Defense Media Network

Rapid Response: The U.S. Military’s Haiti Relief Surge

Although Haiti has faded from the headlines, the humanitarian relief effort that began immediately after the island nation was rocked by a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12 continues. The U.S. military immediately took the lead in opening a logistics chain enabling medical and rescue personnel, food, water, temporary shelter and other necessities to reach Haiti despite the near total destruction of the island’s air and seaport facilities.

Working in concert under the direction of the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), the Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) set up temporary off-loading capabilities for seaborne supplies while working to reopen the harbor at Port au Prince; the Air Force‘s Air Mobility Command (AMC) did the same with the capital city’s small – and devastated – airport; and the Army’s Military Surface Distribution & Deployment Command (SDDC) played a major role in both efforts – especially in the initial hours after the earthquake – and was the primary logistics interface with USAID to move relief supplies inland.

“The airfield was the first opened, working with the Air Force, and SDDC’s 688th Rapid Port Opening [RPO] Element moved cargo coming in by air to a distribution site. The 832nd Battalion out of Jacksonville [Fla.] opened up the seaport at Port au Prince fairly quickly to receive humanitarian supplies. Joint logistics over the shore also was set up, using a trident pier for containers,” Col. Jeffrey B. Helmick, commander of SDDC’s 597th Transportation Terminal Group, explained. “The uniqueness of the RPO is we are on a 12-hour call for an airfield, 36 for a seaport, basically for initial reconnaissance – and we were able to meet those timelines in Haiti.”

While the initial response was by air, sealift was required for a lot of the heavier equipment needed to clear debris and search for survivors. MSC responded with a wide variety of capabilities from 21 vessels, including the USNS Comfort hospital ship, two 673-foot maritime prepositioning ships (the PFC Dewayne T. Williams and the 1st Lt. Jack Lummus), two T-AKE dry cargo/ammunition ships (the Lewis and Clark and the Sacagawea), the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force fleet replenishment oiler Big Horn, four Maritime Administration (MARAD) Ready Reserve force ships (the Cornhusker State and Gopher State crane ships, the Cape May heavy lift ship and the aviation maintenance logistics ship Wright) and the MSC Special Mission program oceanographic survey ship Henson, which surveyed the harbor floor and identified potential hazards to ships bringing relief supplies.

The Navy also sent the USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group and USS Bataan and USS Nassau Amphibious Ready Groups to support the relief effort, and MARAD activated two high-speed ferries from the National Defense Reserve Fleet – MV Huakai and MV Alakai – to ferry personnel, vehicles and supplies between Jacksonville and Haiti.

With some 29 percent of his total workforce was involved in the Haitian relief effort at some point, MSC Commander, Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, praised the speed and efficiency of their response.

“The Comfort is maintained in a five-day readiness-to-sea status, fully manned with civilian mariners and a Navy medical team and all supplies, including helicopters and boats,” he told The Year in Defense. “That’s pretty demanding, considering it is the equivalent of an entire city hospital. For Haiti, we did it in 77 hours, which is a new record, sailing directly from Baltimore to Haiti and taking her first patients on board before she went to anchor, the need was so great.”

The effort was closely coordinated among all the service components, with TRANSCOM overseeing the combined mission, working closely with Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and the Joint Task Force, Buzby added, but all of the military logistics commands initially responded even before orders were issued.

“In the first few days, we activated ships and pushed the capabilities we felt would be needed. No one had to tell us the Comfort would be needed. We also knew we had to get helicopters and oilers down there to sustain operations and the fleet,” he said.

“A lot of things were going on in parallel and I think it was a really strong effort by TRANSCOM to push a lot of capability down there that had not specifically been requested but we knew would be needed. Eventually, they began asking for specific capability, but all the components were leaning forward in a very positive way from the very beginning.”

Some assets that had been scheduled for use in the drawdown in Iraq and build-up in Afghanistan were retasked to Haiti, but the service commanders say neither the war effort nor Haitian relief were short-changed because TRANSCOM had effectively preplanned for such contingencies.

“What’s unique about TRANSCOM is a flat chain of command, so decisions are made very quickly,” Helmick said. “TRANSCOM is a big team – Army, Navy, Air Force – but we all belong to Gen. [Duncan] McNabb [TRANSCOM’s commanding general], so we’re not competing for lift. I can’t really think of any other country or international group that can react so quickly to any kind of mission. And that was proven once again in Haiti.

“Once the earthquake happened, we reacted immediately; from my vantage point as a brigade commander, all I was told was ‘go’. There was nothing stopping me from getting down there with our team. This is what we train for. It became a classic joint task force port opening mission, just the way Gen. McNabb had put it together.”


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...