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Focus Pivots to Relief Following Deadly Tsunami, Earthquake

September 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the Samoan islands, relief efforts have begun after an earthquake triggered a tsunami. Meanwhile, Indonesia is struggling to recover from its own temblor. U.S. officials say the first flight carrying aid is en route to the region.

GWEN IFILL: The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is one of the humanitarian agencies dispatching aid teams to Sumatra. We get a telephone update from Bob McKerrow, head of the Red Cross delegation in Jakarta.

Welcome, Mr. McKerrow. Indonesia’s health minister said today — he characterized this as a high-scale disaster. What’s the latest you can tell us tonight?

BOB MCKERROW, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: Yes, well, I’ve been in touch with some of the (inaudible) the night, and the situation is not looking good, particularly in Padang and (inaudible) they seem to be badly affected cities.

The earthquake occurred only one hour before dark, so very few people have seen what it’s like in daylight. So within two hours, we’ll be able to put planes in the air and do an aerial assessment.

But the damage to public buildings is quite extensive. Hospitals, clinics, schools, universities seem to be quite badly damaged, and thousands of homes have been destroyed. People are still trapped under rubble. So it’s quite a serious situation.

GWEN IFILL: So because it’s been so dark, you haven’t been able to get a real fix on the number of dead and missing?

BOB MCKERROW: Yes. The recent figures are about 85 people dead, but no figures on the number of people missing. But it’s quite alarming. A number of people are injured. We’re getting reports of hundreds of people quite badly injured.

GWEN IFILL: And I also gather there’s quite a widespread electrical blackout, which must be hindering things, as well.

BOB MCKERROW: Yes, there’s been a electrical blackout, also very difficult to get a hold of people by landlines or mobile phones. So it seems that infrastructure, such as bridges and roads, have been quite seriously affected. The airport is closed in Padang. So it’s looking quite a serious earthquake.

Was Indonesia prepared?

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to compare it to earthquakes we have seen in this region, say, in 2006, when 3,000 people died?

BOB MCKERROW: I think it's too early to compare because we're only at one hour of daylight to have a look. I would reserve judgment until we get some planes up in the air, but certainly it's looking quite bad.

GWEN IFILL: We're also getting reports of landslides. Is there any way to document that?

BOB MCKERROW: I've had one report of a landslide hitting a main road, but no other reports of landslides yet.

GWEN IFILL: It's easy to look back after something like this happens and think of the things that the country could have done, but given what we know, was Indonesia prepared for a quake of this magnitude?

BOB MCKERROW: Yes. I think, since the tsunami in 2004, the Indonesian government has really been committed to disaster preparedness, and they've done a lot of training at the community level, at the provincial level. They've built warehouses, and so has the Red Cross.

So we've got quite a lot of highly trained people, particularly in rescue and first aid, and we have good stockpiles of relief equipment and medical supplies. So I think Indonesia is much better prepared than it was three or four years ago.

GWEN IFILL: And I imagine the bulk of their relief effort will begin at daybreak.

BOB MCKERROW: Yes. And we have lots of people on standby at various airports ready to go in to reinforce those rescue and medical teams. So it's a big effort and we're not going to be short of people, thank goodness.

GWEN IFILL: Bob McKerrow with the International Red Cross in Jakarta, thank you so much.

BOB MCKERROW: No problem.

Relief effort in American Samoa

GWEN IFILL: Next, the situation in American Samoa. Part of the relief effort is being coordinated by the Air Force and the National Guard from Hickam Field in Hawaii. Joining us now by telephone from Hickam Field is Major General Robert Lee of the Hawaii National Guard.

Welcome, General.

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT LEE, Hawaii National Guard: Hi. Aloha.

GWEN IFILL: Aloha to you. Can you give us any sense of what the latest update is on casualties?

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT LEE: No, we're still trying to get to the remote locations in American Samoa. Unfortunately, we expect the death toll to be increasing. That's why it's paramount that we get our relief supplies and the relief workers, primarily our medics from the Hawaii National Guard and our combat communications squadron, so that we can restore communications in American Samoa.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama today declared this to be a major disaster. What does that mean, in terms of what kind of effort that the United States has to provide, especially in a territory as remote as American Samoa?

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT LEE: Well, with the presidential declaration, it is not only the Hawaii National Guard that will be helping out, but the Army Reserve, U.S. Army Pacific, and the United States Navy, as directed by United States Pacific Command. There should be a frigate en route to American Samoa with some helicopters to help with the search and rescue, being that the main road that traverses the island is currently damaged.

GWEN IFILL: How long does that take -- American Samoa is not exactly next door from Hawaii -- for that frigate to get there with the helicopters and the aid?

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT LEE: I see. Well, the frigate was in the area, and so it was diverted by the United States Navy. And I just talked with the commander, and he tells me that the frigate will be there today.

GWEN IFILL: OK. So now tell me, how do you get your information? I know you just said you talked to the commander of the frigate. But, otherwise, it's so difficult right now with both of these natural disasters in the South Pacific to find out exactly what's going on and what the extent is of the destruction. How are you getting your information?

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT LEE: Well, that's right. Well, the commander of the Pacific Fleet happens to be in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, so this is close. But our people on the ground there that the Army Reserve Center that we have, our command-and-control headquarters, everything is intact. We have power, and that's where we're establishing command and control.

Now, the more difficult part is to get our teams out to the remote areas, a lot of times on foot and have them report back. So that's the time-consuming part.

Comparing it to 2004

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to know at this point how this compares to the Asian tsunami we all paid such close attention to five years ago?

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT LEE: Well, thankfully, this is, from a severity perspective, you know, not as bad as the Aceh and the Indonesian tsunami, with that earthquake, but this is still pretty bad.

GWEN IFILL: You know, we just heard a report about the tsunami warning worked and the 15 or 16 minutes it took for the notification -- for it to be processed. Do we know whether that tsunami warning was effective in this case in saving lives or at least in giving people a heads-up?

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT LEE: Well, I believe there was just a short warning, but because this occurred so closely to the Samoa island chain, I don't think the people had more than 20 to 30 minutes' time from the time of the earthquake until the first wave of the tsunami started hitting the land.

So that's awfully a short time. And whereas we have a tsunami warning network established throughout the Pacific, and that affords the rest of the Pacific to track the waves and to actually really time very accurately the arrival to Hawaii and various portions of the Pacific Rim.

GWEN IFILL: We know that warning network exists. Do we think it worked as it should this time?

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT LEE: Well, I'd like to put this in some historical perspective, why the warning system is a lot better today than during the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami. During that time, we had only seven sensors and deep-ocean sensors installed throughout the Pacific.

Today, we have 43. And many of those deep-water sensors are contributed by other nations besides the United States of America. For example, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, all have made contributions so that we can help each other in this information and early-warning network.

GWEN IFILL: So as bad as this is looking, you're thinking it could have been worse?

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT LEE: It surely could have been worse, yes.

GWEN IFILL: OK. General Lee, thank you so much for joining us.

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT LEE: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: You can see how the tsunami alert system worked in American Samoa on our Web site,, and you can follow a link to the PBS program "Nova" to learn how a tsunami actually forms.