WASHINGTON, March 17, 2011 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has authorized up to $35 million in initial Defense Department funds for humanitarian aid to Japan, a Pentagon spokesman said this morning.
Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan said the funding is in addition to $8 million in total planned aid to Japan from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The funds will be used to help earthquake and tsunami survivors on the main Japanese island of Honshu, where damage to reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has prompted DOD to authorize the voluntary departure of eligible family members from the island to the designated “safe haven” of the United States.
Eligible family members are those who are in Japan on orders because of their service member, Lapan said. They will be eligible for reimbursement for travel out of Japan. Family members in Japan simply visiting a service member are not eligible for travel reimbursement, the colonel explained.
“We have also suspended travel to the island of Honshu for all DOD dependent personnel,” Lapan said, adding that the authorization does not affect service members or U.S. civilian employees.
According to the DOD memorandum authorizing the travel, the “departure” status for family members who relocate will remain in effect until the State Department terminates it. State Department officials also approved voluntary departure of eligible family members from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, the Foreign Service installation at Yokohama and the consulate at Nagoya. Such authorizations are granted for 30 days, Lapan said.
The authorization applies to Yokota Air Base, Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Misawa Air Base, Camp Zama, Yokosuka Naval Base and others, he said. “The Department of State is working with the airlines on commercial and charter aircraft,” Lapan said. “If needed, we could use U.S. military resources both for the military dependent movement as well as some of the American citizen movement.”
Potential travelers could number in the thousands, depending on the number of military family members who choose to leave, the colonel added.
Although the United States is the designated safe haven, the authorization provides for a temporary staging stop in South Korea, where U.S. Forces Korea is preparing to provide temporary accomodations until travelers who pass through there move on to other locations, the colonel added.
Lapan also detailed Defense Department assistance to Japan from the U.S. Northern Command, based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., and ongoing assistance from U.S. Navy ships in the region.
A nine-member expert planning team from Northcom was scheduled to arrive in Japan today, Lapan said.
“The team will provide technical advice on chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and hazardous material, as well as medical and logistical [support],” he said. “They will report to the commander of U.S. Forces Japan and work closely with the Japanese military to evaluate and assess whether more U.S. help is needed.”
As a precautionary step for U.S. service members, Lapan said, the Defense Department is moving supplies of potassium iodide and possibly other compounds from the continental United States in case they are needed. Potassium iodide is used in radiation emergencies to help in protecting the thyroid gland from poisoning with radioactive iodine, one of the products released during a nuclear accident.
U.S. ships in the region continue to provide assistance in the area, Lapan said.
The USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group continues operations off Honshu’s east coast, and the cruiser USS Cowpens cancelled its scheduled return to Yokosuka and is heading north to rendezvous with the Reagan.
“Reagan conducted three helicopter sorties yesterday, delivering some 7 tons of food and water,” Lapan said. Helicopters from other ships in the strike group flew 12 sorties, he added, delivering more than 8 tons of supplies including food, bottled water, milk, juice, packaged meals, fruits, clothing, medical supplies and blankets.
“A total of 40 tons of aid has been delivered to date,” he said.
The USS Tortuga continues to load vehicles and personnel from the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force, which the vessel is scheduled to deliver in Ominato today, Lapan said. The Essex amphibious ready group, made up of the USS Essex, the USS Harpers Ferry and the USS Germantown, along with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, are operating in the Sea of Japan, he said.
“In the coming days, they will take position off the west coast of Honshu and begin conducting disaster response operations,” Lapan said. The USS Blue Ridge, the flagship for the U.S. 7th Fleet, continues to steam north toward Yokosuka, he added.
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