Central America Trip: Press Briefing by Secretary Caldera and General Wilhelm

Office of the Press Secretary
(Tegucigalpa, Honduras)

For Immediate Release March 9, 1999


Hotel Maya
Tegucigalpa, Honduras

2:35 P.M. (L)

MR. HAMMER: Good afternoon. Thank you for coming. Today we aregoingto be having a briefing by Secretary of the Army, Louis Caldera; andCommanderin Chief of Southern Command, General Wilhelm. They will be focusing onthemilitary -- the U.S. military's efforts in direct response to HurricaneMitch,the initial immediate assistance that was provided and also thereconstructionthat is still ongoing.

So now, Secretary.

SECRETARY CALDERA: I'm Louis Caldera, Secretary of the Army.Immediately after Hurricane Mitch occurred, the Secretary of Defense, BillCohen, asked me to come down as his personal representative, to look at the

efforts that the U.S. military was doing, to make sure that General Wilhelm hadall the support and all the resources in the Pentagon to help support thismission.

This is my third trip down here to Central America, a tremendousdifference from when I came on that first trip early in November --everythingwas still flooded and you could see long stretches of road. But there were nocars on the road because eventually the road would end up into a bridgethat hadbeen washed away. Today, as General Wilhelm will tell you, so many ofthosebridges have been rebuilt and the country reconnected, so that commerce and

movement of people and goods to jobs can begin again.

The President today -- I want to just reemphasize two of the things thathe said, that General Wilhelm will cover: one, the tremendous contribution thatU.S. service members have made here. Close to 6,000 active dutycomponents, service members from all ofthe services were here from the very initial life-saving phase to thetransitionphase. And more will be coming over the next several months.

One of the things that the President announced today was thatOperationNew Horizons, which is our National Guard training effort, will bring some20,000 National Guardsmen and Reserve soldiers between now -- some of themhavealready arrived -- and August of this year, to all of the countries here in

Central America to continue the outreach effort. That's a tripling of thesizeof the project that we had already envisioned -- even before the hurricanehadoccurred.

He also announced today, in recognition of the tremendous job thatourservice members had made, that the Humanitarian Service Award would begiven toevery service member who participated in this mission -- a mission whichnow, inhis words, is the largest humanitarian mission the United States has beeninvolved in since the Berlin Airlift.

Today, our country has committed some quarter of a billion dollarsofresources, just through the Department of Defense, through those activeduty andReserve component service members, to support our neighbors here in Central

America. That was tremendously appreciated by the people here, workinghand inhand with the Honduran military and civil agencies to make sure that thatassistance gets to where it is most greatly needed.

With that, I'd like to introduce the Commander in Chief forSouthernCommand, who's been responsible for overseeing this operation, GeneralCharlieWilhelm.

GENERAL WILHELM: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is

General Charlie Wilhelm and I am the Commander in Chief of the UnitedStatesSouthern Command. I'd like to take just a couple of minutes to brieflyreviewwith you the activities that the Department of Defense has been engaged in, isengaged in, and will conduct over the balance of the fiscal year to helpthefour nations of Central America recover from the damages that were broughtbyHurricane Mitch.

I would start first by scoping the disaster itself. You may be inpossession of these figures and statistics already, but I'll try toperhaps relate them in an historic context in the ways that I try toexplainthem in the United States.

First of all, as I think you're aware, the National Weather Service hascategorized this as the most destructivestorm to hit Central America in more than 200 years. At this moment, wecountmore than 8,200 dead in Central America, and more than 9,300 missing. Nowthatfour months have elapsed, there's very little hope for those 9,000 plus who are unaccounted for. So, inhistoric context, that's 17,000 lives lost, which is equal to the totalUnitedStates losses during the Korean War.

I think it's also meaningful to note that this was a storm thatcauseddevastation over a very large area. Just two weeks ago, we looked to atragicset of circumstances in Colombia when the earthquake struck near Perrera(phonetic) and near Armenia (phonetic). One thousand lives were lostthere,3,000 people injured, and it had an undeniable economic impact on a smallpartof Colombia. There is where we encountered the difference.

This storm -- and this is based on our imagery systems, whichenable usto really gauge the magnitude of the damage -- affected 40 percent of thelandmass of these four nations, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and ElSalvador.So it was a very, very wide-reaching calamity.

