Since the Haiti earthquake that struck near the capital of Port-au-Prince on Tuesday, countries and individuals around the world have opened their wallets for what is going to be one of the largest relief operations in Caribbean history.
US President Barack Obama has set aside $100 million for emergency efforts and dozens of other countries and aid organizations have pitched in. Doctors are flying in from Cuba, aid workers are arriving from Brazil, and pledges of money are coming from almost every corner of the globe.
"Help is arriving. Much, much more help is on the way," President Obama said Thursday morning "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... right now in Haiti roads are impassable (and) the main port is badly damaged.
Organizing a relief effort so large – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday morning that 3 million people have been affected by the earthquake – and with so many moving parts, will not be easy. With roads clogged with debris, collapsed cranes at the capital's port, and shortages of everything from clean water to the fuel needed to deliver aid supplies to the corners of the city, aid workers say it could take until sometime next week before the aid operation lurching into existence resembles something like a well-oiled machine.
Large relief operations have many of the same needs of an army on the march, and like an army logistics often represents an Achilles heel. It's one thing to pile up food and water at dockside or at an airport, but something else entirely to get it out into the field where it's needed most.
Niurka Pineiro, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is focusing on providing temporary shelter to Haitians who've been sleeping outside since the quake, says distribution is a major hurdle the IOM and other aid groups will have to clear in the coming days.
"As you can imagine, logistics are currently a nightmare," she says. "Our chief of mission, Vincent Houver, and his staff have no reliable Internet connection, no phone connections. We're hearing that there's been a lot of damage to the port, and there are also reports of fuel shortages. That's an urgent issue. How do you get big trucks to deliver aid without fuel?"
A call for tents
Earlier on Thursday, Mr. Houver said in a press release: "What we need is tents, tents and more tents. We need large or individual tents, whatever is available, and financial support quickly."
Ms. Pineiro explains this isn't a call to fish out a musty old tent from your attic -- the logistics of coordinating individual deliveries of tents from individuals would be daunting. But she says her group will need a major cash infusion to buy tents in the coming days. She says the IOM has about 10,000 tents in Haiti left over from a previous hurricane relief operation and is trying to get them out into the field. But she says the current IOM plan is to provide shelter to 1 millions Hatians, an effort the group estimates will require about 200,000 tents.
In the near term, the US military is likely to play a crucial role in getting aid supplies rolling out from the port and airport. The US Southern Command (Southcom), which is responsible for the Caribbean, said on Thursday morning the destroyer USS Higgins, with a ship's complement of about 280 sailors and officers, is already on site, as is a Southcom emergency assessment team and Air Force Special Operations team that has cleared runways at Port-au-Princes airport and is providing air traffic control services.
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, with 19 helicopters aboard, is expected to arrive off the Haitian cost on Thursday. The USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, with 2,200 members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, is in the process of deploying. The USS Normandy and USS Underwood are already en route.
The military says the first order of business will be search and rescue operations, but is likely to be involved in helping to ensure the port is open and running as smoothly as possible to enable aid operations. Pineiro at IOM, who was in the Indonesian province of Aceh after deadly Tsunami's crashed ashore there in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, recalls that "without the US military help there, aid deliveries would have gone a lot less smoothly."
Updates throughout the day on relief efforts in Haiti can be found at the Global News Blog.