Admiral Kurt Tidd, Commander, Southern Command
Pentagon, Sept. 21, 2017
STAFF: So for everyone, thank you for being here today. We are on the record, and (inaudible) to Admiral Tidd. If you'd like to record, please do so. He's here to talk about the hurricane relief efforts in the Caribbean. We have about 30 minutes. And for the Admiral, if you could please state your name and your organization when you ask a question. We'll start with a brief statement, and then I'll (inaudible). Thank you.
ADMIRAL KURT TIDD: All right. So good afternoon, and thank you for joining this round table. Now, over the past couple of weeks, as you're aware, U.S. Southern Command, like much of our nation and the world, has closely followed, and in fact, been -- experienced firsthand, the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria that have had -- that have so preoccupied our nation and the Caribbean.
Now, when they made landfall, the strength and force of these storms left several island nations and territories in the region experiencing levels of devastation of historic proportions. These disasters underscore our inter-connectiveness, and the importance of strong partnerships. It's truly been a team effort among U.S. and partner nation militaries, governments, federal agencies, and all those involved to move rapidly, and to get support where it's needed the most.
I would like to express my deepest sympathy to all of those whose lives have been impacted by these hurricanes. Because some of the islands affected are part of the U.S. and its territories, our U.S. Northern Command partners have been supporting FEMA's, and other U.S. federal agencies' aid to our citizens in Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
At U.S. SOUTHCOM, we've been working with our lead federal agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. State Department to support requests for foreign disaster assistance from a number of nations most heavily damaged by these storms. We deployed Joint Task Force Leeward Islands, commanded by Marine Colonel Mike Samarov, to Puerto Rico on September 9 to support the evacuation of U.S. citizens, as well as to provide assistance to our French and Dutch military partners in the island of St. Maarten.
Since then, the task force has purified more than 21,000 gallons of water, and distributed more than 7,000 gallons; delivered nine water purification systems; as well as high-capacity forklifts and vehicles to help our Dutch and French governments' friends offload and distribute this aid to their citizens on the island.
This small element of the task force sheltered in St. Maarten, and is now working with French and Dutch authorities again to resume support of relief operations as quickly as conditions permit.
Our country is a compassionate, generous and caring nation with a long history of aiding those around the world who are impacted by disasters. We are proud to support disaster assistance that helps nations save lives, mitigate suffering and transition as quickly as possible from response to recovery.
The U.S. military was asked to assist because of our unique capabilities and the speed and flexibility that are needed most in the critical early stages of disaster relief operations.
We anticipate that requests for U.S. military support will decline as international relief efforts progress and as more experienced relief organizations assume an active role in support of these islands' governments. Transitioning tasks to our host-nation and civilian partners will occur as rapidly as possible.
So thanks. And with that, I'll be happy to take your questions.
STAFF: All right. Yes.
Q: Hi, Admiral. Lita Baldor with the Associated Press.
I was wondering if you'd talk a little bit about how stretched the military forces are because of the -- both the distance and the breadth of the hurricane damage, as well as the number of hurricanes to choose (from ?) that are just coming.
ADM. TIDD: Sure.
Q: There -- now are you, I guess, dealing with that?
ADM. TIDD: So I'd refer you, obviously, to those entities that were responsible for responding to Hurricane Harvey and to the -- either the response in Florida or in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands -- that would be both the National Guard Bureau and the U.S. Northern Command.
The work that we have done obviously has been in the area just to the south of that, so predominantly focused in the -- in the Caribbean islands hit first by Irma and then by -- by Maria.
We have a small force that's based in Honduras, a combination of U.S. Marine Special-Purpose MAGTF that is deployed there six months out of the year, and then a permanent presence of U.S. Army aviation forces.
They self-deployed from Honduras, island-hopped their way around to Puerto Rico and began to provide response to -- initially to St. Martin, and also to assist with the evacuation of American citizens from a number of islands that -- in the British Virgin Islands, where we were asked to assist NORTHCOM in that -- in that effort.
We also employed C-130 aircraft that are assigned to U.S. Southern Command, as well as coordinating the efforts of a number of C-130s belonging to the -- initially to New York, the Kentucky and -- let's see. I'm trying to -- I'm missing the other National Guard unit here, and I should know that one off the top of my head.
