United States Response
to the Earthquake in Bam, Iran
By William J. Garvelink, Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, U.S. Agency for International Development
On December 26, 2003, a 6.6 magnitude earthquake devastated Bam, Iran, located 975 kilometers southeast of Tehran. As with past earthquakes in Iran, the U.S. Government offered emergency assistance and Iran accepted relief commodities but not search and rescue teams. This time, however, Iran invited U.S. experts along with the relief commodities. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) became the first group of Americans officially sent to Iran in 22 years, since the release of 52 U.S. hostages from Tehran in January 1981.
During the afternoon and late into the evening of December 26, discussions among the National Security Council (NSC), USAID, and the U.S. Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security led to the decision to mobilize a U.S. Government response under the direction of a DART. The DART team planned to depart the next day, December 27, from three locations within the United States.
The DART was initially composed of 218 people, including two urban search and rescue teams (USAR) of 74 responders each, one from the Fairfax County (Virginia) Fire and Rescue Department and the other from the Los Angeles County (California) Fire Department. The DART also incorporated a 63-person International Medical/Surgical Response Team (IMSuRT) from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). USAID members of the DART included: the team leader, deputy team leader, security officer, communications officer, logistics officer, information officer, and medical specialist.
Early on the morning of December 27, information received from the U.N.’s International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) in Geneva, Switzerland suggested that a sufficient number of USAR teams were in Bam or en route, so USAID decided not to deploy the Los Angeles County USAR team. The FEMA medical component flew out of Boston and the Fairfax County USAR team and DART leadership departed from the Dover, Delaware Air Force Base.
The C-17 aircraft carrying the medical team from Boston refueled in Germany. The C-5 military transport, after some mechanical problems and a return to Dover, landed in Spain for refueling. In further discussions with INSARAG officials, the DART learned that there were sufficient USAR teams on the ground in Bam but there was a greater need for medical personnel to treat those injured in the earthquake. Based on this information and in discussions with Washington, the DART decided to return the USAR component of the Fairfax County team to the United States but to continue on with Fairfax County’s 11 medical officers. The DART team now consisted of seven individuals from USAID, 11 from Fairfax County, and the 63 person FEMA IMSuRT team, for a total of 81 responders. Two Fairfax County emergency vehicles, medical supplies, and a mobile field hospital were also being transported.
The INSARAG office, established by the United States and Switzerland just over a decade ago, proved to be helpful. The accurate and up-to-the-minute information we received from INSARAG enabled U.S. decision makers to alter the composition of the DART en route to craft a more appropriate skill mix to best meet the emergency medical needs of the Bam population. Under perfect circumstances we would have liked the assessment earlier, but no disaster response works under perfect circumstances.
Due to landing complications at the earthquake site, the DART and its equipment arrived in the Iranian provincial capital of Kerman, 180 kilometers north of Bam. Prior to deployment, we had arranged for U.N. personnel to meet the DART in Bam with sufficient transportation to get to the earthquake site. As the DART leader, I was more than a little concerned that the team was landing in Kerman with no logistical arrangements for the last leg of our trip.
We arrived by C-130 military transport in Kerman, Iran during the late evening of December 29. Airport officials arranged accommodations at a vacant airport terminal where blankets and pillows were spread on the floor for our overnight stay. Meals-Ready-to-Eat were distributed to all.
I asked airport officials if, despite the late hour, we could meet with representatives of the governor’s office to discuss logistical arrangements. About midnight, a delegation of provincial officials visited the terminal where we were staying. I requested air transport for our medical supplies and team as well as a military or police escort to accompany our emergency vehicles and mobile hospital on their overland route to Bam. We were assured that this assistance would be provided by mid-day on December 30. The Iranian officials granted our request, and our emergency vehicles arrived by road that night.
