Haiti earthquake: despite fears of rioting, US starts airdrops

The US military has held off on doing airdrops of food and water to victims of the Haiti earthquake, fearing they could set off riots. But it now has troops in place to secure airdrop zones.

By , Staff writer

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    A US helicopter makes a water drop near a country club used as a forward operating base for the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday.
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The American military has begun to do its first airdrops over Haiti but is proceeding cautiously despite an enduring need for humanitarian relief.

An Air Force C-17 dropped more than 3,700 gallons of water and 14,000 packaged meals after US military personnel secured an area in a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince Monday.

Pentagon officials were at first reluctant to mount such operations out of fear that it could cause rioting. But backups at the sole airport forced the military to rethink its position, and Monday’s operation appeared to go smoothly, according to Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, deputy commander of the task force overseeing relief operations in Haiti.

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The military plans to do more airdrops within the next day or so, but nothing specific has been scheduled due to the availability of forces to secure the area prior to the airdrop.

“The commander’s assessment of the needs on the ground and where his forces need to be are a component of determining where subsequent deliveries will happen,” Allyn said during a video teleconference briefing at the Pentagon.

Getting into gear

The American government was faulted for its early response to the earthquake, which has killed tens of thousands of people and devastated the area in and around the capital. Russel Honore, the retired Army three-star general who oversaw relief efforts after hurricane Katrina, criticized the government last week for not moving faster.

But the American response is now taking form.

• Tuesday, about 800 Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, Camp Lejeune, N.C., will arrive in an area west of the capital to support humanitarian relief efforts.

• Elements of the 82nd Airborne Division continue to arrive to perform a similar mission inside Port-au-Prince.

• The USNS Comfort, a 250-bed hospital ship that had been docked in Baltimore, is expected to arrive Wednesday.

Security a concern

Security on the ground is serious issue, and the American military is wary: while it wants to ensure that relief supplies get to the Haitians who need it the most, it does not want to get mired in a security and stabilization mission it can ill afford to sustain.

Allyn said that there are “pockets” of instability that have so far been quelled by the United Nations security force in charge there, along with a force of about 2,000 Haitian police.

“Obviously we are watching for signs of instability,” he said. “Some of the activity is criminal in nature,” he said, noting that Haitian prisons were ruined during the quake and there prisoners are now among the population. “We are working with the government of Haiti to ensure that we retain order and that we don’t allow security to degrade and affect our ability to get emergency relief to the people of Haiti.”

For now, the mission of military personnel is to administer humanitarian assistance, and not officially a security mission, Pentagon officials said.

Airport is sole major entry point

The airport, still the only major entry point into Haiti, had been blamed for what had been characterized as a slow response after the initial earthquake, a 7.0 magnitude tremblor, seven days ago. But the small facility, now under US control by agreement with Haiti, is running at a tight clip, with 120 flights in and out each day, military officials say.

The airport remains a hindrance because it is currently the only airstrip available to the US and international relief community, and there is limited “ramp space” on which to park airplanes. But it is working far faster now, say Pentagon officials.

“There is no logjam at the airport,” said Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.

Allyn said the US is looking at two other airstrips that could be used to alleviate pressure at the airport in the capital.

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