U.S. task force commander for Haitian relief says logistics remain stumbling block
Port-Au-Prince, Haiti -- Lt. Gen. Ken Keen said progress is being made to get supplies, equipment and other aid to Haitians a week after an earthquake hit this country of 3.5 million people, but said more needs to be done to get planes in faster, repair damaged ports and set up medical facilities to treat the severely wounded.
"No one's kidding themselves," said Keen, who is the commander of the U.S. military operation here. "This is an enormous task. We have challenges."
As the joint task force commander for Operation United Response, Keen is in charge of the 10,000 U.S. military troops being sent here to help with the humanitarian relief effort in Haiti. He also will help in coordinating the aid efforts from foreign countries.
So far, roughly U.S. 1,400 military troops are on the ground in Haiti, with another 5,000 personnel on ships working with helicopter crews to bring aid ashore. Of the 10,000 troops headed here, about 4,000 to 5,000 will eventually be positioned in the island nation.
"We want to have enough people in Haiti but not a footprint here," he said, adding that more forces on land require logistics and space.
In an interview Monday afternoon, Keen said efforts are being made to figure out what areas are hardest hit and to make sure help gets there. Already, Marine units are working to help distribute food and water in an area outside of the capital, called Lake Leogane, where more than 60 percent of the city was destroyed. About 2,000 Canadian forces are working in the Jacmel area.
Security is primarily the responsibility of the UN mission. The situation has been "relatively calm," Keen said, although "violence is out there" because Haiti had gang activity before the earthquake and "those gangs have likely dusted themselves off and found their weapons" after the earthquake.
One challenge in getting aid to Haiti has been the backlog of airplanes trying to land on the airport's one runway. Keen said it was like "pushing a bowling ball through a soda straw." He said the U.S. Air Force helped the Haiti government get its airport operational within 24 hours of the earthquake and the service is now helping to manage the air traffic control with the Haitian government determining the priorities of which planes should land first.
In the days that followed the disaster, some planes, carrying much needed emergency supplies, doctors and field hospital equipment, were turned away because there were delays in getting planes on the ground to take off. That created a backup of other planes that were flying in and needed to land.
"There were planes that were scheduled to land but didn't," he said. "The pilot at some point has to make a decision about continuing to burn fuel or divert to the Dominican Republic. . . . That's unfortunate and not what we want to see."
Another problem at the airfield, Keen said, has been that air traffic control officials often didn't know what was aboard incoming planes so that made it difficult to prioritize which ones should land first -- an issue that he said is being fixed. And there was only one forklift at the airport when U.S. military arrived to help. More equipment has been brought in to help quickly unload planes.
Keen said the airport's flow of planes has improved since the first days when only 13 flights a day were landing. Monday, he reported that 180 flights used the airport with no delays.