U.S. Forces Wind Down Haiti Relief Efforts

Navy Lt. j.g. Jamie McFarland laughs with volunteer Allen Wilner Herard i i

Navy Lt. j.g. Jamie McFarland laughs with volunteer Allen Wilner Herard at Haiti's only golf course, which was turned into a camp for Haitians displaced by the Jan. 12 earthquake. McFarland and her team set up trenches and canals to direct storm runoff out of the camp. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Navy Lt. j.g. Jamie McFarland laughs with volunteer Allen Wilner Herard

Navy Lt. j.g. Jamie McFarland laughs with volunteer Allen Wilner Herard at Haiti's only golf course, which was turned into a camp for Haitians displaced by the Jan. 12 earthquake. McFarland and her team set up trenches and canals to direct storm runoff out of the camp.

David Gilkey/NPR

The U.S. military is wrapping up earthquake relief operations in Haiti. The force, which peaked at roughly 22,000 troops in the weeks after the Jan. 12 quake, now numbers fewer than 900, and most of the troops will be out of the country by the end of the month.

Navy Lt. j.g. Jamie McFarland was the camp engineer at the golf course in Port-au-Prince where tens of thousands of displaced people set up shacks following the disaster. Children and adult residents of the camp mob her as she shows off the system of trenches, sandbag berms and drainage canals her team designed to direct storm runoff out of the camp.

"We call this the stairway to heaven," she says. "It's a really nice staircase with a trench down the middle of it. And all of these sandbags were filled with the dirt that was dug up to make it easier to navigate and also to allow the storm water some place to go."

While U.S. troops designed and oversaw the construction, Catholic Relief Services hired residents from the camp to do the digging and other hard labor.

McFarland is now a minor celebrity in the camp. "They're used to me," she says. "They see me every day."

Allen Wilner Herard, who lives in the camp and worked with U.S. forces on some of the trenches, says all the other American soldiers seem to be gone. "I don't see Hollywood. I don't see Petty. I don't see none of the guys," he says.

Herard says the drainage system has been a lifesaver at the golf course. "When we first came here, every time it rains it's like a pigpen."

But, he says, McFarland's crew tackled this problem. "They made canals, bridges, stuff to keep the water from getting to the people. It's wonderful, beautiful work. And everybody loved them."

A Period Of Transition

The drainage work at the golf course camp was just one part of the military's relief effort in Haiti. In the chaotic days after the 7.0 temblor flattened much of the capital, killing more than 200,000 people, the Army's 82nd Airborne Division was one of the first groups to set up mass food distribution.

The U.S. Air Force took over the crippled Port-au-Prince airport and reopened Haitian airspace. (It was criticized by some aid agencies for favoring U.S. flights, a charge officials deny.) Navy and Army divers shored up piers at the port so relief shipments could come in by sea, and the Navy brought a hospital ship into the harbor.

U.S. Army Major Gen. Simeon Trombitas, who is in charge of U.S. forces in Haiti i i

Army Major Gen. Simeon Trombitas, who is in charge of U.S. forces in Haiti, sits at his headquarters near the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. He says the military helped with the "heavy lifting" following the earthquake but relief agencies are ready to take over. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
U.S. Army Major Gen. Simeon Trombitas, who is in charge of U.S. forces in Haiti

Army Major Gen. Simeon Trombitas, who is in charge of U.S. forces in Haiti, sits at his headquarters near the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. He says the military helped with the "heavy lifting" following the earthquake but relief agencies are ready to take over.

David Gilkey/NPR

In a matter of months, the Department of Defense spent almost $500 million on its operation in Haiti.

Major Gen. Simeon G. Trombitas, commander of U.S. forces in Haiti, says the American military's logistical expertise helped with the "heavy lifting" in the weeks after the quake.

"We're transitioning right now," he says. "We have done those things that immediately save lives and alleviate human suffering."

In an air-conditioned Army tent erected next to the U.S. Embassy, Trombitas says other relief agencies have now taken over and are better equipped to deal with this phase of the recovery.

"We're moving on to the next phase," he says, "to a more traditional engagement that we have in this country and countries throughout Latin America."

When President Obama dispatched American troops to Haiti immediately after the quake, there was concern particularly from some on the political left that this might lead to another complicated episode of Washington meddling with Haitian sovereignty. The U.S. occupied Haiti for two decades in the early part of the 20th century. American troops again intervened in the country in 1994 and 2004.

But starting June 1, the main American force in Haiti will be just 500 members of the National Guard, and they'll be deployed 100 miles from the quake epicenter in the northern city of Gonaives.

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