NEWS | Jan. 12, 2009

CNE, OFDA, JTF-B partner to save lives of earthquake victims

By 1st Lt. Candace Park Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs

Four helicopters and 34 servicemembers from Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, began flying search and rescue missions Saturday in the vicinity of San Miguel and continued their search for victims Sunday after a magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck here Thursday.

The crews evacuated 90 people, including two wounded victims, in coordination with the Costa Rican National Emergency Commission, or CNE, a government agency comprised of 150 experts designated to respond to natural disasters.

"CNE is completely organized and working like a well-oiled machine to help victims of the earthquake," said Army Maj. Nilda Toro, JTF-Bravo director of Civil Military Operations deployed here. "Of all the disaster response missions I've worked in two years at JTF-Bravo, this is the best and most organized thanks to the professionals at CNE.

"It's amazing to see the different layers of decision-makers all working together to bring help to the people who need it most," Major Toro said.

CNE coordinates with many governmental, non-governmental, and foreign agencies, such as the Costa Rican Red Cross, fire departments, police, volunteers from the community and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

OFDA is an office within the U.S. Agency of International Development, which acts as the coordinator of U.S. foreign disaster assistance. OFDA offers support to local authorities responsible for disaster management, identifies needs and coordinates resources to help, said Phil Gelman, OFDA regional advisor, who arrived at CNE headquarters here 45 minutes after the earthquake.

"From the get-go, coordination began and it's been an organized operation," Mr. Gelman said. "Integrating JTF-Bravo's capabilities into the operation has been very smooth."

"We appreciate the support of the U.S. military in this operation," said Xinia Guerrero Garita, a CNE official. "The capability for helicopter airlift Joint Task Force-Bravo is contributing allows us to better respond to help the people affected by the disaster.

"It's a very complex job, but a beautiful job," said Ms. Garita, who has worked for CNE for 17 years. "The beauty is so many agencies are integrated and working together to provide a quick, life-saving response."

"The key to success in these kinds of operations is the ability to synchronize efforts," said Army Col. Richard Juergens, JTF-Bravo commander.

In this case, the multinational relief effort was led by the Costa Rican government and supported by the U.S. and Columbian governments as well as several private organizations. The U.S. response included the American Embassy, OFDA, and U.S. Southern Command's JTF-Bravo.

"I am constantly amazed at how interagency cooperation, unheard of in my early career, is now almost second nature," Col. Juergens said. "In this case, we take our lead from the U.S. Ambassador and OFDA and it works great."

Joint Task Force-Bravo also responded to flooding near Limon, Costa Rica, at the end of November, and supported CNE in delivering food, water, medicine, personal hygiene kits and mattresses to those in need.