States and territories usually call on the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help in times of disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic. FEMA then calls on over 40 agencies for help when all efforts have been exhausted and there still remains some unmet needs. That’s when the U.S. Department of Defense steps in.
That is why, with FEMA already on the ground in the CNMI, DOD people are on the islands right now. Harry W. Elliot IV, who is DOD’s coordinating officer and environmental counsel for Joint Region Marianas, said that they are working with the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. to identify unmet needs that the DOD could fill.
“CHCC may have unmet needs but they are still working to procure it themselves. They only come to the federal government when they are not able to meet those needs on their own. …Right this minute, there isn’t a need that DOD has been asked to meet beside what we already have,” he said.
At the moment, DOD has six nurses, one microbiologist, and four medical laboratory technicians, all from the U.S. Army, who are here on the ground and supporting CHCC. “We also have some support staff, members of the local Army Reserve Center has been activated along with myself, Army Lt. Colonel Richard Barcinas and Army Major Lee McPhatter. …DOD also provides airlift, either strategic airlift like the big C17 that came in about seven weeks ago or movement between the islands after Yutu…[when] we were using DOD helicopters to move around,” he added.
Elliot describes the COVID-19 pandemic as “a very different kind of disaster,” with a specific role for DID’s response. “The beauty of what we do is flexibility. …If you think about a disaster, all the response work starts locally and when it becomes really big, they call for DOD for help. …The DOD can put the right capabilities at the right time,” he said. “Our assistance can happen in different ways. FEMA is normally the lead federal agency when it comes to disasters and if they think that DOD is going to be a big part of a particular mission, they request for a defense coordinating officer like me. Similarly, the local government either of the state or territory can make that request as well and that is typically associated with a presidential disaster declaration, which the CNMI had.”
Elliot said that DOD typically gets involved in major disasters. “When we come to help, it normally requires a lot. …When Super Typhoon Yutu hit the CNMI, DOD was part of the Temporary Emergency Tent and Roofing Installation Support or TETRIS program. It was designed to assist families whose homes were destroyed by Yutu by helping them rebuild temporary roofs and put up tents. …You would not likely see that in California being done by the military because in California, FEMA could contract with a private company or even perhaps with another federal agency. But in Guam and the CNMI, there isn’t that capability all the time. Things out here is different as and it takes a bit of creativity because you can’t do things like you do in California, Texas, or other states in the mainland,” he added.
Elliot has taken part in support efforts in every disaster in Guam and CNMI for the past seven years and praises the CNMI government and the community for implementing early preventative steps to stop the spread COVID-19 in the Marianas. “I think the CNMI is the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to declare a disaster. People set aside their political differences to get after this problem, which makes our job so much easier. Nobody is looking at us for the answer. They were looking at us to help provide the things that they may not be able to get by themselves,” he said.
“…Every disaster that I have been a part of has taught me many things. I don’t know what the future of DOD defense civil authorities responses are going to be in Guam or [the] CNMI, but I can assure that the level of commitment will be unchanged and that whatever knowledge I gain from this, I intend to pass along to whoever comes to support Guam and the CNMI,” he added.
After eight weeks on Saipan, Elliot flew back to Guam last Saturday where he is based for almost seven years now with his wife and children. The trip back to Guam does not mean that DOD’s work in the CNMI is over. “We are at a point where FEMA, CHCC, and the leadership of [the] CNMI have plans in place, plans that I hope we never have to execute but we are ready. CHCC has done a great deal of work planning the Kanoa [Resort] alternate care site,” he said. “CHCC, together with FEMA, have identified what the shortfalls would be if there were to be an increase in COVID-19 cases and what the military has done is take that information and be able to plan. If the worst happens, this is how we’re going to respond and that type of planning is really a luxury in a response. We are so lucky that we are not at the point that CHCC is overwhelmed and that gives us the time to put good plans in place,” he added.