Three members of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Departments' Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, deployed to Southeast Asia on New Year's Eve, arrived home early Wednesday morning tired but "very happy" that they were able to help.
"It was very rewarding. You've all seen the images from here. But, you can't really imagine the devastation until you are on the ground," said Lt. Mark Stone, a department public affairs officer and member of the Task Force.
Six Task Force members left from Dulles International Airport the afternoon of Dec. 31 as part of a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Three returned there at 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 19.
Joining Stone on the return trip were Dr. William Barker of Herndon, the medical civilian on the team, and John Tung, a civilian structural engineer. Three other original team members, Dewey Perks, team leader, Dave Taylor and Kent Watts, all members of Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department, remain in the tsunami devastation area continuing operations. There was no indication yesterday morning when they might be returning.
Working primarily in the area of Banda Aceh on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, the team concentrated on humanitarian aide, medical evaluation and structural assessments. "We did a lot of traveling through a variety of villages," Stone said.
"It's a very complex disaster and we saw only one part of it. But, it's amazing how much progress has been made in such a short amount of time," he said.
HOWEVER, one of the largest problems now facing survivors of the earthquake generated tsunami is not only disease but also maintaining proper sanitary/health standards. Dr. William Barker, who maintains his practice in Herndon and Inova Fairfax Hospital, spent his time in Sumatra helping to solve that problem. Last year, at practically the same time of year, he was deployed to Iran following that nation's earthquake disaster.
"Everyday we were in Southeast Asia we made assessment reports concerning health needs. The biggest challenge is sustaining the delivery system of medical needs, food and water to the people," Barker said.
"As for medical personnel, they have already begun bringing in teams of doctors, nurses and other health professionals. What impressed me the most was just how resilient and very giving the people truly were," Barker said.
"We met one woman who was searching for her husband. She had just enough food for a couple of days but she insisted we take some and would not take no for an answer. Fortunately, her story ended well in that she found her husband alive," he said.
"But, the biggest health worry is going to be from mosquito born diseases such as malaria. There was already one case of an aid worker contracting malaria. And this is just the beginning of their malaria season," Barker said.
One of the last things Barker did on New Year's Eve afternoon at the airport prior to takeoff was to pass out immunization medication to team members. This was to supplement their normal annual immunization designed to protect them from most disease threats.
Barker emphasized that the magnitude of the tsunami disaster "is much more widespread than I've experienced in other earthquake situations." He compared it to an area "stretching from Ocean City to Myrtle Beach."
TUNG DESCRIBED his primary responsibility as "going around and inspecting all type of structures to determine their soundness. Most of the areas I looked at I was impressed with the structural integrity, particularly bridges and larger buildings," he said.
"Most structures were either totally destroyed or they were in tact and relatively sound. I'm not sure what made the difference in each case but it's something I'm going to be analyzing very closely. Many of their buildings are masonry and reinforced concrete," Tung said.
"What people have to remember is that this earthquake was a nine on the scale while the one last year in Bam, Iran, was a seven or so. In exponential terms this was 100 times stronger and yet more buildings survived here. I want to see if I can detect why," he said as he waited for his bags to arrive in the United Airline baggage area.
One of the scenes that stuck in Tung's mind was the dislocation of five filled storage tanks from a fuel and gasoline bulk plant. "The wave just seemed to lift them up and then deposit them individually between a row of houses. Neither the houses nor the tanks were damaged and not a drop of fuel leaked," Tung said.
ONE OF THE TEAM'S responsibilities was to make daily assessments of the population. "How many people were still in a given area and how many were there before the tsunami hit? Trying to collect and certify that data was very difficult," Stone said.
"We were trying to paint a picture in terms of data and assessments to decide how to best implement governmental aid for DART so they could get that aid to the places that needed it the most. One of things that really helped in that effort was that most of the areas we went into had already been cleared for access," he said.
"We (the various nations, government agencies, and non-government relief organizations) are making progress and succeeding in our efforts. But, we are far from done over there," Stone said.