Friday, January 15, 2010

U.S. Air Force Reopens Haitian Airport

Pascal Simon, logistics coordinator for French medical aid organization Medecins du Monde, checks the freight inside a cargo plane loaded with 40 tons of humanitarian aid the NGO is bringing to Haiti.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A major obstacle to delivering aid to Haiti began to be cleared Friday, as the U.S. Air Force brought order to the chaotic Port-au-Prince airport.

In another sign of progress, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson took up position off Haiti's coast and began to fly water and other badly needed supplies to land. Despite these and other advances, hundreds of thousands of Haitians remain stranded in dire conditions.

Earlier, authorities had been forced to turn away aid flights when the large influx of aircraft overwhelmed the facility's small tarmac. But by daybreak, a 115-person Air Force team, which flew in five C-17 cargo planes of communications and air-traffic management equipment overnight, had undone most of the logjam. A steady stream of flights arrived and departed without difficulty even during the pre-dawn hours, the first time the airport was able to accept nighttime flights since the quake.

The Vinson, a nuclear-powered ship with a crew of more than 3,000, is the largest American vessel to reach Haiti since a powerful earthquake Tuesday killed thousands of people and destroyed large swaths of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

Coast Guard personnel have been in Haiti since early Wednesday morning, and the Air Force has begun flying in hundreds of its own troops as well. The USS Bataan, an amphibious ship carrying 2,200 Marines, is slated to arrive off the coast of Haiti next week alongside the USNS Comfort, the military's largest medical ship. All told, defense officials expect more than 8,000 American troops to be in Haiti by next weekend.

The Vinson brought an expanded complement of 19 helicopters to Haiti, and commanding officer Capt. Bruce Lindsey said the ship will function as a "floating airport" for helicopters picking up supplies from other ships or from a new logistics hub at Port-au-Prince's international airport and then flying the supplies into hard-to-reach areas of Haiti. The county's main port was destroyed by the earthquake.

The Vinson, one of the largest ships in the American fleet, carries equipment capable of purifying large quantities of water and has extensive medical facilities, including two surgical rooms and dozens of hospital beds. It will be used to treat wounded Haitians until the Bataan and the Comfort arrive next week, military officials said.

The ship mounted 4 helicopter missions early Friday morning, and expects to have air crews operating around the clock for several weeks. Capt. Lindsey said the hardest part of his job will be preparing the ship's sailors and crew members for the devastation and human suffering they are likely to see on the ground in Haiti.

"You want to help everybody," he said. "But there are only so many of us, and there are only so many hours in the day."

Members of the Air Force team that opened the airport – the 621st Contingency Response Wing, one of two Air Force units specifically designed to open distressed airstrips – expressed frustration that they had not been sent earlier to manage the flow of aid into the airport, saying Thursday's flight freeze may have been avoided.

"We would have liked to have been there a little bit sooner to unclog the airfield," said Col. Brian O'Connor, the wing's commander. "It makes me cringe, it's so disorderly."

The team was the first large-scale unit to be based at the airport since Tuesday's earthquake, and commanders were hoping that by the end of Friday, they would complete a logistics center that could begin receiving the large amounts of promised American government aid poised for transport here.

The unit was still awaiting a complement of Army soldiers to set up a distribution base near the airport so that humanitarian aid could be sent out to the hundreds of thousands of increasingly desperate residents of the capital in an organized manner.

Col. Patrick Hollrah, the on-the-ground commander of the Air Force-led task force, insisted some aid was already getting to needy Haitians, but said distribution remained haphazard.

"The aid is getting out, but it's just not getting out as efficiently as it will be," he said. "It's not doing any good sitting on an airplane."

The fits and starts at the airport appear to be a microcosm of the ongoing hurdles facing the international community in helping Haiti even four days after the devastating quake.

The 7.0 temblor has wreaked havoc with the country's infrastructure, making its seaport unusable and most of its roads impassable. The airport's tower, though still standing, has been deemed unsafe, and aid workers and locals alike continued to spend nights outdoors rather than risk the shelter of the airport's lone terminal, still adorned with signs from U.S. carriers like Delta and American airlines.

Air-traffic control at the airport was taken over by an Air Force Special Operations team just hours after the quake, but the small group became overwhelmed by the traffic, officers said.

"When we got here, there wasn't an empty spot on the" tarmac, said Col. Hollrah, who arrived Thursday night. "No one was in control of anything."

If the contingency response team is able to complete its distribution center by nightfall as planned, large amounts of American relief supplies organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development is expected to follow quickly, officers said. According to military officials, the hulking C-17s, among the military's largest cargo aircraft, were beginning to flow into the airport with some regularity from U.S. air bases in South Carolina and New Jersey.

President Barack Obama has ordered all federal agencies to move quickly and the White House has provided regular media updates about equipment and supplies arriving in Haiti, in part to counter the kind of criticism lodged at the Bush administration for its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In a sign of how closely Mr. Obama intends to monitor the relief effort, Denis McDonough, a deputy national security advisor and the president's longest-serving foreign policy aid, arrived in Port-au-Prince Friday morning on the third of the Air Force team's five C-17 cargo planes accompanied by a senior officer on the staff of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Write to Peter Spiegel at

Source: WSJ

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