Obama Honors Haiti Earthquake Victims, Notes Relief Efforts
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 12, 2011 On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that leveled Haiti, President Barack Obama yesterday honored the memory of the 250,000 Haitian people who died in the disaster, and highlighted relief and recovery efforts.
Naval Air Crewman 2nd Class Jason Harold transfers a young Haitian earthquake victim from an SH-60B Seahawk helicopter during a medical evacuation in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 16, 2010. USS Carl Vinson and Carrier Air Wing 17 are conducting humanitarian and disaster relief operations as part of Operation Unified Response after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake caused severe damage in Haiti, Jan. 12, 2010. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Candice Villarrea
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The magnitude 7.0 earthquake set into motion “one of the largest humanitarian efforts ever attempted,” Obama said.
Noting that 100 Americans also perished that day and an estimated 1 million people remain missing, Obama added that countless lives were saved in the earthquake’s aftermath, and Haitians now have better access to food, water and health care than they did before the disaster.
But the impoverished nation is not out of the woods, he said.
“Too much rubble continues to clog the streets, too many people are still living in tents, and for so many Haitians, progress has not come fast enough,” the president said. “As we have said all along, helping the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere recover from one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike our hemisphere will take years, if not decades.”
When the earthquake struck the small island country Jan. 12, 2010, near its capital of Port-au-Prince, the Defense Department coordinated with the State Department to respond with life-saving assistance. U.S. Southern Command, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies coordinated their efforts to assess the earthquake’s massive damage.
Air Force Maj. Tom Crosson, a National Guard Bureau spokesman, said Southcom tapped the National Guard to help set up relief operations in Haiti.
“One unit was the Kentucky National Guard 123rd Contingency Response Group,” Crosson said. “They helped with the flow of medical supplies, food and water, and coordinated logistics on the ground at an air base there. They deployed an ‘air base in a box,’ a kind of mobile wing.”
Crosson said the National Guard provided experts in critical areas such as security, airfield operations, cargo and other key infrastructure specialties, displaying the Guard’s ability to “go into an austere location and set up an air base rapidly and start handling air operations.”
With about 60 Guard members in place at the portable base, “the contingency response groups and specialists demonstrated the unique capabilities the Guard has,” he said.
“Because we have a capability, it doesn’t mean we’re going to keep it organic to the United States,” he added.
At the height of the U.S. military effort, some 22,000 forces were in or around Haiti, including 7,000 land-based troops, with the remainder operating aboard 58 aircraft and 15 nearby vessels. By March, hundreds of Army paratroopers were providing humanitarian aid to earthquake survivors in Haiti.
One of the first military contributions was the reopening of Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince by airmen with the 1st Special Operations Wing. The airmen landed on the island within 30 hours of the earthquake and, 30 minutes after landing, controlled airfield operations from a card table using hand-held radios to safely land and launch hundreds of aircraft, a Southcom official said.
The earthquake response included one of the largest medical outreach efforts in history. Service members treated and evaluated thousands of Haitian patients, including more than 8,600 on the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort. Surgeons aboard the ship completed nearly 1,000 surgeries.
In May, about 500 soldiers as part of Joint Task Force Haiti came in -- mainly from the Louisiana National Guard, along with soldiers from the Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Puerto Rico and Virgin Island National Guards -- to conduct engineering activities and medical readiness training exercises around Gonaives, north of Port-au-Prince.
By June 1, the U.S. military officially ended its earthquake disaster response, leaving further assistance to humanitarian and construction projects on the island and to two annual military exercises in the region.
Southcom, which oversaw the massive relief effort, officially stood down the effort in Haiti’s capital of Port-Au-Prince. At that time, Army Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, the first commander of the command’s Joint Task Force Haiti, said the relief effort couldn’t have happened without the collaboration of the military with the State Department, nongovernmental organizations, and the Haitian government.
National Guard service members began construction projects for schools, clinics and community centers that can also serve as hurricane shelters in Haiti as part of its New Horizons, a program it began in the 1980s to conduct joint and combined humanitarian exercises annually in Latin America and the Caribbean under Southcom auspices.
“The end result,” Crosson said, is the National Guard “was able to help the folks in Haiti in a troubling time, and get critical supplies in timely manner.”