Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010

With the Military in Haiti: Breaking the Supply Logjam

When I arrived at Port-au-Prince's Toussaint Louverture International Airport on a 
U.S. Navy relief helicopter Saturday morning, Jan. 16, the first glimpse of Haiti I 
caught was what greets every flight into the western hemisphere's 
poorest country: the vast Cite Soleil slum. But from a bird's-eye view, at 
least, the cataclysmic earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12 
seemed to actually spare the shantytown's humblest dwellings, the kind made 
of pallet-wood walls and corrugated tin roofs. The houses that took the 
worst beatings appeared to be newer ones built of upscale concrete 
blocks, many of which had been reduced to gravel pits.

It was as if the temblor were singling out those impoverished Haitians who'd 
begun to move ahead a little in recent years, just as the chronically ill-fated country itself had been making some rare economic and social progress lately only to be rewarded with the worst quake to hit it in more than 200 
years. It killed tens of thousands of people and left millions with ghastly 
injuries and perilous food and water shortages, but that wasn't the only 
reason the relief effort unfolding on the ground felt so urgent. The 
Haitians, I thought as my helicopter was touching down, need to see that the 
world doesn't want it to sink into the abyss for good this time. And 
fortunately, much of what I saw over the weekend indicated that just that 
kind of international response may finally be under way.

For the first few days after last week's disaster, the U.S. and the rest of 
the world seemed almost daunted by the magnitude of what had happened to 
Haiti. Governments and private aid organizations, stymied by the devastation 
of a national infrastructure that can look earthquake-battered even in good 
times, struggled to get a handle on how best to coordinate the rescue, 
relief and recovery process ahead of them. But after dozens of U.S. military 
helicopters began arriving in force Friday, using the aircraft carrier U.S.S. 
Carl Vinson a few miles offshore as their base, the delivery of food, water 
and medical supplies was galvanized. "We're still running out of water 
faster than we can deliver it," Marine Major Will Klumpp told me above the 
deafening roar of copter rotors. "But at least we feel like we've started to 
keep up with what the Haitians need now."

The military likes to call them birds, but the choppers looked more like 
flying grasshoppers launching and landing in the tall grass of the Louverture airfield off the main runway. Pallet after pallet of Gatorade, 
bandages and MREs (meals ready to eat) were shoved into the bellies of the choppers to be 
disgorged in the city and countryside on whatever open spaces pilots could 
find. A big problem: tent cities, sprouting like blue-tarpaulin clusters 
amid the capital's ocean of gray dust and debris, were themselves taking 
up most open spaces, from soccer fields to parking lots, making the flyers' 
jobs trickier if not riskier. On the first helicopter ride I took into 
Port-au-Prince, I sat across from an Air Force special-tactics officer who, 
with a rifle cradled in one arm and a notebook in the other, leaned out the 
open side of the aircraft to scan possible landing or supply-drop sites and log 
their coordinates.

On the next sortie I accompanied, Puerto Rican National Guard pilots flew 
their MRE-laden Army Blackhawk chopper to a few of those sites near the 
Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville. Each time they descended, however, 
hundreds of displaced Haitians ran frantically from their tents to gather up 
the aid, forcing the aircraft to instead hover above and drop its load, lest people get injured by the rotors. Corpses could still be seen by 
the ruins as the helicopter lowered itself. At one site, the pilots had to 
avoid being hemmed in by a tent city on one side (and to avoid blowing away makeshift 
roofs torn from nearby wooden billboards) and a hillside on the other. 
"They're coming from the left," the pilot radioed his crew as Haitians 
scrambled from their tarps, "but watch the hill on the right!" (Like the 
good nervous civilian I am, I started helping the crew throw MRE boxes out so we could ascend again as quickly as possible.)

Spots like that one help explain why the joint relief campaign (now dubbed 
Operation Unified Response) began dispatching troops from the Army's 82nd 
Airborne Division to allow for more orderly delivery of relief supplies. As 
Haitians' desperation becomes more acute in the coming days and weeks, and 
with Port-au-Prince facing a serious security vacuum, those soldiers and 
their M-4 rifles will most likely be needed for the long haul; some rioting is still taking place at supply warehousing and distribution points. But after 
meeting with Haitian President René Préval in Port-au-Prince on Saturday, 
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — standing with Rajiv Shah, head of 
the U.S. Agency for International Development, President Obama's 
lead quake-relief agency in Haiti — promised more than the short-lived U.S. 
commitment Haitians are used to. "We will be here today, tomorrow and for 
the time ahead," Clinton said.

For the moment, however, it was enough to see the relief drive shift into 
higher gear. The helicopters flew some 180 delivery sorties on Saturday, 
three times the amount of the day before. Just as important, much larger quantities of 
the supplies themselves had finally begun arriving at the airfield and on 
the Vinson. "We feel like we broke the [supply] logjam today," Jim Lindley, 
a ship's gunner from the Vinson told me as he sat down on the airfield grass 
at dusk after helping load material onto helicopters all day in the searing 
Haitian sun.

For others, that meant stepping up U.S. medical aid as well as food and water 
deliveries. Quake injuries can be especially gruesome, often involving limb 
amputations and foul infections. Saturday night, shortly after I arrived 
back on the Vinson, a Coast Guard helicopter ferried seven badly wounded 
Haitians to the aircraft carrier's hospital, among them a baby boy born 
just minutes earlier. He's expected to come through it all fine — a small but 
potent symbol of the hope that maybe, if we and the Haitians do this right, 
Haiti will eventually get through it as well.