What did we do about it? We put together an operation which wehaveconducted in three phases. We termed these phases, first, the emergencyphase,which began on the 26th of October when the storm first settled over theBayIslands just north of Honduras; and that phase ran for roughly 30 daysthroughabout Thanksgiving, and we termed that the emergency phase of ouroperations.

The objective during the emergency phase was first to save lives.AndI'll return to that in a minute. And then second, it was to get thenecessitiesof life -- food, clothing and shelter -- to stranded elements of thepopulationof the four countries who were cut off from the capitals and from othersourcesof aid by the loss of road networks and bridges.

I mentioned lives saved. During the early days of the disaster,ourpeople saved 1,052 lives. That begs the question, how can you be thatspecific?Those numbers are compiled from the mission reports that were filed by ourhelicopter pilots and by members of our Special Operations forces who flewin onBlackhawk helicopters and, in a very few words, put the tires down on those lastfew meters of dry land before a combination of a coastal surge from theoceanand runoff from the mountains swept whole families under water.

Also, we put Zodiac rubber boats in the northern portions ofHonduras,and they literally motored from rooftop to rooftop, pulling families off of

those last pieces of high ground and delivering them to safe havens, places

where the waters wouldn't reach them.

I have been told that the rainfall in some places was 84 inches infivedays -- 7 feet in five days. So the magnitude of the flooding wasenormous.

During those first 30 days, we delivered over 3.75 million poundsoffood throughout Central America to isolated communities; 65 tons of medical

supplies; and over 120,000 gallons of potable water. As I have pointed out

frequently, the whole issue of water is a very important one. The stormand thehigh waters and the flooding claimed 17,000 lives. As soon as the watersbeganto recede, our attention immediately refocused on the aftermath of thestorm andall the foul wells and the contaminated water. And we feared outbreaks ofepidemic proportions of typhus and cholera. So we worked very hard to getfreshwater to the people.

Little anecdotes are sometimes helpful to understand precisely what wedid. I recall on a Saturday morning, after having conducted one of myfirstvisits here, in early November, making a short presentation in Miami,trying togenerate some support in the United States for what was going on here, andI gota call from President Carter. President Carter had just visited theregion, andwhen I returned his call he said, you know, we must do something about thedirtywater and those little plastic bottles are not going to get the job done.Whatcan we get to the people of Central America so that they can purify theirownwater?

Thinking back many years ago, when I was a young lieutenant inVietnam,I remembered taking two iodine tablets, putting them in a canteen of water,

shaking it up and then letting it sit for about 30 minutes. It tastedhorrible,but the water did not make you sick. The bottom line of this littleanecdote isthat within 36 hours, we had 70 percent of the national inventory of iodine

tablets in the United States en route to Central America.

So through a few selective statistics and one or two anecdotes,that wasphase one, the emergency phase.

The second phase of our operation we termed the rehabilitationphase.And in very simple terms, during the rehabilitation phase what we sought to dowas to make quick fixes to the infrastructure throughout Central America so thatthe nations could start to tend to the essential health and welfare needsoftheir populations themselves. During this phase of the operation, ourtroopstrength peaked and at about Christmas, which is a good benchmark date, wehadabout 5,900 troops on the ground here in Central America, providing a widerangeof service and assistance functions for the population.

You may recall that when the First Lady visited in early Decembersheforecasted 5,700, so she was very, very close to our final peak strength.

During that phase of the operations, and I should say during thisphaseof the operations because we are just on the verge of concluding it, weundertook 67 major engineer projects throughout the region. By and large,theseinvolved the rehabilitation and restoration of roads and bridges; wereclaimedwell over 100 wells, cleansing them, resleeving them, and making themsuitablesources of drinking water. We built several clinics from the ground floorupwhere medical treatment facilities were lost, which serviced entiresegments ofthe population. And the President just visited the Juan Ramon MolinaBridgehere in Tegucigalpa. That was one of four very large bridges that we putin inHonduras, and that bridge had to be replaced to reunite the two sides ofTegucigalpa, the capital city.

