By Mary Beth Sheridan and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 4:33 PM
The U.S. military rerouted several ships toward Japan on Friday and began preparing for humanitarian missions in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami that left at least hundreds dead.
Private U.S. aid groups began collecting funds and, in some cases, preparing emergency supplies. But experts said that Japan would probably not need the kind of massive support that poor countries such as Haiti require after a crisis. Japan has one of the best government disaster-response agencies in the world, with long experience in recovery from earthquakes.
Still, President Obama said he told Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan that the United States was ready to help.
"This is a potentially catastrophic disaster, and the images of destruction and flooding coming out of Japan are simply heartbreaking," Obama said at a news conference.
He said the main U.S. assistance would probably be "lift capacity," a reference to helicopters and planes that can carry heavy loads.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday morning that the U.S. Air Force had rushed coolant to a nuclear-power plant damaged in the quake. But State Department officials said later that she had misspoken, and that the Japanese were trying to resolve the plant's problems themselves.
One of the most urgent needs was digging people out from under crushed buildings. About 70 search-and-rescue teams were on standby around the world awaiting Japan's request, according to Nicholas Reader of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Among them was the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team, which spent Friday running through equipment and record checks as it waited for final orders to deploy, according to spokesman Dan Schmidt.
The U.S. Agency for International Development dispatched a small assessment team to Japan, and charitable groups also prepared to send representatives to see how they could contribute.
"The Japanese government's disaster response capacity is highly developed and very sophisticated, but we all stand ready to help if we are asked," said Samuel A. Worthington, president of InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international NGOs.
The U.S. military quickly redeployed ships to provide aid. The USS Tortuga, a dock-landing ship based in Sasebo, in southern Japan, was scheduled to head Friday to quake-hit areas, said Col. David Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman.
The USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the Navy's 7th Fleet, was loading humanitarian supplies in Singapore and also preparing to sail to northern Japan, he said.
Meantime, the USS Essex, an amphibious warfare ship that resembles a small aircraft carrier, was readying to leave for Japan from Malaysia.
The USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier, and its strike group were near the Korean peninsula but were turning toward Japan in case they are needed as well, Lapan said.
The U.S. ships could provide airlift and rescue support, as well as deliver food, water and medical supplies.
Lapan said U.S. forces in the Pacific regularly train with allies for disasters.
"A number of the exercises that we conduct in this region are specifically designed as humanitarian-assistance-type relief missions because we've unfortunately had to do this several times in different areas in the Pacific," he said. "So we're well positioned."
There were no reports of American deaths in Japan connected with the quake, or serious damage to U.S. military installations.
The State Department set up a round-the-clock crisis center in Washington to assist Americans who had been unable to contact loved ones in Japan. The crisis center can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 888-407-4747.