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Joint military response makes a difference in Saipan recovery

  • Published
  • By U.S. Pacific Command Public Affairs
  • U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific

Over the last week, a joint military team including Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coastguardsmen supported relief efforts in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) after Typhoon Soudelor hit the U.S. territory with tremendous force Aug. 3. Particularly hard hit was the capital of Saipan, where power outages and a lack of running water and food plagued the 44-square-mile island about 135 miles northeast of Guam.

A request from CNMI Lt. Governor Ralph Torres led the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate federal support. FEMA, in turn, called on U.S. Pacific Command military assets to help.

Led by the efforts of the resilient local residents, the FEMA-military team has helped put Saipan on the road to recovery.

As part of the initial federal assessment team, Coast Guard Cutter Sequoia sailed to Saipan Aug. 5 to transport 14 members from the U.S. Army National Guard, nine members from Mobil's disaster and spill response team, one U.S. Marshal, and one Commonwealth Utility Corporation coordinator, the local electrical power utility.

After their arrival in Saipan, Sequoia’s crew conducted an initial survey of the shipping channel and port, which until that point remained closed to commercial vessel traffic.  The crew worked to restore aids to navigation, buoys and lights, and cleared debris throughout the harbor to allow mariners safe navigation the channel.

"This was a great example of the multi-mission capabilities the Coast Guard can provide to our federal and local government partners in times of disaster," said Lt. Cmdr. Jessica Worst, commanding officer of Sequoia. "During this difficult time for the residents of Saipan, we are humbled to be contributing to the relief effort. Quickly opening the harbor to navigation will provide for the flow of vital supplies and personnel to help restore the island.”

Persistent forward presence by the U.S. military in the region had the amphibious ship USS Ashland (LSD 48) nearby conducting routine training with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) embarked. Sailors and Marines quickly reconfigured Ashland’s well deck and flight deck to transport equipment and supplies and made best speed to assist the recovery effort.

“We have precisely the capabilities and capacity, at the right place and time to respond,” said Ashland Commanding Officer Cmdr. Daniel Duhan. “Along with the 31st MEU, we are just one part of Typhoon Soudelor relief efforts. With the collaboration between the Navy, Marines, local and federal government agencies, we hope to make significant contributions to the effort.”

Led by Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, commander of Joint Region Marianas, the military team has helped make a difference in Saipan. In just a few days, Marines delivered more than 16,000 gallons of water and 47,000 individual meals to five distribution sites across the island. Utilizing a transportable desalinization plant, Marines also distributed an additional 98,000 gallons of potable water. Four MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft from the MEU were staged in Guam to provide aerial lift support. Marines and Sailors have also started to clear debris from Marianas High School.

The 9th Mission Support Command’s Tanapag United States Army Reserve Center is currently being used by FEMA as an operations center and staging area for generators, communications systems, food and water. Three full-time support staff and approximately 100 Army Reserve Citizen-Soldiers of the 9th MSC live and serve in Saipan. Two Pacific Army Reserve Emergency Procedure Liaison Officers are also currently on-site assisting with emergency response coordination.

On Aug. 9, six Airmen assigned to the 36th Contingency Response Group (CRG) stationed at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, arrived in Saipan to support the unloading of FEMA-contracted cargo aircraft on the island. Additionally, a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam delivered one K-loader, two forklifts and other logistic equipment to enhance cargo movement capabilities available to personnel supporting relief efforts.

The CRG crew worked around the clock, unloading more than 500,000 pounds of relief supplies and recovery cargo to date.

For one Airman, it was a chance to help out at home, “It’s humbling that I can come back here and help,” said Senior Airman Louie Lacsina, an active-duty Airman and Saipan native.

Lacsina serves as part of a select team of air transportation specialists with the 36th CRG. Equipped and prepared to assess, repair and recover remote airfields, CRG Airmen provided essential load capability to enable necessary supplies and materials to reach the disaster area.

“The work we are doing here is essential to the recovery operations,” said Master Sgt. Corey Long, 36th Mobility Response Squadron evaluator loadmaster. “Some of the equipment we brought over allows us to unload larger aircraft that otherwise couldn’t be unloaded here.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Power Planning and Response Team (Power PRT) from the Honolulu District is also addressing the critical need of water and power.  This specialized team is working with the U.S. Army 249th Engineer Battalion and local entities to assess, install, and maintain emergency generators at water wells and other critical facilities.

“Their [USACE and the Power PRT] efforts go a long way in allowing the government of CNMI and the rest of our federal and private sector partners to create solutions to problems,” said FEMA’s Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) Steve DeBlasio.

Thanks to a unified team effort, Saipan continues to move forward in the recovery process.

“I have so much gratitude to the people of Guam, FEMA, Joint Region Marianas, the U.S. Marines and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for all their support in restoring utilities and the rest of the infrastructure so our residents can get back to normal as quickly as possible,” said Torres. “I can’t thank them enough; it’s overwhelming.”

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