We are standing now on the verge, or not -- really not on theverge,we've actually commenced phase three of the Department's involvement in the

Central American recovery undertaking. And as Secretary Caldera mentioned, thisis where we really have a changing of the guard, in a manner of speaking.Theactive component forces who have been heavily involved in the emergency and

rehabilitation phase are now being replaced by Guardsmen and Reservists.As theSecretary mentioned, between now and over the summer, we will deploy over

members of the Guard and Reserve, and they will build a total of 33schools, 12clinics. They will repair 52 more roads and bridges. They will drill 27highcapacity wells. And very importantly, they will conduct 40 very largemedicaloutreach programs during which we expect that we will establish somewherebetween 70,000 and 100,000 patient contacts.

This exercise is significant for two reasons. First, this is thepremier training event of the year for our Guardsmen and reservists. Andsecondly, the work that our engineers, medics, and logisticians do willremainlong after they leave, benefitting the populations of these four countries.

I might add that those 23,000 Guardsmen and Reservists come from 45

states. So, essentially, the entire continental United States will becomeinvolved in the recovery operations here in Central America.

Normally I do this with some charts. Unfortunately, they didn'tmake ithere today. But I think I've given you some of the little data bits whichmightprove interesting and probably do as good a job as anything else I couldsay ofreally kind of scoping the effort here in Central America.

Thank you for your attention. And I suspect the Secretary and Iwilltake questions now.

Q General, could I ask you a question about the aid?PresidentClinton keeps talking about the $900 million that he is asking for. Whatinthat package would play into what you want to get done in this last phase?

GENERAL WILHELM: The total defense commitment -- this last phasehas aprice tag of $70.3 million; $56 million of that is for the deployment andredeployment of the forces and to provide the wherewithal, the materials to

construct all of these projects. And we have also requested $14.3 milliontopay Guard and Reserve pay and allowances. Overall, the Department has

invested $215.3 million in these undertakings throughout Central America.

Q Will you be crippled without this new appropriation thatapparently is emergency money, but it's not being passed with any kind ofspeed?

GENERAL WILHELM: I would certainly offer the observation that thequicker we can get reimbursed the better. We have the green light. ThePresident has approved these operations. I should say there are over 1,100

people in country right now. School walls and clinic walls are going up as wespeak. Those are Guardsmen from Louisiana and from South Carolina. Therearecontingents rolling in from Missouri right now to replace them. So we'reunderway, but, yes, the supplemental will be most welcome and veryobviously,the sooner the better.

Q How did President Clinton ask for your airplane today? Did heuse your aircraft?

GENERAL WILHELM: No. Those are -- I think those are from AirMobilityCommand and from the 89th Special Airlift Wing.

Q We were told that was your aircraft, that he flew into thebasein.

GENERAL WILHELM: No, ma'am. No, ma'am. Not mine. I don't haveone.(Laughter.)

Q It's a great looking plane -- you should ask for one.(Laughter.)

GENERAL WILHELM: Thank you. I will. What's your name, I'll --(laughter.)

Q General, what was the role of Soto Cano during the 1980s in

prosecuting -- or in assisting operations against leftist insurgencies inCentral America?

GENERAL WILHELM: Thanks. As I think many of you know, we have had acontinuous United States presence in Honduras at the Soto Cano Air Base,since1983. I would hasten to clarify that that is not a U.S. base. It is aHonduranAir Force Base and it is also the home of their Air Force Academy. So weareguests of the Honduran Air Force there.

As you correctly point out, during the decade of the '80s that wasabase which supported our activities against the insurgencies throughoutCentralAmerica. Now the forces there have been re-roled and they support theregionalengagement activities of Southern Command throughout Central America --everything from counternarcotics operations to the annual New Horizonsexerciseprogram, which is underway now.

So these are largely civil military operations and the trainingeventsthat we conduct with the militaries of Central America to assist them along theroad toward assuming their rightful role in a democracy. So Soto Cano isveryimportant to us.

Q One other factual question. You said that at its peak, the U.S.military troops involved in relief work here were 5,900. Roughly, how many arehere today?

GENERAL WILHELM: We are down -- what I refer to as the phase twoforce,the active component -- there were 49 Marines at the bridge this morningwhowill be leaving on Friday. And then we have -- our normal component atSotoCano, is 499. That is a precise number, with a few additional.

But, again, the force and numbers now are the Guard and Reserve and

there are between 1,100 and 1,200 Guardsmen on the ground today. So, 1,100 plus500 plus the 50 Marines who are preparing to leave.

