Pentagon Begins All-Out Humanitarian Effort In Haiti

The U.S. military is sending ships and planes to help the relief effort in Haiti, and preparing to send thousands of soldiers and Marines there as well. The question is whether the response will be fast enough because it will take days to move all those people and all that equipment.

DEBORAH AMOS, host

And these are the very people to whom the U.S. and other nations are trying to send aid.

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The Pentagon is sending ships, aircraft and medical teams along with thousands of U.S. Marines and soldiers. But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, it will take days to move all these people and all that equipment.

TOM BOWMAN: President Obama says his administration will move aggressively to help save lives in Haiti. The president spoke yesterday at the White House.

President BARACK OBAMA: Because in disasters such as this the first hours and days are absolutely critical to saving lives and avoiding even greater tragedy, I have directed my teams to be as forward-leaning as possible in getting the help on the ground and coordinating with our international partners as well.

BOWMAN: But the day after the earthquake struck, the Pentagon was still trying to get a sense of the situation. Reconnaissance planes were flying over the devastated landscape. Military assessment teams were on their way.

Here's General Douglas Fraser, the military commander for the relief effort speaking to reporters at the Pentagon.

General DOUGLAS FRASER (Commander, U.S. Southern Command): We don't have a clear assessment right now what the situation on the ground is, what the needs within Port-au-Prince are, how extensive the situation is.

BOWMAN: Fraser says he wasn't sure if Haitian officials are right that hundreds of thousands are dead; that's why military assessment teams are on the ground now. The Pentagon has dispatched an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson. It will carry helicopters and humanitarian aid, and the Navy is sending a hospital ship, the Comfort. It will sail from Baltimore toward Haiti with hundreds of doctors and nurses. Also ready, a Marine ship from North Carolina with as many as 2,000 Marines. None of those ships are expected to arrive for days. Fraser was asked at the Pentagon whether valuable time is being lost while the military assesses the situation.

Gen. FRASER: We've found that the assessments are critical to making sure we get the right equipment in there and make the recovery efforts and the life supporting efforts as efficient as possible.

BOWMAN: As for any immediate assistance, General Fraser said just three civilian rescue teams are on their way, trained to dig through rubble and pull out those trapped. One's from Virginia, another from California, the third is a federal team from Florida. One team arrived in Haiti yesterday, the others are expected to arrive today.

BOWMAN: Do you expect to send support - more rescue teams heading down there in the next 24 hours?

Gen. FRASER: We will support whatever the requirements are to move in there. So, again, I just don't have a - it's a fluid situation, I don't have a good specific answer for you.

BOWMAN: Whether more rescue teams are sent, Fraser says, is up to the State Department's Agency for International Development, which has taken the lead in the effort. General Fraser says the airport runway at the capital, Port au Prince, seems to be in good shape and Pentagon officials expect U.S. military cargo planes to start arriving today with humanitarian aid.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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