Obama orders rapid mobilization of U.S. rescue, relief efforts for Haiti

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; 8:08 PM

President Obama set the U.S. government Wednesday on a massive rescue and relief operation in the devastated capital of Haiti, ordering the rapid mobilization of military and diplomatic assistance, and pledging an aggressive effort to save the lives of those caught in Tuesday's earthquake.

Naval ships steamed south and flights began shuttling search-and-rescue teams to dig through rubble in Port-au-Prince. Military aircraft flew over the island, mapping the destruction, while U.S. officials coordinated the efforts of non-governmental aid agencies. Coast Guard helicopters began flying seriously wounded Americans from the island nation's U.S. Embassy to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba., about 200 miles away.

"With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us and a long history that binds us together, Haitians are neighbors of the Americas and here at home," Obama said, calling the earthquake an "especially cruel and incomprehensible tragedy."

The U.S. government's response accelerated Wednesday as the extent of the disaster became clear. Obama canceled a speech on job creation as his top advisers huddled in the White House Situation Room throughout the day.

But even as U.S. agencies lined up to help, officials sounded a note of concern, saying they are deeply worried about whether Haiti's infrastructure can handle the influx of help. The island's airport and seaport sustained substantial damage in the temblor.

"If the port is severely damaged, that makes it very, very difficult" to deliver relief supplies, said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. James A. "Jim" Watson IV, director of Atlantic area operations.

Charities large and small also mobilized Wednesday to help. World Vision staff members worked to move blankets, bottled water and other relief supplies. The American Red Cross promised tarps, mosquito nets and cooking sets for 5,000 families from a warehouse in Panama. And churches and small nonprofits called in volunteers, collected canned goods.

Response from donors was swift.

Charities set up Twitter alerts, Facebook groups and donations via text message. By Wednesday afternoon, more than $700,000 had been raised for the Red Cross, $10 at a time, by people texting "Haiti" to 90999. The World Bank announced a $100,000 donation to the American Red Cross. Ted Turner, who founded the U.N. Foundation, announced a $1 million commitment to the relief effort. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced $10 million.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton diverted her trip to Asia to a military base in Hawaii to help coordinate the U.S. response in the Caribbean. Clinton, who honeymooned on the island of Hispaniola decades ago and whose husband, Bill Clinton, is the U.N. special envoy to the island nation, was visibly shaken as she spoke about the devastation.

"It is biblical, the tragedy that continues to stalk Haiti and the Haitian people," she said, adding that recovery from four hurricanes in 2008 had begun to take hold, and then, she said, "along comes Mother Nature and just flattens the whole place."

U.S. officials expressed particular concern about the 172 Americans posted at the embassy, and of the roughly 45,000 Americans who live in Haiti, few of whom had been in contact with officials by midday. The embassy building is one of few that was relatively unscathed, officials said, and is serving as the center of the U.S. relief effort in the country.

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