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ARLINGTON, Va. — One day after a massive earthquake left behind total carnage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the Pentagon by design was still mostly in “assessment” mode, according to the commanding general of the U.S. military’s disaster response.

At 4:53 p.m. on Tuesday, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook the densely populated capital city of one of the world’s most impoverished countries.

At two midday briefings in Washington on Wednesday, U.S. Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, which is leading the military effort, said several responses were under way. However, he said that “very difficult” communications throughout the night delayed SOUTHCOM’s understanding of the extent of damage and made it difficult to discern what military capabilities were needed.

On Wednesday afternoon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates held a video conference with SOUTHCOM leaders where the secretary told Fraser he would deliver “whatever he needs, as far as he can,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

Morrell said that Gates instructed the commander to consider the disaster response “a very high priority for the president and this department.” SOUTHCOM’s deputy commander, Lt. Gen. P.K. “Ken” Keen, was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake and will remain there, Morrell said.

The secretary is satisfied with the department’s response so far, he added.

“We are in the action phase,” Morrell said. “We are moving assets into or toward Haiti as we speak.”

Additionally, Morrell said the joint staff is working on “manning requests,” but did not think Gates had signed deployment orders.

A U.S. military team of 30 people has been deployed to Port-au-Prince to assess the situation on the ground and facilitate the flow of military support.

At first light on Wednesday, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter evacuated four critically injured U.S. Embassy staff members to the Naval Station Guantanamo, Cuba, hospital for treatment, according to a SOUTHCOM statement, adding that a P-3 Orion aircraft had flown reconnaissance flights over Haiti.

Also Wednesday morning, Keen reported the airport runway was safe but the communications tower was inoperable and the passenger terminal needed to be inspected for structural damage.

Elements of the U.S. Air Force 1st Special Operations Wing were expected to arrive at the airport Wednesday to provide air traffic control capability and airfield operations, according to the SOUTHCOM statement.

Fraser said the military was planning other measures, including sending the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, but in most cases aid had not arrived. The Vinson is expected to reach Haiti on Thursday afternoon with significant helicopter capabilities.

Fraser, in Washington for a conference of U.S. combatant commanders, met Wednesday morning with disaster response coordinators at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Additionally, Fraser said the department was considering sending a “large deck” Marine expeditionary force, with up to 2,000 Marines, to complement the peacekeeping operations already there, and various forces have been put on alert. Fraser said the military would operate largely in support of USAID efforts.

The first Disaster Assistance Response Team from USAID was expected to arrive in Haiti from San Jose, Costa Rica, early Wednesday afternoon. Two U.S. teams of 72 urban disaster responders also were ready to go, with previously readied visas and training, a USAID spokesman said. A USAID search-and-rescue team from Fairfax County, Va., was expected to arrive late in the afternoon.

Late Wednesday, Gates canceled plans to fly to Australia on Friday. In a statement e-mailed to reporters, Morrell said Gates "has decided not to travel to Australia this weekend and will instead remain in Washington to continue to manage the department's response to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti. However, he is still very much committed to participating in the annual Australia-US Ministerial at a later date and will work with Secretary Clinton and their Australian counterparts to reschedule AUSMIN as soon as possible."

The amphibious assault ship USS Bataan with Marines from Camp Lejeune-based 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit have been ordered to get underway as soon as possible, U.S. Southern Command said Wednesday night. Fleet Forces Command said earlier Wednesday that the Bataan and other ships are on standby in case they are needed in Haiti, but none had been ordered there yet.

Stripes reporter Jeffrey Schogol contributed to this story.

Updated 01-13-10, 8:20 p.m. EDT

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