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U.S. Troops Are 'Already There' In Haiti To Help Rescue Efforts, And More Are On The Way

People gather outside the Petit Pas Hotel, destroyed by the earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. A 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on Saturday, with the epicenter about 125 kilometers (78 miles) west of the capital of Port-au-Prince, the US Geological Survey said.
(AP Photo/Joseph Odelyn) JOSEPH ODELYN AP
The Miami Herald
People gather outside the Petit Pas Hotel, destroyed by the earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. A 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on Saturday, with the epicenter about 125 kilometers (78 miles) west of the capital of Port-au-Prince, the US Geological Survey said.

The U.S. military has assisted Haiti rescue efforts in the past. After another major earthquake, Doral-based U.S. Southern Command is sending them in again.

An estimated one million Haitians are directly impacted by the magnitude-7.2 earthquake that struck the southwestern peninsula on Saturday, according to the U.S. military.

More than 1,400 people have been confirmed dead.

Since the earthquake, the Haitian diaspora in South Florida and the rest of the U.S. has been mobilized, gathering money and supplies needed for relief efforts.

You turn to WLRN for reporting you can trust and stories that move our South Florida community forward. Your support makes it possible. Please donate now. Thank you.

Almost immediately after the earthquake, an urban search and rescue team from the Fairfax County Fire Department — from Virginia — headed to Haiti to assist. The team of 65 staff members and four canines arrived on Sunday.

“We have not yet found any signs of persons alive trapped in buildings,” said team leader John Morrison Tuesday afternoon. “There have been rescues made in previous earthquakes up to eight to ten days after the earthquake. In 2015, our team along with Los Angeles County pulled a teenage boy from the rubble five days after that earthquake.”

The team is working directly with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

The agency says it has provided enough hygiene kits and shelter repair kits to help an estimated 10,000 people, with more help on the way.

The extensive U.S. military response has also mobilized resources to help in the search and rescue efforts.

The following is an interview with U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Andrew Croft, the military deputy commander at the Doral-based U.S. Southern Command. He spoke with WLRN Tuesday about the scope and logistics of that effort.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

WLRN: How would you describe the mission of Southern Command at this point following the earthquake over this past weekend in Haiti?

CROFT: So what we're doing now first is assessing the level of damage. The availability of roads, bridges and airports that we can fly into and then what kind of response we'll take.

Immediately on scene after the earthquake was two U.S. Coast Guard helicopters with two Coast Guard cutters that were in the proximity of Haiti and the earthquake. And so they immediately started doing assessment and moving people back and forth, some injured back to Port-au-Prince because there's hospital capacity there.

The first day they moved fifteen and later they moved 23, and that effort will continue.

And we had a U.S. Navy ship that was also present that had an unmanned aerial vehicle on it that could do reconnaissance. It's called a scan eagle. We flew that over the affected areas as well to do the same thing — look at ports, airfields and roads — to get a feel for the level of damage and then that will shape the response.

Tropical Storm Grace just passed through the area. How, if at all, did that impact the situation and the conditions on the ground there with these search and rescue efforts?

We were very fortunate there that it actually weakened and just caused rain. You'll have some flooding. What we need to assess is the roads and the bridges to make sure that that did not exacerbate the problem from the earthquake prior.

The assessment initially is — I don't think it's going to have a huge effect on us. But it will obviously have some impact on our ability to respond. I'm sure that's collected water in areas that will have some effect for days to come.

What is the likelihood of active duty troops being sent to Haiti to assist with the situation, which is what we saw happen after the 2010 devastating earthquake?

They’re already there. So yesterday we flew down the lead elements of what we call Joint Task Force Haiti. It's a two-star Navy admiral and his team. Today, they'll be up to about 25 folks on the ground at the U.S. embassy. Their job is to do an assessment and coordinate with USAID and the ambassador for our response. And then we've already moved a lot of assets into the area.

So yesterday we flew helicopters, eight army helicopters all the way from Honduras to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It's a long flight, so it took two days to do it. But we'll have five medium and three heavy-lift helicopters available today and then early tomorrow to respond in addition to the Coast Guard helicopters we talked about. And we also have six medium-lift aircraft available to move supplies and logistics in and out of both Haiti and also the surrounding areas that we can support from.

So a lot of movement is happening now. Today, a very large amphibious support ship is underway from the East Coast, the United States, which will arrive on Friday. That's a 700-foot-long ship that can host helicopters. We call it a lily pad, and we can fly on and off of that vessel and get very close to the affected areas so we can respond even more quickly.

So there's a lot of folks moving right now from Department of Defense in response to requests from the government of Haiti and USAID.

Just a few weeks ago, President Biden said he would not send troops to Haiti to address the unrest and instability caused by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. But now you're telling me there are troops there on the ground and more are coming. To what extent do those two scenarios overlap?

They don't. They're completely separate. So there's no unrest that we have to deal with. It's actually been fairly calm there. Prime Minister [Ariel] Henry’s been very helpful and is in great cooperation with our ambassador. So they are completely unrelated.

The key, though, is to have a coordinated effort between the government of Haiti because they're responding with their disaster response teams.

And the key is to layer in these folks in a common command and control system so that we can identify exactly who can do what and what requirements are needed from each organization. And the key is to create synergy, don't create overlap and don't create gaps.

This is not the first time Southern Command goes to Haiti. Southern Command has responded there multiple times over the last decade or so — with the earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. How does that past experience helping with these kind of operations in Haiti impact the current efforts?

This morning we were on a phone call with the commander of the forces in 2010, the three-star general, to get all his lessons learned. We have all the “lessons learned” [PowerPoint] slides from that effort in 2010, which are hugely helpful to us now.

Let’s make sure we focus on what we succeeded in and then double down. So that’s been really helpful.

But this is a slightly different situation than 2010 though, because it’s a more rural area, it’s not the capital. So our challenge is, maybe compared to 2010 which was just sheer numbers of people affected, now it’s distance and time. Getting through roads, using helicopters, that’s gonna be the difference this time. It’s much less of an affected population but also harder to get to.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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