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Pentagon defends response time of Haiti aid efforts

Military jets have begun delivering relief supplies as part of Haiti aid efforts in the wake of the earthquake, but it will take another week for a US Navy hospital ship to reach there. Parachute drops have been ruled out for now, for fear of riots.

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“These situations are always complex,” says Mark Ghilarducci, a vice president at James Lee Witt Associates, founded by a former director of the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) under President Clinton in the 1990s. The firm may do work for the US government in Haiti.

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“You need to know what are the best resources to apply because you know you’re going into one of the most chaotic situations there,” says Mr. Ghilarducci

Ghilarducci says the US military’s response has been reasonably good, but he recognizes that fast is never fast enough in the face of such devastation.

Medical personnel and supplies are on the Carl Vinson and other ships expected to arrive in Haiti Friday and over the weekend. The Navy has two hospital ships which would seem ideal for the mounting number of casualties – expected to be in the tens of thousands.

US Navy hospital ship will take a week

But the USNS Comfort hospital ship won’t arrive until late next week. The Comfort, which has 250 hospital beds and 12 operating rooms, is an older ship which typically sits in “mothball” status in the Port of Baltimore. The ship has been manned and will soon begin steaming to Haiti, but it won’t get there until long after the “golden hour” of relief is needed.

Some of these challenges are unavoidable.

“In all these things we’ll learn lessons, and some of that is readiness clearly tied to something like this,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who flanked Gates at Friday’s press briefing. “But certainly after this point, I’m comfortable that we’ve got that cycle about right.”

Gates pointed to the infrastructure in Haiti – already in poor shape – that has been largely decimated by the quake. This includes port facilities and the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, which is serving as the primary entry point for relief supplies and personnel. Parachute drops, which would seem to provide quake victims with the most immediate relief, have been ruled out for now out of fear that they could cause rioting.

“Without any structure for distribution or to provide security when things become available, then it seems to me that’s a formula for contributing to chaos rather than preventing it,” Gates said.

The US is sending a total of about 9,000 personnel to Haiti, but the bulk of those troops, including about 2,200 marines, will stay aboard ships until needed. A brigade of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C., will be on the ground by the end of the weekend, defense officials say.

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