US military winding down Haiti relief effort, transitions mission to offshore Navy ship
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 15, 2016
Note: This article has been corrected.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — After 10 days running near nonstop helicopter relief flights to the areas in Haiti hit hardest by Hurricane Matthew, the U.S. military said Saturday it is winding down its operations out of the international airport here in the capital. The mission will transition to the Iwo Jima, the Navy amphibious assault ship anchored off the coast.
“What you will see over the next, probably, three days, much of the footprint ashore will move out of here,” said Adm. Kurt Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command, who flew down from Miami on Saturday to visit the military operations organized under his command. That meant visiting the joint task force at the airport, and then flying to the Iwo Jima.
“We will move a lot of that footprint out afloat and will continue to conduct support operations,” Tidd said. “And then we will just continue to transition the mission more and more and more to civil authorities.”
The U.S. military was able to rush a joint task force to Haiti just days after the Oct. 4 hurricane tore across the western end of the peninsula that juts out from the southwest of the country. The storm killed at least 500 people, sent trees toppling, flooded roads, destroyed houses and farmland and left 1.4 million people in need of assistance.
The military effort was part of the response to a call for help from the Haitian government. Under the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the military task force was able to rush in helicopters, manpower and logistical support to the Port-au-Prince airport to quickly ferry supplies to areas that were unreachable by road.
From the beginning, it was designed as a two-week mission to fill the gap until the Haitians, assisted by USAID and the U.S. Embassy, could put their own assistance mission in place.
“This is kind of standard procedure we adopt now,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, director of the foreign disaster assistance office. He said he’s worked several disaster responses with the military in recent years: after earthquakes in the Philippines and Nepal and during the Ebola crisis in Africa. They have learned what’s needed.
“DOD doesn’t need to be here forever,” he said. “So DOD comes out on the front end, gives a real big push for a couple of weeks, gets some momentum to help get the response rolling and then the civilians step up and we’re able to send DOD home and hand it off to civilians.”
Tidd flew into the airport Saturday and met with military leadership from the myriad units working together in the Joint Task Force Matthew. He shook hands with sailors and Marines and also met with the USAID officials and Ambassador Peter Mulrean before concluding that time had come to move to the next phase of the mission.
Mulrean said he was amazed at the speed of the military to get things set up so fast. “It’s an incredible thing in any conditions, but the fact that it got set up in a week is fantastic,” he said.
He said that after the 2010 earthquake, the U.S. helped the Haitian government organize an emergency response plan. They set up shelters in communities and, ahead of Matthew, they were able to get word out to people to flee to higher ground. “Lives were saved,” he said. Still, after the devastation of Matthew, Haiti needed help, Mulrean said.
From Port-au-Prince, Tidd and Mulrean and their teams boarded a helicopter and took the 30-minute flight to the Iwo Jima.
The ship left its station in Norfolk, Va., right ahead of Matthew’s anticipated arrival up the U.S. East Coast, and was sent to Haiti once the devastation was assessed. It arrived off Haiti on Oct. 13 and has since added an additional Marine expeditionary unit from the amphibious transport dock ship, USS Mesa Verde, which arrived first and also just handed off to the Iwo Jima before heading home.
The Iwo Jima is now sitting just 12 miles offshore, in the elbow of what the military officials here call the southwest claw. Each morning, the ship’s dozen helicopters take off to Port-au-Prince to pick up relief supplies and drop them off along the claw before returning to ship.
Tidd said those operations will continue. A small contingent of Air Force air traffic controllers, who have been advising the Haitian controllers in the tower, will remain at the airport until the U.S. flights dwindle, he said.
The Iwo Jima also arrived with large landing craft utility boats that can transport thousands of pounds of equipment or supplies. They haven’t been used yet, but Tidd said he expected they would be. The boats could travel inland, collect supplies and bring them back to the ship’s helicopters for distribution.
The admiral visited the ship’s bridge, where he addressed the crew on the intercom. He told them it was their turn to take the joint task force flag from the team at Port-au-Prince and “carry it through across the finish line.”
“I can’t say how proud I am to be able to look out here on the horizon and see a U.S. warship exercising the kind of mission this kind of ship was designed to be able to support,” he said. He told them they would inherit the heavy-lift helicopter mission to the hardest hit areas.
“What you bring is the ability to move a lot of that support footprint out of Port-au-Prince airport, where it basically is clogging things up there on the runways and bring a lot of it back out here, out to an airfield that’s able to move and go to the point where the supplies are needed most,” he said. “Once the unique capabilities are no longer required, we will be able to take this whole package, wrap it up and send you back home again.”
Like the troops on the ground at the airport, who spent their days moving relief supplies – heavy lift work with little view of the crisis in the countryside or the people they were saving – the crew of the Iwo Jima could only wonder how bad things were on the ground.
Tidd reassured them that they were making a difference. Lt. Cdr. Mark Stines, the ship’s navigator, said he takes comfort in knowing he’s helping even though he can’t see it.
“Yesterday, we got to do about 6,000 pounds,” said Lt. Cdr. Mark Stines, the ship’s navigator. “It’s not a lot, but … I know for sure somebody ate dinner last night because we are here, which is pretty cool.”
Correction: In an article that appeared Oct. 17 in Stars and Stripes, the lead agency for the U.S. relief effort in Haiti was incorrectly identified. That agency is the Office of U.S Foreign Disaster Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Ruby Ward, left, from Englewood, Florida, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Samantha Quinonez, from Chicago, Illinois, watch as the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) approaches the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) on Oct 10, 2016.
JACOB GOFF/U.S. NAVY PHOTO