I met Lt. Cmdr. Paul Macapagal at the airstrip in Guiuan, Philippines, just under two weeks after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the country’s Eastern Visayas region. Lt. Cmdr. Macapagal is a public affairs officer with the the USS George Washington carrier strike group, which had arrived in the typhoon-affected area nearly a week earlier, and had been using its more than 20 helicopters to distribute aid to remote towns and villages on southern Leyte and surrounding islands. Shouting to be heard over the noise of airplane and helicopter engines, Lt. Cmdr. Macapagal provided me with a brief overview of the U.S. military humanitarian relief effort in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda.
“The USS George Washington carrier strike group sailed from Hong Kong on the 12th of November. I know that because it’s the day after my wedding anniversary. We got the call from the Secretary of Defense telling us to leave Hong Kong and to make best speed down to the Philippines. The strike group comprised the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier, USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, USS Antietam, another guided missile cruiser, and two guided missile destroyers, USS Mustin and USS Lassen.
“It took us a couple days to get down here. USS Lassen beat us by a day, because they left a day ahead of us, and they got started immediately conducting an assessment. That’s standard with any kind of humanitarian disaster. We had US Navy P-3 Orion aircraft conducting assessments, as well as the helicopters off the USS Lassen.
“When we arrived, the entire USS George Washington carrier strike group was able to deploy around 20 helicopters. Our first task was to assess where we could fly, where the supply hubs would be, where we could pick up supplies and where we could take them.There’s a supply hub in Tacloban, there’s a hub here where we are in Guiuan, and we’re also servicing Ormoc. We sent the USS Mustin up to Ormoc, along with the USNS Charles Drew, because the USS Mustin had only two helicopters, and the [supply ship] USNS Charles Drew had more supplies, and another two helicopters.
“With these three central hubs for supplies, we determined that our best resource was our 21 helicopters, and that later became 23 helicopters when the [supply ship] USNS Richard E. Byrd joined the strike group. The roads here were not serviceable, and there were a lot of remote locations, including small islands, so we thought the best and most productive contribution we could make to the situation was the helicopter airlift, ferrying supplies out of these hubs to the communities that needed them the most. Our helicopters have also done some medivac work from remote locations where the Philippine authorities have requested it.
“Guiuan is the helicopter and Osprey hub, and the aid is coming in here from Manila by C-130 [military transport aircraft]. It’s not just us; there are aircraft participating in this airlift from a number of countries. We’ve got local air traffic control set up on that hilltop there, a combination of Air Force, Marines and Navy personnel.
“What we hoped to do was to create a very small footprint here on the ground. We come in every morning with our working parties, with our liaison officers, work throughout the day, and then prior to sunset, we take our working parties back to the ship. We set it up that way so as not to take away from any of the supplies that are here, and are needed by the local population, who need it more. From the Navy, we’ll bring around a 14-person working party, and 5-7 liaison officers to help with the logistics of what you’re seeing going on behind me right now.
“We are operating here in support of the Philippine government, and the US military lead, initially, was the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and we were taking all our tasking from them. We started on the 15th. Sent in our helicopters, picked up supplies from either Guiuan or Tacloban, and headed out to the areas that the Philippine civil authorities had identified as being in need. Additionally, we had an E-2C Hawkeye [airborne early warning aircraft] to fly overhead and provide command and control. There were definitely some lessons learned, especially after the first hours and days, but we felt we had come up with a good system to address the needs.”
Roberto De Vido is editor of Aidpreneur and producer of Terms of Reference. He lives in Japan.