Nearly ten years ago, the towns in Indonesia were called Banda Aceh and Pangadaran. Now they’re Philippine towns named Guiuan and Tacloban. Odd-sounding names of far-away places that we never hear about unless something terrible has happened there. They have almost nothing to do with America.
But the 600,000 homeless and the millions affected by Typhoon Haiyan are enormously fortunate because Americans want to have something to do with them. And our armed forces are not only the first on the scene after the Filipinos themselves, but they are doing things no one else can do, with speed and effectiveness.
When a disaster like Typhoon Haiyan hits, the big dogs come running and provide the help that only our military can with the speed that only they can achieve.
When Indonesia was nearly destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami nearly ten years ago, Americans stepped up to provide disaster relief as only we can. The UN relief chief at the time, some punk named Jan Egeland, said that the U.S.’s response was stingy. I recall doing a radio interview the following day with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who didn’t take kindly to Egeland’s comment.
Rumsfeld — with some exasperation in his voice — pointed out that we, at the time of Egeland’s comment, had 33 Navy ships with thousands of sailors and Marines already there, fanning out to rescue people and deliver thousands of tons of supplies.
(It turned out, as it always does with the UN, that Egeland’s temper tantrum resulted from the idea that we weren’t picking up what he thought was our share of the UN’s relief costs. Never mind that between a third and a half of those costs were to pay the UN’s staff and travel expenses, and most of the rest couldn’t be accounted for at all.)
We do these things not only because we can. Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post got it precisely wrong the other day when she said we were displaying American generosity. Generosity is what we prove by donations to charities. This is different. Call it compassion, call it simple humanity, it’s what we do. It’s what Americans are made of, a reflection of a lot of the things it means to be an American.
The scope of our rescue and recovery operation is massive. First on the ground was the Third Marines Expeditionary Brigade, deployed from Japan on November 12, just four days after the storm. It began the relief operation and began setting the stage for the Navy, following close behind.
The aircraft carrier USS George Washington is, like all our Nimitz-class carriers, so massive that it’s sometimes hard to believe it actually moves. Home to about 6,000 officers and enlisted sailors, Washington and its sister ships have an awesome capacity to make war or peace, whichever is needed. Disaster relief meant Washington, based in Yokosuka, Japan, was given orders to shed its jets to make room for as many V-22s and helicopters it could operate off the flight deck, which is a lot. (The deck of a Nimitz-class carrier, at 4.5 acres in size, holds a lot of aircraft. The hangar decks below can roughly double that number.)
The orders then told the skipper to grab more Marines and relief supplies and make best speed to the Philippines. Washington did so, arriving with its entire battle group on 14 November, just six days after the storm hit. That means about a dozen ships, probably 10,000 people and a lot of practical sense and a huge variety of capabilities that they carry with them.
Those capabilities are enormous. What the victims of the storm need most are drinking water, food, shelter, and communications. And there are more ships on the way with more relief forces, including one or more of the Navy’s hospital ships.
One of the first efforts re-opened the airport at Tacloban, enabling it to receive huge transport aircraft like the C-17, moving large equipment and bulk supplies into the stricken area. Airports need to control air traffic to move supplies from the U.S. and other countries so the Navy and Marines set that up to better coordinate relief flights. ATC was set up, too, at the Guiuan airport. Relief flights are reaching both at a constantly increasing pace.
Just take one data point: the Washington, like its sister ships and all of the ships in its battle group, has the ability to produce fresh water to sustain itself. But the carrier can do a whole lot more. Each nuclear carrier can produce more than 100,000 gallons of fresh water a day over and above what the ship needs. And still, there’s more.
Flying hundreds of sorties a day to recon for survivors, flying doctors into stricken regions with the medical supplies they need, flying food and fresh water to people who might otherwise starve, the carrier task force — with the help of the Marines — does all these things and a lot more. I can’t confirm, but strongly suspect, that temporary communications points — cell towers and basic cell phone networks — are being set up across the stricken areas to restore communications. (That need is one of the lessons we learned in the Katrina disaster relief effort.)
There are too many other capabilities our sailors, Marines and airmen bring with them to catalogue here. It’s just as Col. Miguel Okol, a spokesman for the Philippine air force, told the Washington Post, “Having the U.S. military here is a game-changer. For countries that we don’t have these kinds of relationships with, it can take a while to get help. But with the U.S., it’s immediate.”
It’s politically incorrect to say so, but we’re the good guys. And there are others. The usual suspects are responding. The Brits are sending C-17 and C-130 cargo aircraft as well as the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to provide badly needed supplies and manpower.
Israel has sent two huge airliners with 234 doctors, medical supplies, and the facilities to set up a large field hospital, which is already functioning. French and Malaysian doctors are pitching in. Even Russia sent doctors and an airmobile hospital.
These efforts compare rather well to that of the nation whose economy is the world’s second-largest and also has the largest military in the region. Communist China, which has some disagreement with the Philippines about fishing grounds, is sending about $1.5 million in relief goods and nothing else. That, according to USA Today, is less than the Swedish furniture store Ikea is contributing.
And while we’re cataloguing those nations least interested in saving lives we should remember the Saudis, who — like the Chinese — are sending no people, no military assets and only about $10 million in supplies.
We’ll never know how many lives were saved by our sailors, Marines and airmen or how much slower the Philippines would have recovered from Typhoon Haiyan if our forces hadn’t reacted as they did. And it doesn’t really matter how much it cost, though the drain on funds for disaster relief will have to be made up from some other part of the Navy and Air Force budgets, because Obama and Congress won’t appropriate more.
But it all boils down to this: there are some times our people have to do things that prove, redundantly, why they’re entitled to wear the proverbial white hats. It’s enough that we know that, regardless of what others may think. Bravo, folks, bravo.