American soldiers give water to cyclone-weary people in Bangladesh
Fresh water appears to be the most urgent need in cyclone-torn Bangladesh and will be a major aspect of the U.S. military's relief efforts there, Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said Friday in Honolulu.
Residents of southern Bangladesh rely on freshwater ponds as a source of drinking and household water, as well as for shrimp farming, but many ponds were polluted with salt water by Tropical Cyclone Sidr when it struck Nov. 15, Keating said at Hickam Air Force Base after returning from a weeklong trip to the Asia-Pacific region Friday.
"When the tidal surge came in, it polluted or salinated all those ponds," Keating said. "So they have no drinking water, no water for bathing or washing dishes. Nor do they have water for their livelihood."
Deliveries of water to Bangladesh from the Navy ship USS Kearsarge began Friday on helicopters crewed by the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, Keating said.
U.S. military personnel from the Kearsarge and a second Navy ship, the USS Tarawa, will use heavy-lift helicopters to transport drinking water from shipboard plants to cyclone-striken areas. They also will assist the Bangladesh government and international relief agencies in moving food and other supplies to areas that need it, he said.
An Air Force C-17 cargo plane from Hickam, meanwhile, has flown water purification equipment to Thailand. The machines will be delivered from there to Bangladesh.
The equipment, called reverse osmosis water purification units, can turn any water source -- including salt water -- into drinking water.
How long the military helps with relief efforts is open-ended, but will probably be less than a month, Keating said.
"The fatalities were relatively low," thanks to government evacuations, he said. "But the damage was high."
Keating anticipates many people with medical needs will be those who survived the storm but have yet to have bad wounds treated. There's a danger that the salt water brought in by the storm has infected some of those wounds.
The seriously wounded might be flown to the Kearsarge, which has six operating rooms, X-ray facilities, a blood bank and other equipment.
While the military's primary mission is to be ready for combat, it is glad to help with relief efforts when possible, he said.
Bangladesh has put the death toll from the Nov. 15 storm at 3,199. More than 1,700 are missing and tens of thousands injured.
Keating also spent a day in Iraq, visiting four U.S. military camps south of Baghdad for Thanksgiving.
Keating said he visited with soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division, headquartered in Hawaii and Alaska, who have served more than 14 months of a deployment, as well as soldiers from Tonga and Mongolia.
"They were thrilled to see us," he said of the U.S. soldiers, but they are more excited about coming home soon, Keating said.
Armed forces personnel in Iraq are optimistic about progress they are making, Keating said, adding that those opinions came from "young men and women on patrol ... not just the old guys."
"They said attacks are down and they are greeted warmly in Iraqi neighborhoods," he said.
Keating also stopped for a day and a half each for meetings with military and civilian leaders in Singapore and the Maldives.
Keating said when he visits China early next year, he "will address head-on" the Chinese government's "perplexing" refusal to allow the USS Kitty Hawk to dock at Hong Kong on Wednesday for a long-planned visit.
"I'm disappointed with the Chinese because we've been working hard on outreach and understanding," Keating said. He noted that hundreds of relatives of Kitty Hawk personnel who had traveled to Hong Kong to share Thanksgiving with their deployed service members couldn't do so.
By the time the Chinese government changed its mind and said the Kitty Hawk could come ashore, it was too far underway and didn't return, Keating said.
"Misunderstandings and miscommunications can lead to a crisis," he said. "We will ask why did they do this and how can we eliminate future events such as this."