When the 7.0-magnitude quake struck Port-au-Prince that fateful Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Lieut. General Ken Keen was far from poised for battle. The No. 2 in charge of Southern Command, which controls U.S. hemispheric interests out of Miami, Keen was enjoying a rare quiet moment (and a Diet Coke) back at the U.S. ambassador's residence after spending the day touring Haiti. He'd gone to the country for two days from Santo Domingo on a tour of the Caribbean, and he planned to shower and shave before attending a 6 p.m. reception in his honor.
But the 40 seconds that the tremors lasted were more than enough to thrust Keen into action and soon enough, into being the de facto king of Haiti. He and Ambassador Ken Merten fought to get out the front door and then prayed the house wouldn't come down around their friends, colleagues and family within. When it finally stopped, Keen suspected but wouldn't truly know until dawn the next day that they had just survived the worst natural disaster in the western hemisphere's history. The city lay in a shroud of dust below the hill upon which the residence sits. Buildings were invisible in the haze, but their groaning collapses were heard throughout the night. So were the prayers and screams of the trapped and mourning, the frantic and shell-shocked.
Though some critics have complained that aid has been too slow to permeate this ravaged land, there is no question that it would have taken a lot longer if Keen hadn't just happened to have been there. By midnight he'd pledged to the Haiti government the remnants of which had snatched motorcycles and picked their way through the ruins up to the residence long after nightfall to ask for help the full support of the U.S. military. Keen immediately set up teams to evaluate Haiti's airport and port; he even explored parachuting soldiers and aid in if it turned out the airport was unusable. As the top U.S. military official on the ground, Keen wouldn't sleep again for three days. He wouldn't speak to his wife for nearly a week. There was no doubt in his or anyone else's mind: the U.S., with the help of the U.N., Canada, France and dozens of other countries, would have to act quickly if tens of thousands of lives were to be saved.
The morning after the earthquake, Keen and his team made their way in rental cars across the city, horrified at the scope of the damage. By noon the airport runway had been assessed and four American staff evacuated, including one of Keen's aides who had crawled out of his hotel after his fifth-floor room ended up in the basement. "There was no question in my mind and I never asked about staying here; it was clear to me in the first hours that I was here to stay," Keen says.
Though he led a Ranger team in the first Iraq war, the Kentucky native has spent most of his distinguished military career waging peace, with stints primarily in the Americas and Europe. An expert on Latin America, Keen speaks Spanish and Portuguese, and he and his wife of 35 years, Mary Ellen, have a Colombian adopted daughter, Marta, 11. In fact, Keen and the commander of the U.N. forces in Haiti, Brazilian General Floriano Peixoto, have known each other for more than 30 years. Not only did they train as paratroopers together in joint sessions when Keen was posted in Brazil, but they were (friendly) rivals who used to try to one-up one other in push-ups and on runs. ("It's so long ago, I can't remember who won," demurs Keen diplomatically.) Keen "has a long-standing history working with General Peixoto and the United Nations and with a number of partners here," said USAID administrator Rajiv Shah, emerging from a meeting with Keen at the U.S. embassy in Haiti on Jan. 23. "He's the ideal leader for the job."
On Jan. 23, 11 days after the quake, Keen choppered out to the U.S.N.S. Comfort, the floating hospital parked in Port-au-Prince harbor. He was there to try to solve the hospital's biggest problem it has no facilities to care for postoperative victims. As search-and-rescue operations have wound down, keeping alive the wounded has become the most immediate problem facing Haiti. Keen is working to open a 5,000-bed hospital run by the World Health Organization, the U.N. and the U.S. and Haitian governments in the coming days. It would be the largest hospital in the country, serving as a postoperative nursing station for victims not only from the Comfort but overwhelmed hospitals across the country. The Haitian government is searching for the appropriate space about 40 acres of land is needed while doctors and medical staff are being flown in from all over the world. "Over the long run I could see that staffed by anywhere from 500 to 1,000 international doctors," said Captain James J. Ware, who runs the Comfort's hospital, after meeting with Keen.
Dressed in tan fatigues, Keen then returned to the embassy to meet with USAID's Shah. The two discussed the other humanitarian challenge facing the hemisphere's poorest nation: lack of food and water. The water distribution run by the Haitian government the past week, they agreed, was going as smoothly as one could hope for. Food, on the other hand, was going to be a problem. In the short term, C-17s are dropping tons of food across Haiti that is distributed by U.S. troops. NGOs are also working with the World Food Program to feed as many as 2 million people five-day rations of nutrient-rich cookies by the end of the month.
But everyone agrees that this is not nearly enough. So Keen is going about picking 15 distribution points within a 26-kilometer (16 mile) radius of the earthquake. Starting with what he calls an "initial surge" of 5 million meals ready to eat, or MREs, the U.S. in tandem with the U.N. and other countries hopes to eventually feed 5 million people a day. The food will be given out in one-week or two-week allotments to women only to prevent men from using the meals for barter to feed a family of five. Keen hopes to have the program up and running in the next couple of weeks. "It's like building an airplane in flight that's what it feels like being in the middle of this crisis," he says. "We're doing everything we can to keep the Haitian people aloft."
In the waning hours of the short Caribbean winter day, Keen, who has been living at the embassy, makes his daily pilgrimage to the Hotel Montana, where three of his staff had been staying when the earthquake hit. Two crawled out. But a third, Major Ken Bourland, remains trapped beneath. Staring at a bulldozer digging into the rubble, Keen still hears the cries of Haitians he met on that first drive across the city. "All I heard was, When is America coming? And all I can tell them was, We are on the way," he says. Nearly two weeks later, more than 15,000 American troops have arrived in Haiti; so have thousands of search-and-rescue teams from dozens of countries, dozens of field hospitals and clinics, and more than 500 million tons of equipment and relief supplies. Even so, Keen says his biggest frustration is that it never feels like enough to deal with the scope of the disaster.
Read more in the new TIME book Earthquake Haiti: Tragedy and Hope and support TIME's Haiti relief efforts.