About 200 Marines and sailors from the Marine Corps’ Central America task force are helping the people of St. Martin, one of the Caribbean islands that felt the full force of Hurricane Irma.
Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Southern Command is part of a much wider U.S. government disaster relief mission on St. Martin, said Col. Michael Samarov, who leads the task force. Elsewhere, about 1,000 members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit are distributing food, water and other badly needed supplies in Key West, Florida, and St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
Samarov spoke to Marine Corps Times on Wednesday about what Marines and sailors are doing to aid St. Martin residents in their hour of need. Excerpts of the interview, edited for clarity and space.
Q: Can you describe the extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Irma?
I’ve seen a very little part of Sint Maarten, which is the Dutch side of St. Martin. The storm was devastating. I’m sitting right now at the airport under a severely damaged jetway. Roofs have been ripped off. Walls from hotels — you can see inside rooms. There’s a fair amount of debris around.
But with the part that I’ve seen, what strikes me, frankly, is how well ordered the people in this general area in the airport and surrounding it are and how well the people of San Martin and the Dutch support teams — both military and civilian — that have come here, how well they are doing.
It’s really, frankly, impressive, given the amount of devastation.
Q: How is the SPMAGTF well-suited for this mission?
What Marines in general and Marine Air-Ground task forces in particular bring is a speed of decision and speed of action. We’re small. We’re light. We’re flat. We train for rapid planning. We train for crisis response. And Marines understand the importance of speed and tempo.
That’s both from a training perspective and it’s from a culture perspective. I think that makes us particularly well-suited for this sort of mission.
Q: What kind of missions is the task force carrying out right now?
We are the core, if you like, of a joint task force that the commander of U.S. Southern Command has established and that’s being called Joint Task Force Leeward Islands. We’re here because of requests from our allied governments that have gone through the State Department and [U.S. Agency for International Development].
There have been a couple of requests that the joint task force as a whole is fulfilling: those are to transport the DART — Disaster Assistance Response Team — to St. Martin. We’re working on an additional request to provide some water purification on the French side of the island.
We’re anticipating some other requests, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about those until our allies made that request.
Q: Can you explain what the Disaster Assistance Response Team is?
The DART is USAID’s response cell that they place on the ground very, very quickly in a foreign humanitarian assistance situation. That DART liaises with civil authorities. That DART sends the demand signal to any Department of Defense organization that is supporting or conducting [Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief].
Q: Given the sheer amount of rain that has fallen, are you concerned about Marines and sailors coming into contact with waterborne diseases?
I think we were at an advantage relative to that because our mission focused on Central America. We knew we were going into an environment with standing water and with waterborne and vector-borne diseases.
We, just as a matter of practice, got everybody new camouflage utilities with, obviously, their degree of permethrin treatment. Everybody understands the importance of using bug spray. Everybody understands the risk of standing water. Everybody’s taking the appropriate medications for the prevalent diseases. We are actually fairly well-prepared.
Q: Have St. Martin residents expressed gratitude to the Marines and sailors?
The interactions we’ve had with the local people have been very, very positive. They’ve been friendly and glad to see us. We had a great interaction with some of the leadership of the Dutch military forces that’s directly face-to-face.
From a broader perspective, everybody — from France to the Netherlands, from the Department of Defense and our civilian agencies — has been just remarkably helpful to me personally and to everybody who’s working this mission.
Considering that so many people have never met one another, the degree of cooperation and putting egos aside is really reassuring.