US Navy ships arrive in Eastern Visayas

MANILA, Philippines – Sixty-nine years after the Battle of Leyte Gulf, United States military ships are back in the region – this time to help an ally deal with the humanitarian crisis caused by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

The US Navy group led by the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, with 5,000 sailors aboard, is now in the Philippines and will soon take part in the relief efforts for the victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in Eastern Visayas.

The George Washington Strike Group (GWSG) arrived in the vicinity of Leyte Gulf Thursday, November 14, the US Navy announced.

"We’ve completed our high-speed transit and linked up with our U.S. Navy logistical assets from Commander, Task Force 73, which brings 7th Fleet naval forces to participate in ‘Operation Damayan’ in the Republic of the Philippines," according to Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, the group's commander, as quoted in a US Navy press release.

The team consists of the following ships:

The GWSG is also bringing 21 helicopters, which will be used to transport emergency supplies around the disaster zone.

George Washington, Antietam, and Cowpens will be positioned just off Samar's east coast, the US Navy said, "in order to begin to assess the damage and provide logistical and emergency support to include medical and water supplies."

US Navy vessels will also be positioned in Tacloban and Ormoc cities, Montgomery said.

The GWSG comes as other transport planes, helicopters, ships and medics are in operation or coming from an array of countries in the Asia-Pacific and Europe, with Australia now taking its total aid contribution to Aus$30 million (US$28 million).

China, previously criticized for its initial assistance of a $100,000 cash donation, is also stepping up its aid with an additional 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) for relief efforts in the form of blankets, tents and other materials.

Desalinate water

US officials said the aid operation was slowly getting into gear after daunting challenges posed by shattered ports, roads and communication infrastructure.

Washington has committed $20 million six days after Super Typhoon Yolanda struck.

The giant aircraft carrier, carrying 5,000 sailors who were diverted from shore leave in Hong Kong, has the ability to desalinate large volumes of water.

The US Pacific Fleet is also readying the hospital ship USNS Mercy, currently berthed in San Diego, California, to support the disaster relief efforts.

Mercy is currently in a reduced operating status, and the activation of the ship "accelerates Mercy's ability to attain full operating status to include moving necessary personnel and equipment to the ship," the US Navy said.

"The friendship between our two countries runs deep, and when our friends are in trouble, America helps," Obama said in a statement.

One US official said relief workers were now better able to distribute aid out of Tacloban airport, and that the opening of a land route had given a significant boost by connecting to a sea port.

The initial effort was "a lot like trying to squeeze an orange through a straw", the official told reporters on a conference call. "We are now getting more straws, if you will, and bigger straws." – With reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com