SECRETARY CALDERA: Let me underscore how important it was for ustohave those soldiers at Soto Cano. There were 500, approximately 500 whoarepermanently stationed there -- that is what their place of duty is. Andwhenthe hurricane first came through, of course, they were hit by thehurricane. Asit moved on they were able to immediately get their helicopters up in theairand move toward the northern part of the country, where the hurricane hadalready passed through, to begin that operation of starting to save lives.

There were other parts of Honduras where they could not fly tobecausethe hurricane was still there and they could not fly toward Guatemala. But itgave them that ability to immediately begin that life-saving process. Andinthose early days, frankly, what I was hearing was, why can't we get morehelicopters there sooner?

Because they're so critical to getting out to those remotelocationsthat could not be reached by any other way other than by helicopter -- both inpushing out emergency supplies, in saving lives of people from high-risingwaters, and in medivacking out individuals who had been severely injuredandneeded desperately to have medical attention for their wounds. For thosesamehelicopters that were pushing out emergency supplies and plastic sheetingforthe 3 million people who had lost their homes, could then use the samehelicopter to bring back individuals who needed to be medivacked out.

So it was very critical to the response to this disaster. Itcertainlyis critical to our engagement strategy with all of the democracies thatexisthere in Latin America and South America and with the very important mission thatwe all share in counternarcotics that is so important to our country, aswell.

Q General, you all gave a pretty complete timeline of thethingsthat the military did, day by day. I was a little curious if on Saturday,October 31st, you all rescued President Flores? Can you jog my memoryhere? Idon't recall the details.

GENERAL WILHELM: Well, the facts, as best I know them, was thatbothPresident Flores and Mrs. Mary Flores, his wife, had left Tegucigalpa andhadgone into some stricken areas of the country. At this time the water wasstillrising, this was 31 October -- the rains hadn't even stopped. As I understand it, they found themselves cut off from both sidesbyrising water. And a Blackhawk helicopter went in and pulled the PresidentandMrs. Flores out and took them back to Tegucigalpa. As you know, it was averytough time. The Mayor of Tegucigalpa, who was a much beloved man, wastragically killed in a helicopter crash trying to visit some of hisconstituentsin and around the city. So to have lost the President at the same timewouldhave been doubly tragic.

Q General, do you find that engaging in rescue and reliefoperations in any way diminishes the capacity of your personnel to serveand tomount that operation? GENERAL WILHELM: No, not at all. If you look at the forces thatarehere right now, these are principally engineers, they're medics, they'remilitary policemen, and these are flight crews. Some of the flying,because ofmarginal weather -- which normally associates itself with these kinds ofdisasters -- that's a stressing experience for the air crews. Going intowhatwe call confined area landing sites -- CALS -- which is precisely what Iwastalking about, that last meter of dry land and that rooftop. Those areverydemanding missions.

So, no, it doesn't blunt their combat edge at all. And then forthecombat service support troops who are doing the construction, this is their

mainstream business and line of work. So, no -- if anything, we'resharpeningthe edge here.

Q I just wanted to find out what the extent of anti-narcotics

activity is going on in --

GENERAL WILHELM: Yes. In fact, today, we're involved in anoperationwhich covers all of Central America, which we refer to as Central Skies.Central Skies actually staged out of Soto Cano, and during this operation

it's not an exercise, it's an operation -- the United States is providingtactical transportation assets -- helicopters -- to support the movement by drugand law enforcement officials from all of the nations of Central America,helping them to get to key points where they can interdict this flow ofdrugs,perhaps hit warehousing areas. So Soto Cano was a very, very importantcenterfor that. And the first phase of that operation was a training periodwhere weacquainted the host nation DLEAs -- the drug law enforcement agencies --withour mobility procedures and how they would actuallyfunctionin and around our aircraft. So, again, Soto Cano, as the Secretary pointed out,was very central to that effort.

Q Is the training over, the operation --

GENERAL WILHELM: The training is over and the operation has begun, andit is rotating through the nations of Central America right now.

MR. HAMMER: Thank you. That's all the time we have today. Thankyou,Mr. Secretary. Thank you, General.


Office of the Press Secretary

Office of the Press Secretary

Office of the Press Secretary

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