U.S. military dispatches aircraft carrier, other assets to help in Haiti

By Ann Scott Tyson and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; 8:14 PM

The U.S. military is urgently dispatching a Navy aircraft carrier and large-deck amphibious ship, as well as military transport aircraft and assessment teams, to Haiti to assist with the earthquake relief effort, a senior U.S. military official said Wednesday.

"We are massing our forces to provide as much support as we can as quickly as we can," said Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. Southern Command. "We are corralling all the resources of the Department of Defense to support this effort."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates later told Fraser that the disaster relief effort is a "very high priority" and that he should ask the Defense Department for "anything and everything" he needs, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

"Personnel, equipment, lift -- he should not be afraid to ask for it," Morrell quoted Gates as telling the Southern Command chief. Gates pledged to supply the military resources "as quickly as possible."

Gates has canceled a planned trip to Australia this weekend and instead will remain in Washington to manage the Defense Department's response to the crisis, Morrell said.

Requests for military personnel to aid in the relief effort are being reviewed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gates has not yet signed any deployment orders, Morrell said.

U.S. military ground units including Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and an Army brigade from Fort Bragg, N.C., are either preparing to depart for Haiti or are on alert to deploy to aid in disaster relief.

Fraser said U.S. military assessment teams arriving in Haiti Wednesday and Thursday aboard C-130 transport aircraft would include a headquarters of about 25 people, as well as about a dozen experts including engineers and medical professionals. The military will focus on establishing better communications and a command-and-control capability to assist the U.S. Agency for International Development and other government entities in the relief effort.

The military teams will also work on reestablishing the operations of the Port-au-Prince airport, where the runway is intact but the control tower has lost communications.

The Norfolk-based aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, is expected to be near Haiti by Thursday afternoon after taking on helicopters to provide air transport for relief workers, Fraser said. The large-deck amphibious ship, which provides support similar to that of a hospital ship, is expected to depart from North Carolina soon, he said. The hospital ship USNS Comfort may also be dispatched to provide relief.

A Marine Expeditionary Unit with about 2,200 troops and a 3,500-strong brigade of Army paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division are preparing to deploy, according to a senior military official. But obstacles exist that could limit the effectiveness of those forces, military officials said.

"If you put additional forces on the ground, how will they operate? What will their rules of engagement be?" said a senior defense official, noting in particular the need for vehicles and helicopters to move the troops around.

Coast Guard cutters with helicopters aboard and other ships including destroyers are also moving toward Haiti, Fraser said.

U.S. Air Force Special Operations forces are expected to arrive Wednesday at the airport in Port-au-Prince to provide air traffic control capability as well as airfield operations, according to a statement from Southern Command.

Earlier in the day, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter evacuated four critically injured U.S. Embassy staffers to a U.S. Navy hospital at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it said. In addition, the statement said, a Navy P-3 Orion aircraft took off from a forward operating base at Comalapa, El Salvador, to carry out reconnaissance of the earthquake devastation.

The earthquake's havoc was challenging the ability to move supplies into the hardest hit areas, U.S. officials said. The damage threatened supply lines to the impoverished city and country, which relies in large part on ship-borne deliveries.

Coast Guard operations were focused on establishing some sort of broad sea-lift capacity at Port-au-Prince's heavily damaged seaport, restoring operations at the city's airport and evacuating Americans. The service was also prepared to perform security functions and to assist with search, rescue and emergency relief operations.

"The initial reports we are getting, it [the sea port] is very heavily damaged," U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. James A. "Jim" Watson IV, director of Atlantic area operations, said in an interview from Portsmouth, Va. "If the port is severely damaged, that makes it very, very difficult" to get relief supplies in.

Ports on Haiti's northern side are open, but there is limited ability to move freight over land. "There's a variety of options, but we haven't even started to zero in what the options might be yet," Watson said.

"There are . . . a lot of injured people including Americans there, as well as a need to have Americans who've lost their homes and their offices flown out of the country," Watson said.

Four Coast Guard C-130 aircraft will be made available to the State Department and others for logistical needs, including evacuations, Watson said, but none have yet been able to land at Port-au-Prince, Watson said.

The Coast Guard is still assessing its ability to conduct fixed-wing flight operations from the airport, he said. The aircraft -- from Elizabeth, Va.; Clearwater, Fla.; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Panama -- were aloft to conduct aerial assessments.

The service was also prepared to move two more cutters to the area: the Tahoma from Guantanamo Bay and the Vigorous, which is three-days' sail from south Florida.

The U.S. government was also locating aircraft to move urban search and rescue teams and their equipment from California, Virginia and Florida into Haiti.

In the meantime, Coast Guard helicopters are conducting emergency evacuations, including one HH-60 Jayhawk mission early Wednesday that removed to Guantanamo Bay about eight severely injured patients who were designated as priorities by the U.S. ambassador and his staff.

Watson said a standing task force that coordinates the response to potential mass migration events from Cuba or Haiti, Homeland Security Task Force Southeast, was monitoring events but is not ramping up.

"Our focus right now is to prevent that, and we are going to work with the Defense Department, the State Department, FEMA and all the agencies of the federal government to minimize the risk of Haitians who want to flee their country," Watson said. "We want to provide them those relief supplies so they can live in Haiti."

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