As Michelle Obama visits Haiti, US military plans June exit

First lady Michelle Obama made a surprise visit to Haiti Tuesday as the country prepares for the rainy season, which begins next month. The US military plans to leave by June 1.

Jorge Saenz/AP
Former Presidents George W. Bush (r.) and Bill Clinton (l.) greet US Army Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, who is in charge of the US military operations in Haiti, on March 22. On Tuesday, a day when first lady Michelle Obama visited Haiti, Keen said the US military would be dialing down its presence.

Michelle Obama’s visit to Haiti Tuesday comes as the US military begins to wind down its presence there, according to the military commander in charge of the military’s relief operations.

Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, commander of Joint Task Force-Haiti, said in an interview that the military was “dialing back its presence” and expects to shutter the task force he has led by June 1. The military officer gave the usual caveat, however, that the date could change should a new crisis emerge, especially with so many Haitians still homeless as the rainy season looms.

“Anything can happen between now and June,” said Keen by phone.

IN PICTURES: Michelle Obama in Haiti

The last major ground element, a battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C., will also leave in the next few weeks. That would leave about 800 military personnel on the ground, from the total of 22,000 who deployed to Haiti or off its coast earlier this year.

But for as much as has been accomplished, there is still much more to do, military commanders, nongovernmental organization officials, and other
international aid workers all agree. Mrs. Obama, who was accompanied by Jill Biden on a surprise trip to Haiti Tuesday on their way to Mexico, was reportedly struck by the “powerful” devastation of a country of more than nine million that lost 220,000 people and where more than two million people remain homeless.

Her visit comes as the US military and relief organizations prepare for what could be a difficult rainy season, which typically begins May 1.

Despite a massive engineering effort to make conditions safe for Haitians living in one of the 1,300 tent cities, there remain thousands of Haitians who still live in a flood zone, said Keen. The military estimates that between 5,000 and 36,000 people should be moved to higher ground in case the rains prove plentiful. Last year’s rainy season saw little rain, but the year before brought a lot of it, Keen said.

“We are working with OCHA [the UN] and the camp managers to ensure that as we go forward we improve the conditions of the Haitian people and mitigate their suffering.”

The US effort, led by USAID and the United Nations, will continue after Keen leaves. The focus now is on building the capacity of the Haitian government – which lost 14 of 16 ministry buildings in January – and expanding its reach to more Haitians.

Many of the Haitians living in Port-au-Prince who were left homeless by the earthquake have moved out of the capital, alleviating some of the stresses on the city. With help from the international community, the Haitian government is creating economic incentives and making other improvements to those areas in the hope that people will remain there.

IN PICTURES: Michelle Obama in Haiti

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