Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on Tsunami Response: Lessons Learned

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Prepared Testimony of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Washington, DC, Tuesday, February 10, 2005.

The Earthquake/Tsunami Disaster:

As you know, this was a double-headed disaster. First was a massive earthquake that registered at 9.0 on the Richter scale, making it one of the 4 or 5 largest earthquakes of the past century. It lifted the ocean floor overlying the thrust fault between the Indian tectonic plate and the overlying Burma plate by up to 10 feet. The earthquake was followed almost immediately, in the case of the northwest shore of the island of Sumatra by a succession of tsunami waves. The region of destruction was extensive, ranging laterally 2000 miles from east to west, and from north to south nearly 500 miles, or 2/3 the width of the United States and nearly half the distance from the north of the U.S. to the south. The tsunami waves created great destruction and disruption in lives and property leaving over 160,000 dead and over 140,000 missing in its wake, over one million people displaced, and billions of dollars in reconstruction costs. To put a human face on this disaster, shortly before I went to the region to survey the damage and review our military relief effort, I met with an Acehnese who resides here in Washington. This one individual lost two hundred members of his immediate family in the tsunami. An aunt and an uncle who live here are his only surviving relatives in the world. The rest of his family was swept away in an instant.

I visited the region three weeks ago, just after the calamity. By that time, however, Thailand was already in the recovery stage. Sri Lanka was still conducting some emergency relief, but it was soon to turn the corner and the U.S. military effort was starting to shift elsewhere. In Indonesia they were still reeling from the enormity of this disaster. As terrible as it was throughout the region, the devastation in Indonesia was incomparably greater. Under any other circumstances the toll of over 8,000 dead or missing in Thailand alone would be devastating. Yet in Sri Lanka the losses of over 35,000 dead or missing is more than four times higher than for Thailand. But in Aceh, one small province in Indonesia, whose population at about 4.2 million is about a fifth of Sri Lanka's (20 million), the toll of over 114,000 dead and over 127,000 missing was seven times greater than in Sri Lanka (thirty-one times greater than Thailand).

The U.S. Response:

Despite the devastation, there was an encouraging amount of good news--the resilience of the people, the willingness of governments to cooperate to help their people and the readiness of the international community to offer assistance. One of the good news stories concerned the interagency coordination and cooperation within the U.S. government in Washington straight out to the ground level where the execution was occurring. The success in this cooperation and coordination was almost unprecedented, and it benefited directly from lessons learned in previous crises.

However, there is always room for improvement and we are looking closely at our response effort through an after action review. We have already identified, along with USAID/OFDA, the need to establish some common operating procedures and mechanisms to help smooth our coordinated response to future crises.

The ability of the Department of Defense to respond so quickly would not have been possible without the relationships developed over many years with the militaries of countries in the region, particularly with Thailand. An unexpected consequence of the relief operation was the opportunity to work closely and effectively with the Indian military, with whom we are expanding ties, as well as the Indonesian military (TNI), with whom we have had difficult relations in the past, but with whom we have worked well in this crisis.

Thanks to the Department of State, in cases where we required over flight clearances or status of forces agreements we were able to obtain them in a timely manner. …