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Airborne Base Becomes Go-To Spot for Disaster Relief

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan. 22, 2010 – The U.S. military Humvee squeezes through the heavy traffic, the rubble and the throngs of pedestrians filling the city streets here. These roads were not made for the wide-bodied military trucks.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Sgt. Joey Brumfield has a local Haitian put a chicken on his shoulder as a joke during a patrol in the Del Mas section of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 21, 2010. Brumfield is with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment. The squadron has started stretching its efforts beyond its base camp as other humanitarian relief organizations have pitched in to help. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“What’s up? What’s good?” shouts Army Staff Sgt. Joey Brumfield in slang Creole to the crowd of young men standing an arm’s length away.

They laugh and shout back “What’s up?” in English.

Brumfield is with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, out of Fort Bragg, N.C. He and his team are working the streets in the Del Mas area here tracking down leads on hospitals and medical clinics.

Just a week ago, the squadron landed here intent on establishing an operating base on a golf course and setting up a distribution point for food and water. There was little electricity, no water and no real plan.

Now, this country-club-turned-military-headquarters has become the go-to spot both for those needing relief and for those wanting to help.

Finding a spot on the ground to sleep at night is now more difficult, both in the refugee camp at the foot of the hill and up in the club that serves as the main post. Several hundred military and civilian relief workers now operate with this as their base. The squadron’s staff officers now sleep on the roof to make room for the additional workers.

Catholic Relief Services, the United Nations’ point agency for relief at the base is in place, and for the most part is directing the future distribution of the massive amounts of food and water flowing in.

The National Disaster Medical System, under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has sent medical teams from California, New Jersey and New Mexico. They set up a clinic capable of treating patients around the clock if needed.

Even actor Sean Penn made a stop at the base today to see what he could offer up with his own private disaster relief organization.

And military helicopters continue dropping more soldiers and supplies daily from dawn to dusk.

“From some respects, we’re still getting the same thing accomplished, but it doesn’t look anything like it looked six days ago,” said Army Lt. Col. Mike Foster, the squadron’s commander. “Just about everything has changed, except for the end state. The goal has not changed. It’s still to get as much help to the Haitian people as rapidly as possible, focusing on those that need it first.”

The squadron’s first attempt to distribute food and water last week ended up sending the soldiers packing from the refugee camp below. The same day, a military helicopter dropped food and water from the air down to the camp, causing near-riotous conditions, and convincing the military to abandon that method of dropping relief.

Now, the distribution point here runs relatively smoothly, comparable to the lines at a major amusement park. Haitian volunteers distribute the food, help to secure the lines and carry the sick to the medical shelter. According to the last count, about 60 Haitians a minute were filtering through the lines.

Christian Relief Service’s Donal Reilly is helping the squadron take the distribution to the next level. Reilly started working in Haiti in 1996 and has worked similar projects around the globe.

His plans are to issue tokens to the families living in the tent city below the base. The families will cash their tokens in at the distribution point for a two-week supply of food, as opposed to now, where the U.S. military hands out only a daily humanitarian meal.

“If we can get every family with two-week rations, then this stuff stops. The soldiers can maybe free up their focus for something else,” he said. “You can’t do this [distribution] every day. It’s just going to burn people out.”

Reilly acknowledged that the soldiers provided the needed first step in opening the door to relief here. His organization was looking for such a spot when they found this one.

“The Army has the logistics, the security to be able to come in and set up,” he said. “It was very hard to find a large distribution site in Port-au-Prince because of security. And here we have it.”

But Reilly also noted that he brings global resources to the table. As the lead agency for the U.N.’s relief efforts at the base, all relief organizations go through him, allowing him to channel all of the relief pouring from around the world.

“You bring in a helicopter. We’re going to bring in a truck [that can carry] 10 to 15 times the relief,” he said. “Cost-wise, it’s much more efficient.”

Foster said CRS taking on that piece of the distribution role is fine with him.

“We don’t feel some compelling need to be involved in whatever anybody else can do,” he said. “But anywhere there’s a capability established, we won’t back away from that until somebody else can do it as well as we’re doing it right now.”

Foster, the Army squadron commander, said he would like eventually to completely turn it over to the civilian agencies, but that his guys will continue to do what they’re doing until they are called home. So Foster’s soldiers have been busy stretching out beyond the base, scouring the tent city below for injured people who cannot make it up to the medical treatment facilities. Sometimes they partner with civilian volunteers. They also partner with local hospitals, providing a combat medic to help out for a day.

The patrols also are taking to the streets.

Army Capt. (Dr.) Mark Poirier treated four patients in one short patrol in the city this week. He said that overall, those in the tent city are healthy, and all of the serious injuries have been treated.

“I think the mission is going to be to push out,” he said.

The patrols also provide intelligence for the squadron as they compile information on the surround areas. The military landed on this spot will little to go on. Now they are gathering information such as which gas stations have fuel, which clinics are open and which churches are providing services.

All of this paints a picture of the community that the commander needs as he tries to reach the pockets of those who still need relief that all believe are still out there.

But more than a picture, Foster needs a crystal ball for this job -- one that will tell him the problems he will encounter over the next few weeks as the crowd continues to grow. Massive crowds bring massive needs. Already, some of the structures are looking permanent by Haitian squatter standards. And the crystal ball could tell him how he will manage the flood of organizations that come knocking on his door to help, each offering good will, but also bringing their own personalities, rules and bureaucracies.

But he doesn’t have a crystal ball, and the commander freely admits he has no idea what operations here will look like in another week.

“I wish I did,” he said. “I know that it’s going to look better. But a week ago, I couldn’t have predicted it would look like this.”

The only prediction Foster will offer is that the work here will not be finished quickly.

“Quite frankly, there is so much work to be done, some of it is never going to get done,” he said. “Years from now, people are going to look around and they’re going to say ‘That’s left over from the earthquake.’

“The scope of the work is massive,” Foster said.

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Related Sites:
Special Report: Haiti Earthquake Relief

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