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                     Office of the Press Secretary
                       (Tegucigalpa, Honduras)
For Immediate Release                                      March 9, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                       GENERAL CHARLES WILHELM  
                              Hotel Maya
                        Tegucigalpa, Honduras 

2:35 P.M. (L)

MR. HAMMER: Good afternoon. Thank you for coming. Today we are going to be having a briefing by Secretary of the Army, Louis Caldera; and Commander in Chief of Southern Command, General Wilhelm. They will be focusing on the military -- the U.S. military's efforts in direct response to Hurricane Mitch, the initial immediate assistance that was provided and also the reconstruction that 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, Bill Cohen, 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 had all the support and all the resources in the Pentagon to help support this mission.

This is my third trip down here to Central America, a tremendous difference from when I came on that first trip early in November -- everything was still flooded and you could see long stretches of road. But there were no cars on the road because eventually the road would end up into a bridge that had been washed away. Today, as General Wilhelm will tell you, so many of those bridges 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 that he said, that General Wilhelm will cover: one, the tremendous contribution that U.S. service members have made here. Close to 6,000 active duty components, service members from all of the services were here from the very initial life-saving phase to the transition phase. And more will be coming over the next several months.

One of the things that the President announced today was that Operation New Horizons, which is our National Guard training effort, will bring some 20,000 National Guardsmen and Reserve soldiers between now -- some of them have already 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 the size of the project that we had already envisioned -- even before the hurricane had occurred.

He also announced today, in recognition of the tremendous job that our service members had made, that the Humanitarian Service Award would be given to every service member who participated in this mission -- a mission which now, in his words, is the largest humanitarian mission the United States has been involved in since the Berlin Airlift.

Today, our country has committed some quarter of a billion dollars of resources, just through the Department of Defense, through those active duty and Reserve component service members, to support our neighbors here in Central America. That was tremendously appreciated by the people here, working hand in hand with the Honduran military and civil agencies to make sure that that assistance gets to where it is most greatly needed.

With that, I'd like to introduce the Commander in Chief for Southern Command, who's been responsible for overseeing this operation, General Charlie Wilhelm.

GENERAL WILHELM: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is General Charlie Wilhelm and I am the Commander in Chief of the United States Southern Command. I'd like to take just a couple of minutes to briefly review with you the activities that the Department of Defense has been engaged in, is engaged in, and will conduct over the balance of the fiscal year to help the four nations of Central America recover from the damages that were brought by Hurricane Mitch.

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

First of all, as I think you're aware, the National Weather Service has categorized this as the most destructive storm to hit Central America in more than 200 years. At this moment, we count more than 8,200 dead in Central America, and more than 9,300 missing. Now that four months have elapsed, there's very little hope for those 9,000 plus who are unaccounted for. So, in historic context, that's 17,000 lives lost, which is equal to the total United States losses during the Korean War.

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

This storm -- and this is based on our imagery systems, which enable us to really gauge the magnitude of the damage -- affected 40 percent of the landmass of these four nations, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. So it was a very, very wide-reaching calamity.

What did we do about it? We put together an operation which we have conducted in three phases. We termed these phases, first, the emergency phase, which began on the 26th of October when the storm first settled over the Bay Islands just north of Honduras; and that phase ran for roughly 30 days through about Thanksgiving, and we termed that the emergency phase of our operations.

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

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

Also, we put Zodiac rubber boats in the northern portions of Honduras, 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 in five days -- 7 feet in five days. So the magnitude of the flooding was enormous.

During those first 30 days, we delivered over 3.75 million pounds of food 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 storm and the high waters and the flooding claimed 17,000 lives. As soon as the waters began to recede, our attention immediately refocused on the aftermath of the storm and all the foul wells and the contaminated water. And we feared outbreaks of epidemic proportions of typhus and cholera. So we worked very hard to get fresh water to the people.

Little anecdotes are sometimes helpful to understand precisely what we did. I recall on a Saturday morning, after having conducted one of my first visits here, in early November, making a short presentation in Miami, trying to generate some support in the United States for what was going on here, and I got a call from President Carter. President Carter had just visited the region, and when I returned his call he said, you know, we must do something about the dirty water and those little plastic bottles are not going to get the job done. What can we get to the people of Central America so that they can purify their own water?

Thinking back many years ago, when I was a young lieutenant in Vietnam, 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 tasted horrible, but the water did not make you sick. The bottom line of this little anecdote is that 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 was phase one, the emergency phase.

The second phase of our operation we termed the rehabilitation phase. And in very simple terms, during the rehabilitation phase what we sought to do was to make quick fixes to the infrastructure throughout Central America so that the nations could start to tend to the essential health and welfare needs of their populations themselves. During this phase of the operation, our troop strength peaked and at about Christmas, which is a good benchmark date, we had about 5,900 troops on the ground here in Central America, providing a wide range of service and assistance functions for the population.

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

During that phase of the operations, and I should say during this phase of the operations because we are just on the verge of concluding it, we undertook 67 major engineer projects throughout the region. By and large, these involved the rehabilitation and restoration of roads and bridges; we reclaimed well over 100 wells, cleansing them, resleeving them, and making them suitable sources of drinking water. We built several clinics from the ground floor up where medical treatment facilities were lost, which serviced entire segments of the population. And the President just visited the Juan Ramon Molina Bridge here in Tegucigalpa. That was one of four very large bridges that we put in in Honduras, and that bridge had to be replaced to reunite the two sides of Tegucigalpa, the capital city.

