Washington - The arrival of the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, equipped with 19 helicopters and relief supplies, off the coast of Port-Au-Prince is providing an important new avenue for humanitarian aid and equipment to get to affected sites in the wake of continued transportation challenges following the January 12 earthquake.
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon January 15 that the USS Vinson has also come equipped with 51 hospital beds, three medical operating rooms and equipment to produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per day.
The arrival of helicopters will help with the distribution of aid supplies and equipment, as many roads in Haiti remain impassible.
Other U.S. military assets currently in place in and around Haiti to help with relief efforts are the USS Higgins and several U.S. Coast Guard cutters to provide search-and-rescue support. In addition, a company from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division is working with the personnel from the USS Vinson in delivering water supplies, Mullen said.
"Although it seems that supplies and security cannot come quickly enough ... we're doing everything we possibly can," he said.
The principal focus remains supporting search-and-rescue efforts that are trying to reach survivors, as well as meeting the immediate needs for food, water and medical assistance.
Other naval vessels en route include the cruiser-sized USS Normandy and the frigate-sized USS Underwood, both equipped with small helicopters. The helicopter carrier USS Bataan is equipped with the U.S. Navy's second-largest ship-based hospital facility; it has six fully equipped operating rooms and can care for 600 patients. It left its base in Norfolk, Virginia, January 14 accompanied by the USS Fort McHenry and USS Carter Hall, as well as members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. That group is transporting helicopters, utility air-support aircraft, trucks, earth-moving equipment and water purification systems, according to Captain Clark Carpenter of the 22nd Marines.
Admiral Mullen said the 275-meter-long hospital ship USS Comfort, "with hundreds of medical professionals and the vital medical support," should be off the Haitian coast by January 22 or 23. The Comfort and its sister ship the USS Mercy are the largest hospital ships in the world and boast 12 operating rooms, 1,000 hospital beds and state-of-the-art treatment centers.
Mullen said there are currently 1,000 U.S. military personnel in Haiti and the number will increase to 10,000 by January 18. "That is not 10,000 forces ashore because the bulk of those will be on ships," he said, providing additional support especially for medical, food and water needs. The number of military personnel could rise, he added.
According to news reports, the Cuban government is allowing U.S. medical evacuation flights to fly through its airspace.
U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah said January 15 that so far the United States has provided 600,000 daily rations of food to Haiti, with $48 million allocated, which he said will be enough to feed 2 million people for several months.
In addition, Shah said the United States has mobilized 100,000 10-liter collapsible water containers, of which 20,000 have arrived in the country.
The State Department's assistant secretary of state for public affairs, P.J. Crowley, told reporters January 15 that the arrival of helicopters from the USS Vinson has provided "a second significant channel besides the airport to be able to deliver assistance on the ground."
"We have a lot of stuff geared, poised to flow," he said.
"Up till now we have been delivering assistance through a garden hose, but now we're expanding that ... as we work to create a river in terms of the flow of assistance to Haiti," he said.
The international relief effort has "established a foundation for the operation," he said. "Now we're gradually starting to see an increase in the flow of material. But we still need to find ways to expand [the] number of channels and broaden them as we go."
Crowley said U.S. personnel are working to expand the capacity of the Toussaint Louverture Airport to receive an increasing number of relief supplies and personnel from around the world. U.S. Southern Command officials have determined that the single runway facility can handle a maximum of 90 takeoffs and landings per day, and are working to reach that capacity.
Crowley said that along with roads that need to be cleared, Port-Au-Prince's port remains a problem.
"The limitation now is the inherent infrastructure in Haiti," he said. "We'd love to have access to the port and right now there are port assessment teams continuing to study that to see how we can use it, but for the moment, for large ships, the port is unusable."