The situation in Bam was catastrophic. The airport, severely damaged by the earthquake, was congested and overwhelmed by air traffic. In the earthquake zone, 90-95 percent of the structures were uninhabitable. Bam’s three hospitals were destroyed and most of the medical staff were killed or injured. More than 26,000 of Bam’s 80,000 residents perished, as most residents slept in non-reinforced mud brick structures that easily collapsed in the pre-dawn temblor. Those injured exceeded 30,000. No businesses survived near the epicenter, downtown Bam. The famous 2,500 year-old Arge-Bam citadel resembled an anthill rather than the imposing structure that it once was. Citizens left homeless by the earthquake gathered in tents in the piercing cold along the streets in front of their homes. They were reluctant to leave their possessions and abandon hope for loved ones. At night, small campfires with figures huddled near for warmth could be seen along every street and path. Clean water and latrines were in short supply. Many survivors moved from Bam to live with nearby relatives.
The Iranian government reserved the Revolutionary Guard Corps base for the United Nations, the international USAR teams, and the media. By the time we arrived, the international media had set up their cameras and bright lights at one end of the camp and were conducting interviews almost twenty-four hours a day. More than 44 countries had sent USAR teams. Ten mobile field hospitals were set up and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) constructed a hospital that it will operate for a year before turning the administration over to the Iranian Red Crescent Society. The U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team provided the overall management of the international response, chaired daily meetings with donors, planned needs assessments, and coordinated assessment teams.
The DART conducted daily needs assessments with the U.N. to determine the level of damage and the condition of the local population remaining in Bam. DART members received and distributed 12 planeloads of commodities and bolstered the U.N. team by assuming some of its coordination responsibilities. The FEMA IMSuRT team erected a mobile field hospital and treated patients around the clock. The IMSuRT team was divided in half and worked 12-hour shifts. The medical team treated more than 700 patients, 30 percent of whom had earthquake-related injuries, including surgeries and post-trauma mental health cases.
As the DART responded to the immediate needs of the Bam population, we also planned for the medium term (90-180 day) requirements. Grants were provided to three non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and three U.N. agencies. USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) provided funding to Action Against Hunger/U.S.A. to give water and sanitation services to the homeless population and to establish a nutrition surveillance system to monitor the health status of the city’s population. Mercy Corps was funded to manage an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp and to provide primary health care to the camp’s residents. World Vision was funded to distribute emergency relief supplies to those affected. The DART provided the U. N. Development Program (UNDP) with funds to erect temporary shelters for those left homeless by the earthquake, while the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) received funding for relief coordination support. The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) received funding to provide health care, potable water, and latrines for the displaced populations. The DART coordinated the off-loading and distribution of commodities provided by five USAID-funded and seven U.S. Department of Defense-funded aircraft. The items airlifted to Bam included plastic sheeting for emergency shelter, blankets, winterized tents, medical supplies, hygiene kits, kitchen sets, and a forklift to assist with the off-loading of the relief supplies.
Before departing Bam, the field hospital and medical supplies were donated to the IFRC. The two Fairfax County emergency vehicles and portions of the remaining relief equipment and supplies were transferred to the IFRC for use by the Bam Fire Department and Iranian Red Crescent Society. In addition, the DART donated tents, a vehicle, and various relief supplies to UN OCHA. Between December 31 and January 14, the U.S. Government provided experts and emergency commodities and funded medium-term recovery projects through NGOs and U.N. agencies. The U.S. Government’s contribution totaled more than $10.2 million.
Throughout the DART’s deployment, relations with Iranian officials were cordial and cooperative. Kerman Provincial officials facilitated our transit to Bam. Contrary to some media reports, we were warmly received by the Iranian public. While setting up the DART’s camp in Bam, the head of the Republican Guard stopped by to thank us for our assistance and presented us with gifts of roses, dates, and pistachio nuts. On New Year’s Eve, the governor of Kerman visited our camp and joined us in welcoming the New Year. Senior Iranian representatives from the Foreign Ministry, Health Ministry, Ministry of Transportation, and Ministry of Interior offered and provided assistance to the DART. The thread that ran through the comments of senior Iranian government officials and earthquake victims alike was their appreciation that the DART members had relinquished their important holiday season to travel to Iran to assist the residents of Bam.