ADM. TIDD: Sorry?
ADM. TIDD: Yes. We'll get that for you. I'm -- boy, I'm going to be penalized for having a crew out and missing one of the states -- (Laughter.) -- because they provided terrific support, with their C-130s going and flying into islands and picking up American citizens and being able to bring them back, to get them home.
Q: Can you -- Courtney Kube with NBC News. Can you talk about any -- what your expectations are, now that Maria has gone through, for Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and I guess St. Martin, maybe? Or -- I know) --
ADM. TIDD: Yes. Yes.
Q: -- sorry, I know that -- (inaudible) -- I don't understand where you are (inaudible).
ADM. TIDD: It's okay. Think -- if it's U.S. territory, then it's U.S. Northern Command. So the U.S. Virgin Islands, and just because of the geography -- normally, British Virgin Islands, Bahamas -- they're all part of -- under the area of responsibility that U.S. Northern Command has responsibility for -- and Puerto Rico.
So south of that, it's -- the Caribbean Islands and the territories -- so -- and in the case of St. Martin, it's a -- it's an island -- actually, half the island belongs to the Netherlands, half the island belongs to France. And so we work those islands south and provide help where we can.
Q: So I guess what, going forward, now that Maria's gone through, is a percentage of your -- of SOUTHCOM is going to be providing support and everything, versus any kind of additional (inaudible)? Do you see how rescue recovery kind of missions or are you more on the...
ADM. TIDD: Because of Maria, we were in the process -- we were past the sort of the immediate helping to evacuate American citizens, and we're proving initial life saving. And in the case of St. Martin, the water desalinization plant was heavily damaged and the distribution infrastructure was damaged.
Netherlands and France are providing kind of the repair capabilities and providing resources to be able to fix that. But because we were right there and able to help kind of fill that gap as their forces are flowing into the theater, so they are providing the bulk of the support, and we're just providing unique U.S. military capabilities that we had available to help with water.
And so we're producing water kind of at the point of distribution as they repair the pipelines and whatnot to be able to distribute water from their central desalinization plant.
That process -- so it'll transfer over as they complete the repairs, then they'll no longer need the water purification there. Dominica is kind of the area of our immediate focus right now, because of the passage of Maria.
We have a C-130 that is supposed to be arriving this afternoon to land at the airport on an initial assessment and if -- obviously if there are any American citizens at the airport at that time, we'll evacuate them. But to really put in place the mechanisms to be able to start the evacuation, we understand there may be anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 American citizens potentially in Dominica, so part of this is just understanding the size and the scope of the problem.
And we'll be plugging in with those populations to see just exactly what's required. And obviously, the disaster response that we do in Dominica is in direct support of USAID. They determine what the requirements are, they decide are any of those requirements unique military, something that we might have that either we can get there faster than a relief organization or just we have some unique capacity that they might not have.
And we'll fill a gap until the other -- what I would the heavy-lifters that can be there for the long time, that will do the long term assistance can arrive on station. And so we kind of focus on the immediate life and limb needs of sustaining people who have been so desperately impacted by the storms.
Q: But then 1,500 to 3,000, those are people -- not people that you suspect may need to be evacuated (inaudible) period, but not that they all need evacuation?
ADM. TIDD: That's -- it'll be up to them. You know, these are American citizens. And again, it's a number that we don't have a firm fix on, but we've been told that's the range of the potential problem.
There is a university there that has, we know, a certain number of U.S. citizens at the university, and so we're plugging in with them. We -- they have some plans in place to be able to evacuate those students.
And so if that's sufficient, we'll let them do that. If not, you know, if we can help with that, then that's what we're trying to find out.
Q: (Inaudible) just to recap, just are you actually in Puerto Rico? I know that it's not part of your territory but you said (inaudible)...
ADM. TIDD: That's where the airport was that we staged out of. And then when Maria came through, we had to go to ground like everybody else, you know, kind of shut everything down and hunker down. As the storm has passed, now we're, you know, coming back up again and beginning to run the operations again out of there. For the islands, we're actually operating further south.
Q: So north NORTHCOM is actually taking care of...
ADM. TIDD: NORTHCOM has responsibility for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Q: OK. And about how many men and women do you have deployed in these areas?
