US Military Relief in Haiti is Part Logistics, Part Negotiation

U.S. Marines and sailors load relief supplies onto helicopters at Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Oct. 13. (Adwin Esters/US Marine Corps)
U.S. Marines and sailors load relief supplies onto helicopters at Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Oct. 13. (Adwin Esters/US Marine Corps)

ANSE-D'HAINAULT, Haiti -- From above, it looks like winter, though it is 85 degrees. Trees are sticks with bare branches, the earth patchy and pale.

Soon the barren landscape gives way to a more devastating story of the destruction of Hurricane Matthew, which swept through Haiti's southwest peninsula Oct. 4. Beneath the rudders of the U.S. Army Chinook helicopter, villages in the west look like garbage dumps, and houses sit naked with gaping holes where their corrugated tin roofs used to be.

On the ground, overwhelmed villagers in Anse-D'Hainault gather on a ridge as the second of two Chinooks lands on a muddy patch of grass. At one corner, three men stop work they are doing to rebuild a house that's been reduced to an empty shell.

"Everything, everything," said one of the men, pointing to piles of muddy, ruined clothing strewn over the hillside. It's all lost.

It's been almost two weeks since Hurricane Matthew tore through here, leaving at least 546 dead, more than 175,000 displaced and 1.4 million people in need of assistance. Most of the crops are gone; livestock was decimated.

The hardest hit villages were at the western tip of the peninsula, known as the Grand-Anse and the Sud regions, where 90 percent of homes were destroyed, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

U.S. sailors and Marines get right to work, unloading giant jugs of water and boxes containing bags of saline. As the disaster moves through its second week, villages blocked by floods and downed trees are becoming more reachable by road, so they are getting much-needed food. But cholera, best treated with saline IVs, is becoming the new urgent crisis, officials say.

U.S. servicemembers operating under Joint Task Force Matthew have been offloading supplies from aircraft and trucks at a hub near the flight line of Haiti's international airport in Port-au-Prince, then loading them onto U.S. military helicopters - Army Chinooks and Marine Corps Black Hawks and Ospreys -- that deliver to the hardest-hit areas.

It's back-breaking work - slinging bags of rice and peas in 90-degree heat -- with more than 400 servicemembers helping to distribute nearly 1.1 million pounds of supplies from the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID.

For Air Force Petty Officer 1st Class James Raynor, getting out into the field to help deliver Friday's aid to Anse-D'Hainault was like watching the fruits of his labor. Raynor said he had spent the last eight days in Port-au-Prince unloading and loading supplies. Friday was his first trip to the stricken areas.

"It was great to finally be on the ground and actually see ... the people who need it most," he said. "I just pray to God they actually get it."

Raynor said he was worried that aid would end up in the wrong hands -- there have been reports of security incidents involving theft, according to the World Food Programme -- but he hoped the military was doing enough work to reach the neediest. "Out there on the coast, these people are hurting," he said.

As of Oct. 13, Joint Task Force Matthew helicopters have delivered more than 348,000 pounds of aid and supplies to the worst hit areas, according to task force figures. USAID is also working with the United Nations and non-governmental agencies to supply assistance at the request of the Haitian government.

On Oct. 10, the Air Force expeditionary unit, 621st Contingency Response Wing out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., arrived in Haiti and set up operations at the Port-au-Prince airport. About 110 airmen are working with soldiers from the 689th Rapid Port Opening Element out of Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and others.

They've been sleeping in tents near the flight line, living on Meals, Ready to Eat and spending their days loading supplies onto Marine and Army aircraft or working with the Haitians.

For Capt. Andrew Schnell, an air traffic controller, that meant negotiating a U.S. presence in the air tower, where operations have increased more than 300 percent, he said. It was tricky at the start, he said, but now the American and Haitian air traffic controllers stand side by side in the tower and are working well together.

"They want to maintain control," he said, "to show the world they can maintain operations."

Col. Leslie Maher, commander of the 621st and the Haiti port openings joint task force, said the operations here were the culmination of countless hours of training. Usually, her airmen would come in and take over in a situation like this, she said, so it took a lot of negotiating with the Haitian air traffic control.

Her Marines also usually work with C-17s and C-130s, large transport aircraft, so working with helicopters is new for them, she said.

The controllers are also coordinating the arrival of aircraft from other countries and helicopters off the USS Iwo Jima, one of two U.S. Navy ships here to assist.

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