By Judith Snyderman, American Forces Press ServiceJanuary 19, 2010
WASHINGTON (Jan. 19, 2010) -- Humanitarian assistance efforts in Haiti are improving every day despite enormous challenges, the commander of Joint Task Force Haiti said.
"Today, we had 180 flights go through the airport with zero delays," Lt. Gen. P.K. "Ken" Keen said yesterday during a "DoDLive" bloggers roundtable. "That's the first day since we started that we did not have a delay."
For perspective, Keen noted that the single runway at the Port-au-Prince airport handled just 13 flights per day before the earthquake. U.S. airmen opened the airport less than 24 hours after the earthquake in response to a request for help from Haitian authorities. It then took several days to streamline the system for handling the crush of planes carrying supplies. Landing time slots now are now assigned based on priorities set by Haitian officials, he explained.
As of yesterday, U.S. troops had distributed 400,000 bottles of water, 300,000 rations and 12,000 pounds of medical supplies, Keen said, adding that those figures count only U.S. contributions. Numerous nations and international aid groups also are delivering assistance, he said.
But while the amount of aid is substantial, Keen said, it's just a drop in the bucket compared to the needs of some 3.5 million people who are suffering, so the size of U.S. military force in Haiti -- in an operation now dubbed "Unified Response" -- will continue to grow.
"We have about 1,400 military on the ground right now," he said. "We have another approximately 5,000 that are afloat on various ships supporting us. We will grow that force over the coming weeks to where we will have about 4,000 to 5,000 on Haiti and another 5,000 offshore supporting us."
Among the assets moving toward Haiti are the hospital ship USNS Comfort, which can supply up to 1,000 hospital beds. The USS Bataan also has arrived, and a Marine landing battalion from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit is expected to go ashore today to one of the hardest-hit regions outside Port-au-Prince that has been beyond the reach of help until now.
Keen clarified the boundaries of the role that U.S. troops will play. He stressed that their priority is to distribute aid in partnership with other agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"My mission is to provide humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and security in order to execute delivery of that [assistance and relief supplies]," he said. He added that the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti remains primarily in charge of security and that U.N. troops who had been successful in significantly reducing gang activity prior to the earthquake now are at work to contain pockets of violence that have cropped up in the disaster's chaotic aftermath.
Keen said he has not witnessed what some media reports characterize as a rising tide of violence.
"All the places that U.S. forces have gone thus far have been very calm," he said. "In fact, they've been overtly welcoming. People have been very orderly, and they've been very appreciative of all the aid that they've been given."
Looking ahead, Keen said, he counts water purification units in the next group of priorities. Sixteen units had arrived yesterday, with five more due today. Opening the ports also is a critical need, he said.
"We've got to have other means to get cargo in here and take pressure off the airport, " he explained.
Assessment teams have determined that both the main port and a fuel pier are inoperable. Keen said he expects to have one of the ports operating with limited capacity by the end of the week, possibly using landing craft.
Keen also told bloggers about another sign of progress in organizing the massive international relief effort: a new humanitarian coordination center that has been established using U.N. facilities. The idea, he said, is to have one place to funnel the immense outpouring of donations to determine whether any given donation is needed and where should it be stacked if it is.
Keen, who was in Haiti when the earthquake struck, said the response so far has been tremendous.
"I am proud of what our nation and the international community has done," he said.