ADM. TIDD: Across the board -- and it's a number that's fluctuated as the number of C-130 aircraft have kind of been in and out of the theater, so it's a couple hundred.
Q: And it's Dominica? Sorry, last one -- Dominica, St. Maarten, am I missing anywhere else?
ADM. TIDD: Those are the two that we are most heavily focused on. We previously did some support, again, at the request of North Com, up in the British Virgin Islands. And so that's -- we support them, they support us, on either side of that line.
Q: Admiral, (inaudible). Just two quick ones. One, given that SOUTHCOM headquarters was in the path of Irma, did that cause any disruption on operations, and how do you figure out what to do? And two, you described it as (inaudible) historic proportions, has there ever been, in your assessment, a storm or serious storm that has damaged the areas this severely?
ADM. TIDD: I'll refer you to the historians on that one, and I'm just kind of quoting some of the -- the assessments that have been provided by others. So, I guess I would say, don't -- probably not the authoritative source on whether it is -- it's never been worse, but I would just say it's been pretty darn bad. And just from seeing the devastation that we've all seen the images of, it is significant. And so, I'll leave it at that.
Yes, obviously, as hurricane Irma was coming through that impacted our direct headquarters, as well as one of our -- two of our principle subordinate commands, our joint (regency ?) taskforce south, which is head quartered in Key West. They had to evacuate prior to the storm coming through -- they and their families, and have not yet returned. They are conducting their mission -- operations from the Tampa area. The -- and then, our special operations command south, normally head quartered down at the Homestead Air Force base, they also evacuated prior to the storm. Up to Eglin Air Force base on the panhandle, and they've now turned back -- and are back in business.
We had similar challenges because of where are headquarters are located in (inaudible), and so we sent a contingent of our staff out to one of our alternate command posts out of Tucson, Arizona. They ran operations for about a week from there, and then have returned just this past weekend. So now we're all back, and reconstituted. But that's the -- that's the headquarters.
Obviously, you know, like all of our neighbors in southern Florida, and our families have been impacted by this, and we've gone through the challenges of -- power comes back on in our neighborhoods and that's just a -something that impacts us all. It's something that probably will impact our families down in Key West, the most heavily, for the longest period of time, as the keys get -- reestablish themselves.
But it's -- it will affect our families.
Q: (Inaudible). Even though Puerto Rico's not in the (inaudible), can you give us a sense of how many people have been effected directly in the island?
ADM. TIDD: I can't, and I would refer you back to NORTHCOM, they're the ones who are focused most on it.
Q: OK. Just the fact that Irma, there was a decision not to evacuate Guantanamo Bay. I was wondering if you could talk to us about that decision process, and any -- describe any damage that the space...
ADM. TIDD: Yeah, you know, it's -- as is always the case in any time that there is a storm with a track, and you can, you know, just like, I think, all of us, we're following the spaghetti charts, and we're trying to take a look and make a decision on where we're likely to be impacted. And what is susceptible to damage. From pretty early on all of the tracks showed a path for Irma that was going to pass on the north side of Cuba.
And so, you know, we took a look at that and we recognized that we were relatively safe, and a lot of this was based on the experience that we had last year with Hurricane Matthew as it came through and we, kind of, understood just exactly what the challenges were. So, the decision was made that we were -- that the folks were safe there and that's the way it proved out.
In terms of damage it was nothing worth reporting. They were -- they never lost power, never lost communications and it was just like everybody else they kind of hunkered down and watched as it passed but it was -- didn't pose a problem. Sorry over here.
Q: Yes, I will (inaudible) dealing with (inaudible) how does the -- how does the Coast Guard (inaudible) cooperating with ...
ADM. TIDD: Sure.
Q: Doesn't the Coast Guard go to (inaudible).
ADM. TIDD: The short answer is can they, they've got capability and capacity. Are they focused on other areas, yes.
Q: Are they legally -- can they go to St. Martin, can they go to (inaudible).
ADM. TIDD: OK. I'm not a lawyer but we have the Coast Guard as part of our U.S. SOUTHCOM operations and they routinely engage in a variety of activities.
Q: Are they part of (inaudible)?
ADM. TIDD: No, they are not.
Q: They are not.
ADM. TIDD: No, no. Right now that task force is made up largely of U.S. Marine Corp, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force forces and then -- with a (matter ?) of Navy presence.
