Why is it taking so long for Pentagon aid to reach Haiti?

Pentagon officials say they're moving as fast as they can, but logistical challenges mean it will be a week before a US Navy hospital ship arrives to help Haiti earthquake victims.

By , Staff writer

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    U.S. military personnel prepare goods for Southern Command support personnel in Haiti at the Homestead Air Reserve Base in Homestead, Fla.
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The Pentagon is mobilizing a massive relief effort to help Haiti earthquake victims, but there are worries that the response will still take days to be in place.

The military’s efforts are at the front end of what President Obama said Thursday would be a $100 million US commitment to Haitian relief.

But it is taking time to get there. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was expected to arrive Thursday afternoon but now will not be there until Friday. The USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, hasn’t left the port of Baltimore yet because it still needs to collect supplies and personnel.

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While the assessment teams are still conducting their review of the need in Haiti, mostly in Port-au-Prince, near the epicenter of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake, there is a clear need for medical assistance.

The aircraft carrier arriving Friday has three operating rooms, several dozen hospital beds and can produce fresh water. The Bataan amphibious ship also possesses some medical assets and is being outfitted with more. But it is the Comfort hospital ship, with its 250 hospital beds and 12 operating rooms, that would appear to meet the most pressing need in Haiti.

A week for hospital ship to get there

Pentagon officials say that ship, one of the Navy’s two hospital ships, won’t leave Baltimore until this weekend and not arrive until sometime at the end of next week.

“It’s a slow moving vessel, it’s an older vessel, so it will take about a week to get down there once it gets all crewed up,” said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.

Ground troops are also being sent, including a brigade of about 3,500 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C., and about 2,000 marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in Camp Lejeune, N.C. The mission of the ground forces remains unclear, as the relief effort unfolds and government officials wait to see if any civil unrest would require an American ground presence.

Pentagon officials say the Army unit will arrive in Haiti by the end of the week. The marines, who will arrive on the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group ships, will wait offshore and only go into Haiti depending on what occurs.

Obama: US moving 'as quickly as possible'

“Even as we move as quickly as possible, it will take hours, and in many cases days, to get all of our people and resources on the ground,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference at the White House Thursday, his second meeting with the press about Haiti.

Roads remain impassable, the main port is “badly damaged,” and poor communications pose major challenges, he said.

“None of this will seem quick enough if you have a loved one who’s trapped, if you’re sleeping on the streets, if you can’t feed your children,” Obama said. “But it’s important that everybody in Haiti understand, at this very moment, one of the largest relief efforts in our recent history is moving towards Haiti.”

The US will likely be the largest contributor to relief, and military officials say it takes time to assess the need and move in those supplies and assets that are most needed. But the enormity of the effort lends itself to feeding a perception that the military bureaucracy gets in the way.

Frustration at logistical challenge

Pentagon officials themselves seemed to express frustration at the logistical challenge they were confronting. Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of US Southern Command, briefing reporters Wednesday, said the initial assessment team would “finally” arrive later that afternoon.

Fraser, who is new at Southern Command but now finds himself at the forefront of the military’s relief effort, is expected to update reporters on the situation in Haiti later Thursday.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials disagree with any contention that the US military is moving too slowly.

“I just don’t subscribe to that premise,” said Mr. Whitman. “I think the US military has been very forward leaning on this and in terms of moving assets and anticipating requirements.”

Other officials point out that it took the hospital ship Comfort five days to mobilize and get underway after Hurricane Katrina. For the Haiti earthquake, they say, it's taking just half that long.

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