relief items delivered to the National Disaster Management Authority in Peshawar, including 18 rescue boats, six water filtration units, 10 water storage bladders and 30 concrete-cutting saws valued at $746,000; and
-- Twelve prefabricated steel bridges, valued at $3.2 million, made available as temporary replacements for highway bridges damaged by flooding and a 25-kilowatt generator costing about $30,000.