Q: You doing some operations down in Puerto Rico. Where in Puerto Rico? Do you have a place to do it at?
ADM. TIDD: So, before Maria came through we were based out of the National Guard base in Puerto Rico near San Juan and we're running the operations from that facility. We hunkered down like everybody else and then have come out now and are in the process of reestablishing and taking a look to see as we evaluate the damage to Puerto Rico itself.
Do we need -- we have not made a decision of whether or not we need to perhaps move the location of that headquarters. And, we'll just evaluate that ...
Q: So, you don't know if it's operating?
ADM. TIDD: They are up and operational and communicating with -- but is that the best place for them to be long term with other things going on.
Q: You're not flying in and out of there?
ADM. TIDD: Not right now. No. What we did -- the helicopters that we were flying there, we bedded them down in a Coast Guard facility and in a hanger that was rated for Cat 5 storms. And so, now we're in the process of, you have to take them apart to put them in there and now we're bringing them out and beginning to put them back together again.
Q: (Inaudible) just ballpark the assets that you have right now (inaudible) ...
ADM. TIDD: Yes. Helicopters, we have five Army helicopters, three Marine Corp helicopters. The C-130's at the moment right now three -- four, actually four C-130's and then periodically as National Guard aircraft have participated again during the response we had up to four National Guard helicopter -- National Guard C-130's that also supported an addition to the four that we -- that are actually assigned and allocated to us, supporting our activities. So, it's -- the numbers ...
Q: (Inaudible) -- the four that SOUTHCOM has, (inaudible)
ADM. TIDD: All the time. Right.
Q: Alex Daugherty with the Miami Herald. I know you mentioned that Guantanamo didn't sustain significant damage. Were there any relief operations conducted outside of the base to help out Cuba, which, I know --
ADM. TIDD: There was no request from Cuba for any support.
Q: And one additional question with Guantanamo. Has there (been ?) any discussions at SOUTHCOM about the U.S. combatant citizen that may have been detained in Syria that -- is there any discussion at this point about --
ADM. TIDD: I'll refer you to OSD on that.
Q: So a quick follow-up on the other questions. Do you know if they have (a list ?) -- if they have a power on -- if your folks have power in Puerto Rico? You said they are communicating --
ADM. TIDD: Yes.
Q: Did they have --
ADM. TIDD: They -- they are communicating with us. So -- and so, I -- you know, I just traded e-mails with the task force commander a little while ago. So I didn't ask him where he was -- you know, where that was coming from. I don't know if that was the hotel that he was staying at.
I think I'll, you know -- I'll -- I don't have the picture of what's going on, on this -- you know, on the island of Puerto Rico. So I don't want to say something that might be inaccurate. I just know I -- yes, we're communicating with them.
Q: Can I just change gears for a second, on Venezuela, which I know you follow? You know, there was a lot of talks about a month ago about military options on Venezuela. How are you looking at the situation in Venezuela? You know, are there military options?
And then, also, in the post-peace-process Colombia, separately, have you noticed any kind of Venezuelan shenanigans along that border?
ADM. TIDD: Yes, let me -- you know, I'll refer you to the government of Colombia to talk specifically about what may or may not be going on alongside their border. We work very, very closely with our Colombian partners and have, in terms of making sure that our understanding of the situation -- that, A, we share it with them, but more importantly, they -- they help us understand better what's going on.
They're a neighbor. They've been there. And they watch it extremely closely. And so, we have a -- an excellent information exchange with our friends in the Colombian military and security services. And so, you know, we're all very much focused on -- as are all of the countries in the region -- about the situation that's taking place in Venezuela right now. They watch it pretty closely.
Q: And the military options issue?
ADM. TIDD: I'll just -- I think I'll let the statements out there -- I'll let them stand.
Q: Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.
With these -- you know, apparent uptick in hurricanes this season, considering the response last year to Matthew, were there lessons learned last year that have applied this year that you can talk about that -- maybe the response was better or quicker?
ADM. TIDD: You know, it's -- did we learn lessons last year from Matthew? Absolutely. We rolled that into our -- you know, our headquarters training program. No great surprise. You know, each set of circumstances is a little bit different, so there's no such thing as one size fits all in the solutions.
