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U.S. Transport Plane Arrives With Helicopters, Medical Crews

May 13, 1991

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) _ The first wave of U.S. troops to join the battle against disease and starvation in cyclone-devastated Bangladesh today scouted out possible sites along the sea coast for water purification units.

Also, a giant U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy transport plane landed in Dhaka today with five badly needed helicopters that will be used to ferry supplies to storm survivors.

Millions of people are threatened by sickness, hunger and exposure following the April 30 cyclone that killed more than 139,000 people, many of whom lived on low-lying islands and in coastal villages along the Bay of Bengal.

The first advance teams for the American military task force arrived in Dhaka on Sunday, and 170 soldiers had arrived by tonight, about equally drawn from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines.

Altogether, more than 12,000 U.S. troops - including Persian Gulf War veterans - are to contribute to the international effort to save storm survivors.

Most were expected to arrive by sea Wednesday or soon after aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Tarawa and the seven other vessels accompanying it. The Marines on the Tarawa had been headed for to Camp Pendleton in California when they were diverted to help with the relief effort.

Some of the most useful equipment coming with this group is likely to be hovercraft that can scoot over the swamped shores of the Bay of Bengal.

″The workhorse is going to be air-cushioned vehicles - otherwise known as hovercraft,″ Navy Lt. Cmdr. Pete Godbey said while he waited for the C-5 Galaxy to arrive. ″It can go right over the mud flats, the islands.″

Godbey, 40, of Cincinnati, arrived in Dhaka Sunday night from Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to direct a preventive-medicine team. He said the Bangladesh operation will make use of the Marines’ special skills.

″You see, for a Marine, they do this all the time. It’s an amphibious operation. They go in at ground zero,″ Godbey said, referring to the fact that the cyclone coast lacks virtually every imaginable necessity, including adequate shelter and power.

″There’s not much difference with a disaster situation, whether it’s combat or natural. It’s distribution (of materials) that’s the problem, and they’re good at it,″ Godbey said.

The U.S. transport plane brought in five U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and 73 Navy, Army and Air Force personnel - mostly Blackhawk flight crews and medical teams.

Army Lt. Col. Tom Ellzey, 40, of St. Augustine, Fla., said the Blackhawks will be used first to survey the cyclone-hit area and then to ferry material. Ellzey said the soldiers had been told they would be here at least three weeks.

Among the material to be transported by the American task force is 55,000 tons of wheat provided by CARE, a U.S.-based international relief organization.

The United States has provided $7.2 million in emergency cyclone aid, but the U.S. Embassy channels funds and distribution through nonprofit groups such as CARE, one of the most active organizations in the cyclone-devastated area.

As the misery continued in the southeast, more bad weather struck other parts of Bangladesh. High wind warnings were issued, but none of the new storms and floods approached the intensity of the killer cyclone.

Foreign and local relief agencies have been struggling to get food and safe drinking water to survivors, thousands of whom are suffering from diarrhea that health officials say could turn into a cholera epidemic. Cholera is spread by contact with human waste.

The government - whose tallies are usually conservative and slow - said Sunday night at least 204 people in the area hit by the cyclone have died of diarrhea since May 1.

As the U.S. military began its relief efforts, the weather bureau said squalls might hit Dhaka and five other cities today - covering virtually every part of the country except the area struck by the cyclone.

″We have issued warnings that storms with wind speeds of 55 to 75 miles per hour or more may hit the area,″ said the bureau’s deputy director, Azizul Hossain.

Newspapers and officials said today that flash floods in the Sylhet area, 120 miles northeast of Dhaka, had claimed at least 15 more lives in the last 24 hours. That brought to 133 the number of people known to have died in floods and tornadoes since the cyclone hit.

Hossain said he had no indication that any new cyclones were forming to the south in the Bay of Bengal.

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