We are standing now on the verge, or not -- really not on the verge, we've actually commenced phase three of the Department's involvement in the Central American recovery undertaking. And as Secretary Caldera mentioned, this is where we really have a changing of the guard, in a manner of speaking. The active component forces who have been heavily involved in the emergency and rehabilitation phase are now being replaced by Guardsmen and Reservists. As the Secretary mentioned, between now and over the summer, we will deploy over 23,000 members of the Guard and Reserve, and they will build a total of 33 schools, 12 clinics. They will repair 52 more roads and bridges. They will drill 27 high capacity wells. And very importantly, they will conduct 40 very large medical outreach programs during which we expect that we will establish somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 patient contacts.

This exercise is significant for two reasons. First, this is the premier training event of the year for our Guardsmen and reservists. And secondly, the work that our engineers, medics, and logisticians do will remain long 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 become involved in the recovery operations here in Central America.

Normally I do this with some charts. Unfortunately, they didn't make it here today. But I think I've given you some of the little data bits which might prove interesting and probably do as good a job as anything else I could say of really kind of scoping the effort here in Central America.

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

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

GENERAL WILHELM: The total defense commitment -- this last phase has a price tag of $70.3 million; $56 million of that is for the deployment and redeployment of the forces and to provide the wherewithal, the materials to construct all of these projects. And we have also requested $14.3 million to pay 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 that apparently is emergency money, but it's not being passed with any kind of speed?

GENERAL WILHELM: I would certainly offer the observation that the quicker we can get reimbursed the better. We have the green light. The President 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 we speak. Those are Guardsmen from Louisiana and from South Carolina. There are contingents rolling in from Missouri right now to replace them. So we're underway, but, yes, the supplemental will be most welcome and very obviously, the sooner the better.

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

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

Q We were told that was your aircraft, that he flew into the base in.

GENERAL WILHELM: No, ma'am. No, ma'am. Not mine. I don't have one. (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 in Central America?

GENERAL WILHELM: Thanks. As I think many of you know, we have had a continuous United States presence in Honduras at the Soto Cano Air Base, since 1983. I would hasten to clarify that that is not a U.S. base. It is a Honduran Air Force Base and it is also the home of their Air Force Academy. So we are guests of the Honduran Air Force there.

As you correctly point out, during the decade of the '80s that was a base which supported our activities against the insurgencies throughout Central America. Now the forces there have been re-roled and they support the regional engagement activities of Southern Command throughout Central America -- everything from counternarcotics operations to the annual New Horizons exercise program, which is underway now.

So these are largely civil military operations and the training events that we conduct with the militaries of Central America to assist them along the road toward assuming their rightful role in a democracy. So Soto Cano is very important 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 are here today?

GENERAL WILHELM: We are down -- what I refer to as the phase two force, the active component -- there were 49 Marines at the bridge this morning who will be leaving on Friday. And then we have -- our normal component at Soto Cano, 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 plus 500 plus the 50 Marines who are preparing to leave.

SECRETARY CALDERA: Let me underscore how important it was for us to have those soldiers at Soto Cano. There were 500, approximately 500 who are permanently stationed there -- that is what their place of duty is. And when the hurricane first came through, of course, they were hit by the hurricane. As it moved on they were able to immediately get their helicopters up in the air and move toward the northern part of the country, where the hurricane had already passed through, to begin that operation of starting to save lives.

There were other parts of Honduras where they could not fly to because the hurricane was still there and they could not fly toward Guatemala. But it gave them that ability to immediately begin that life-saving process. And in those early days, frankly, what I was hearing was, why can't we get more helicopters there sooner?

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

So it was very critical to the response to this disaster. It certainly is critical to our engagement strategy with all of the democracies that exist here in Latin America and South America and with the very important mission that we all share in counternarcotics that is so important to our country, as well.

Q General, you all gave a pretty complete timeline of the things that 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 memory here? I don't recall the details.

GENERAL WILHELM: Well, the facts, as best I know them, was that both President Flores and Mrs. Mary Flores, his wife, had left Tegucigalpa and had gone into some stricken areas of the country. At this time the water was still rising, this was 31 October -- the rains hadn't even stopped.

As I understand it, they found themselves cut off from both sides by rising water. And a Blackhawk helicopter went in and pulled the President and Mrs. Flores out and took them back to Tegucigalpa. As you know, it was a very tough time. The Mayor of Tegucigalpa, who was a much beloved man, was tragically killed in a helicopter crash trying to visit some of his constituents in and around the city. So to have lost the President at the same time would have been doubly tragic.

Q General, do you find that engaging in rescue and relief operations in any way diminishes the capacity of your personnel to serve and to mount that operation?

GENERAL WILHELM: No, not at all. If you look at the forces that are here right now, these are principally engineers, they're medics, they're military policemen, and these are flight crews. Some of the flying, because of marginal weather -- which normally associates itself with these kinds of disasters -- that's a stressing experience for the air crews. Going into what we call confined area landing sites -- CALS -- which is precisely what I was talking about, that last meter of dry land and that rooftop. Those are very demanding missions.

So, no, it doesn't blunt their combat edge at all. And then for the combat service support troops who are doing the construction, this is their mainstream business and line of work. So, no -- if anything, we're sharpening the 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 an operation which 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 providing tactical transportation assets -- helicopters -- to support the movement by drug and law enforcement officials from all of the nations of Central America, helping them to get to key points where they can interdict this flow of drugs, perhaps hit warehousing areas. So Soto Cano was a very, very important center for that. And the first phase of that operation was a training period where we acquainted the host nation DLEAs -- the drug law enforcement agencies -- with our mobility procedures and how they would actually function in 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, and it is rotating through the nations of Central America right now.

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

END 3:00 P.M. (L)