It -- you know, it teaches us that the greatest attribute that we can bring is our flexibility. And the -- you know, the -- our ability to take a plan and then adapt it rapidly to the actual circumstances that we find. And so, you know, this one did not play out exactly the same, but we've -- you know, we've been able to respond quickly, to be able to get forces moving quickly.
And that's kind of -- that's what's unique, I think, about the capabilities that we bring. It's not so much that there are not other organizations that might be able to provide them, and that ultimately will provide -- much more robust and on a sustained basis.
But oftentimes, you know, we can respond very, very quickly with at least some initial capability to begin to relieve suffering, gain better situational awareness of exactly what's going on, and kind of help -- help our -- our partners, you know, our interagency partners. In our case, you know, for NORTHCOM, and for -- for the domestic disaster response, FEMA is the lead federal agency for that response. Kind of the analogous organization that we work with is -- is USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.
And so we, you know, we kind of take our -- our cues from them as they determine what are the requirements, and -- and we -- and we try to meet those as rapidly as we can.
STAFF: Sir, I think they have one more question.
ADM. TIDD: Is there -- is that...
ADM. TIDD: OK.
Q: I just wanted to -- if you had any gauge on how long you're going to (inaudible) your forces (inaudible).
ADM. TIDD: I would say it's relatively a few more weeks' time, as we -- as we take a look at this, but it's -- right now, we've, you know, as we get a direction, and it says, you'll -- this is, you know, you'll -- you'll be prepared to respond for, initially, started out as two weeks. It extended out for another about 10 days, and then as a result of, you know, we gained better situational awareness as a result of -- of -- of Maria, that's been extended a little bit farther into -- into October.
But the -- the -- the fact of the matter is, it's kind of conditions-based. We are in the business of, almost as soon as we start, to try and identify, what is the -- what is the -- the -- the -- how do we pass this baton? Who do we pass it to? How do we pass it? When do we pass it? And make sure that -- that -- that we pass it to a -- a capable setup that -- that's ready to go. But as we've kind of said, we're, you know, we'll be there absolutely, you know, as long as we need to be, and not a day longer. And -- and that's kind of our commitment to the -- the partners that we're working with.
Q: Do you have a set date in October? You said, extend into October, so...
ADM. TIDD: It is, let's see. Let's see if I've got the exact one, because we just got a...
ADM. TIDD: 13th? Yeah, 13th of October. It's been -- yeah. But we'll see how it goes.
Q: Can I ask a mechanical question? I mean, I know the U.S. is after, like, the U.S. military gets reimbursed for some of the work it does in the U.S. for disaster relief funds. How does it work for -- for -- for SOUTHCOM? Do you get any assistance? Does anybody help offset? Because I know there were unexpected costs that come on top of what you were planning.
ADM. TIDD: Sure. There are a number of different, kind of, you know, funding streams that are provided for different sorts of things. Some of them are reimbursed; some of them are not reimbursed, and so each one's a little bit different. But they're for -- for items that are identified by -- by (inaudible), that there is a -- a -- a budget line of -- that -- that comes out of DACA funding, and let's see, Office of, what's that? (inaudible), Disaster and Humanitarian...
ADM. TIDD: Yeah, can you guys get that? Yeah, get me OHDACA, exactly what that, you know, mindless acronym stands for, but it's -- (Laughter.) -- But it -- it's a -- it is a -- a -- a pot of money that's set aside just for this kind of -- of an activity, and -- and so part of the -- the authorization, when -- when a request comes in, and the -- and the Department of Defense directs...
ADM. TIDD: ...commands to...
ANNOUNCER: The conference is scheduled to be broken down automatically in three minutes. To extend the time, please signal for an operator.
ADM. TIDD: ... and -- and they tell us, you know, how many days, and -- and -- and here's our, you know, here's the pot of money. And we immediately start tracking kind of -- of a glide slope , and -- and -- to -- to capture those costs as rapidly as we can so we don't overshoot, don't undershoot, and -- and make sure that we understand exactly, you know, what money's been spent.
Q: You don't need the extra money from anyone else, and so you're good?
ADM. TIDD: At this point we're, you know, we -- we do not foresee any...
STAFF: Sir, I think our -- our conference is taking us out.
ADM. TIDD: I'd say I think we're done. (Laughter.)
Thank you all. Yeah, I appreciate it.
STAFF: Thanks, sir.