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Haiti: From First Responders to Sustained Support

March 2010 Navy

by MC2(SW) Elizabeth Vlahos

On 12 January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 quake struck Haiti shortly before 5 p.m EST – the most powerful to hit Haiti in a century. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, it was centered about 10 miles southwest of Port-au- Prince and could be felt strongly in eastern Cuba, more than 200 miles away.

This tragedy set in motion an unprecedented humanitarian relief response led by the State Department but also involving the U.S military, nongovernmental organizations and civil society.

“The entire world stands with the government and people of Haiti, for in Haiti’s devastation, we all see the common humanity that we share,” President Barack Obama said.

But, America has a particular responsibility to render aid because the nation, “has a unique capacity to reach out broadly and to deliver assistance that can save lives,” Obama said.

The Navy quickly became a pivotal part of the nation’s response. As the Naval component commander for U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command coordinated the Navy efforts from air to sea, from medical care to humanitarian supplies.

Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Joint Task Force Guantanamo mobilized as a logistic hub to support the movement of personnel and supplies into the Joint Task Force Haiti area of operation. Commander, Task Force 48 was established at Guantanamo, serving as a Joint Sea Base and Joint Logistic Hub for Operation Unified Response. The Navy worked as swiftly as they could in a difficult environment. They had to deal with immense needs, devastated infrastructure and a massive logistics challenge.

On 14 January, USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) was in scheduled maintenance availability in Baltimore. Within 77 hours, she transitioned from an industrial shipboard site into a fully-staffed mobile Naval hospital, equipped with the most up-to-date medical technology, ready to provide medical care to our neighbors in desperate need in Haiti.

Comfort deployed 16 January with an overall crew of 850 that included a medical team comprised of 550 medical and non-medical support staff. She embarked additional team members, to include ship’s servicemen to run the laundry and store aboard, food service attendants, mental health professionals, pediatric specialists, nurses, and additional administrative support personnel, bringing her total crew to approximately 1,200 people.

The additional personnel augmented her capabilities to nearly 1,000 beds, including 880 ward beds, 80 intensive care unit beds and 20 post-anesthesia care unit beds. The additional staff allowed Comfort to expand her operating room capability to 11, with a twelfth operating room specifically designed to support advanced interventional radiology procedures. Comfort’s selfsustaining nature enables her to provide long-term support. The day Comfort steamed out of Baltimore, USS Underwood (FFG 36) arrived in Haiti and also provided critical medical assistance.

“Responses such as our work in Haiti require an unprecedented level of integration among our military forces and enhanced cooperation with the other instruments of national power, as well as the capabilities of nongovernmental agencies and others,” said Vice Adm. Adam Robinson, the Navy’s Surgeon General. “Our sister services and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are valued partners in providing medical care to those in need during this critical mission and will be for many years to come.”

The Navy is actively working with several NGOs to augment the longerterm plan for medical assistance aboard Comfort and anticipates the number of NGO medical personnel working aboard to grow in the immediate future.

USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) diverted from her scheduled transit and arrived on station 15 Jan., less than 72 hours after the quake. Carl Vinson immediately rendered assistance. During a two-week period, Vinson and her 19 embarked helicopters flew more than 2,200 sorties, delivering more than 166 tons of food; 89,000 gallons of water; and 38,700 lbs. of medical supplies to earthquake victims. Additionally, Vinson’s helicopters conducted 476 medical evacuations and the ship’s doctors and corpsmen treated 60 patients in the medical ward.

“I ran out on the runway to deliver a box of insulin to a C-2 aircraft before it left for Haiti,” said Cryptologic Technician (Technical) 1st Class (SW/AW) Nicholas Nowlin, a staff member of Carrier Strike Group 2. “That is not something I do in my everyday job. I love that I can do these things – whatever it takes – to help save lives.”

Three days after Carl Vinson arrived in Haiti, the USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with the embarked Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) reported on station. In addition to USS Bataan (LHD 5), the ARG included USS Carter Hall (LSD 50), USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) and USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43).

“The fact that we are flexible and are well-versed in these types of operations makes us the platform of choice for these missions,” said CDR Fred Wilhelm, Commanding Officer of Gunston Hall. “We bring the capability of making 72,000 gallons of water a day; we have medical facilities on board; and we bring landing craft, along with Marines to help with any tasks that might come our way.”

By 23 January, the Amphibious Relief Group reinforcements with 4,000 Sailors and Marines from the USS Nassau (LHA 4) Amphibious Ready Group (NAS ARG) and 24th MEU arrived. Nassau ARG was originally scheduled to deploy to the 5th and 6th Fleet Areas of Responsibility in support of maritime security operations.

“We’ve had a lot of training for humanitarian assistance,” said Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (SW) Steve Banner, a native of Bristol, Tenn. “I was aboard for Galveston, so I’ve had this experience before.”

Another big part of the maritime relief effort was to start the rebuilding of port facilities near the Haitian capital. USNS Grasp (T-ARS 51), a rescue and salvage ship with embarked FBI dive team arrived 17 Jan. to conduct surveys and assessments necessary to repair the port. This effort was also supported by USNS Henson (T-AGS-63), an oceanographic survey ship, and USS Bunker Hill (CG 52). Additionally, USNS Sacagawea (T-AKE 2) and USNS 1st LT Jack Lummus (T-AK 3011), both dry cargo ships, and USNS Sumner (TAGS- 61), an oceanographic survey ship, joined the effort, fulfilling a variety of roles.

As the situation progressed from emergency relief to sustainment operations, U.S. Southern Command redeployed Carl Vinson, USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) and USNS Henson (T-AGS 63), as their capabilities were fulfilled by other units, nations, institutions and services. Helicopter airlift capabilities have transferred ashore in Haiti and to other ships in the area.

Adm. J.C. Harvey, Jr., Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command (USFF), summed up the Navy’s response to the devastation in Haiti.

“We’ve had a tremendous first response from our ships and our aircraft across the fleet,” said Harvey. “We’re going to sustain that response as long as it takes to get the mission done.

“A lot of these Sailors left on extremely short notice. We had pilots who had 30 minutes to pack a bag, get down to their squadron, brief the flight and get that helo aboard Vinson. That is pretty typical of the kind of response we’ve seen.

“It is the hard-core reality of our Navy that we truly are that ‘global force for good,’” Harvey said. “You’re seeing it play out in real time right now.”

Vlahos is assigned to Defense Media Activity – Anacostia; Washington, DC.

Posted in: March 2010

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