U.S. task force commander for Haitian relief says logistics remain stumbling block

By Dana Hedgpeth
Monday, January 18, 2010; 9:59 PM

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.

"We're six days into it and every day it is getting better," he said. "The flow of supplies has stepped up every day."

There are other efforts underway to try to take pressure off the one airfield and get supplies in the country faster. Keen said experts are looking at the possibility of using an assault landing airstrip to get more heavy-duty military planes in with equipment and other supplies. He said officials are also working with the Dominican Republic to allow airplanes with aid to land there and then have convoy trucks deliver the equipment and supplies to Haiti.

His biggest nightmare: A plane delivering supplies has a flat tire on the one runway at the airport. "I'm out of business," he said. "That blocks the whole runway and we don't have the equipment to move it."

Keen said Argentina, Israel, Turkey, Russia and Portugal have set up portable hospitals to help care for the wounded and the Navy has sent the hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, which can accommodate up to 1,000 beds.

"Everyone is doing the best they can do but there's still more that needs to be done," Keen said.

Another way to get more aid into the country, Keen said is through the ports. An assessment found that the city's south port, which takes in shipping containers , and another port that takes in fuel both suffered damage in the quake. He said it is critical to get the port that takes in fuel up and running because it is the country's only source for fuel.

"We're looking to get both open as fast as we can, but it is going to take a little while," he said, noting that he hoped to have the south port open by the end of the week. Getting the ports open, Keen said, would also help to take pressure off the crowded airfield.

Meanwhile, a humanitarian coordination center is being formed for U.S. military officials, the Haitian government and relief groups to work together to prioritize efforts.

"We hope to bring together all of those who have these connections so we can tell what you have and if it is something that is needed and where," he said.

Progress is being made in getting Haitians help. About 12,000 pounds of medical equipment and more than 700,000 bottles of water and rations have been handed out to Haitians, according to Keen, but he said that was "not nearly enough."

Sixteen water purification systems are coming to Haiti this week.

"This is a drop in the bucket in terms of what they need," he said, given the magnitude of the tragedy.

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