The U.S. response

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

Humanitarian efforts have begun across the world in response to the devastating earthquake that struck near Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince late Tuesday, Jan. 12. U.N. officials say an accurate count of those killed in the 7.0-magnitude quake might never be known.
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010

President Obama mobilized the U.S. government Wednesday for a massive rescue and relief operation in the devastated capital of Haiti, ordering swift 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 nongovernmental aid agencies. Coast Guard helicopters began flying seriously wounded Americans from the U.S. Embassy on the island nation 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 and collected canned goods.

Response from donors was swift.

Charities set up Twitter alerts, Facebook groups and text-message donation numbers. By early Wednesday evening, more than $1 million had been raised for the Red Cross, $10 at a time, by people texting "Haiti" to 90999. The World Bank announced $100 million in emergency grant funding. Ted Turner, who created 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 and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates canceled trips to Australia 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 Haiti, was visibly shaken as she spoke in Hawaii about the devastation.

"It is biblical, the tragedy that continues to stalk Haiti and the Haitian people," she said, adding that the recovery from four hurricanes in 2008 had begun to take hold when "along comes Mother Nature and just flattens the whole place." Clinton, who had planned to go on to the South Pacific, will now return to Washington immediately, aides say.

U.S. officials expressed particular concern about the 172 Americans posted at the embassy, and about 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 a handful that were relatively unscathed, officials said, and is serving as the center of the U.S. relief effort.

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