Image: California rescue teams
David Mcnew  /  Getty Images
The Los Angeles County Fire Department's Gary Durian and rescue dog Baxter wait as other team members load supplies in Pacoima, Calif., to be flown to Haiti. The 72-member team is taking 55,000 pounds of search-and-rescue tools and medical equipment.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/13/2010 8:25:17 PM ET 2010-01-14T01:25:17

As the U.S. advanced its massive military response to aid survivors of Haiti’s earthquake, devastation greeted the first Coast Guard cutter crew to pull into Port-au-Prince on Wednesday.

There were collapsed piers, toppled cranes and submerged shipping containers, Cmdr. Diane Durham, commander of the cutter Forward, told NBC News. Flames flickered in the distance on land.

“Catastrophic destruction,” she said when asked to describe the landscape.

Grim scenes didn't end there.

A helicopter sliced overhead. Inside the aircraft, critically injured personnel from the U.S. embassy were being rushed to Guantanamo for medical care, she told NBC News.

“It is hard to look out in this harbor and see a building that has not been affected,” she told The New York Times, “from the waterfront up the hills to the larger buildings.”

“Everybody in this city has been hit,” she added.

As the cutter crew was brief by their Haitian counterparts, the difficulty of the mission became clearer. An estimated 2,000 survivors had turned out for medical help at the Haitian Coast Guard facility.

Armada deployed to help
Officials said Navy ships, helicopters, transport planes and a 2,000-member Marine unit were either on the way to the impoverished nation or likely to begin moving soon.

Video: State Dept. plan Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. Southern Command, said that one of the U.S. Navy's large amphibious ships will likely head to Haiti with a Marine expeditionary unit aboard. Fraser said other U.S. military forces are on alert, including a brigade, which includes about 3,500 troops.

Fraser said during a news conference with other U.S. officials that the Pentagon is "seriously looking at" sending thousands of Marines to assist with disaster relief efforts and security in Haiti.

President Barack Obama pledged earlier Wednesday "a swift, coordinated and aggressive"  effort to help the people of Haiti overcome a "cruel and incomprehensible" tragedy."

The president said the relief effort is gearing up even as the U.S. government is working to account for Americans who were on the island nation when the disaster struck late Tuesday afternoon.

Dispatching troops
The initial contingent of 2,000 Marines could be deployed to the quake-ravaged country within the next few days to either help with emergency aid distribution or enforce law in order in conjunction with U.N. peacekeepers already there, Fraser said.

The general said that a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, is also heading from Norfolk, Va., to the area and should arrive Thursday afternoon after a stop off Naval Station Mayport in Florida to pick up helicopters, crews and supplies.

The USS Bataan, carrying Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, USS Fort McHenry and USS Carter Hall were ordered to get under way as soon as possible, and more vessels were ordered to stand ready to assist.

The USS Higgins from Naval Station San Diego was scheduled to arrive off the coast of Haiti on Thursday to provide logistical services for Coast Guard helicopters.

The dispatched troops would aim to keep the peace in the event of post-disaster unrest as part of a larger international effort overseen by the United Nations, whose peacekeeping operation headquarters was destroyed in the quake. About 100 U.N. personnel are believed to be trapped in the ruins of he building.

"It's going to be our assessments that are going to determine, in conjunction with (the U.N. mission) and the other international partners who are there, how best to deal with any security situations that come up," Fraser said.

Video: 'Unwavering support' vowed "We don't know precisely what the situation is on the ground," he added. "So we're leaning forward to provide as much as capability as quickly as we can to respond to whatever the need is when we get there."

More immediately, Fraser's Miami-based Southern Command is also dispatching a team of 30 people to Haiti to support relief efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake and make way for additional military aid.

Officials said two C-130 aircraft were departing Wednesday for Haiti with the team of military engineers, operational planners, communications specialists and a command and control group. The Air Force is sending people to provide air traffic control and operations at the Port-au-Prince airport.

Evacuations, deployments
Coast Guard helicopters early Wednesday evacuated four injured U.S. Embassy personnel to a hospital at the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Southcom did not release their names.

Fraser said the military is also sending units to get Port-au-Prince's airport secured and operating again. The airport is considered "operational," he said, but the facility's tower and other operations were damaged.

Fraser appeared with U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Rajiv Shah, the official named by Obama to coordinate American efforts in Haiti.

The president called upon all nations to join in helping stricken Haitians.

Obama spoke Wednesday in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room. Later, spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters the president had no plans to go to Haiti.

Video: Aid worker in Haiti: ‘Whole world came undone’ The president, who has been involved in ensuring a quick response since Tuesday night, said in a statement from the White House Diplomatic Reception Room that one of the government's top priorities is to quickly locate U.S. embassy employees and their families, as well as all other American citizens living and working in Haiti. He urged Americans trying to locate family members to contact the State Department at 1-888-407-4747.

Obama sought to show a swift and united disaster response with the United States as an assertive leader, but he said the effort must be an international one. "We are reminded of the common humanity that we all share," he said, with Vice President Joe Biden at his side.

The president outlined a series of steps to help the Haitian people and said the U.S. commitment to its hemispheric neighbor will be unwavering.

"We have to be there for them in their hour of need," the president said.

Obama adjusted his Wednesday schedule, canceling a jobs event in Maryland to better monitor the situation in Haiti.

NBC News, The Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this report.

Video: U.S. leads Haiti relief efforts

  1. Closed captioning of: U.S. leads Haiti relief efforts

    >> throughout the broadcast, brian. it is the united states tonight taking the lead getting help to haiti . nbc chief foreign affairs correspondent andrea mitchell with that part of the story from washington. andrea, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening. the u.s. relief effort is so critical to haiti 's survival, secretary of state hillary clinton in hawaii tonight canceled the rest of her trip to australia and new zealand and is returning home to help oversee the response. the situation is so dire, only the u.s. military and aid agencies are up to the challenge. the president ordered a massive relief effort.

    >> with just a few hundred miles of ocean between us , and a long history that binds us together, haitians are our neighbors in the americas and here at home. we have to be there for them in their hour of need.

    >> reporter: search and rescue teams from virginia and california packed and took off as soon as haiti 's runway reopened. cargo planes rushed in with military teams to assess the damage. "uss vincent" is to arrive tomorrow. an army brigade from the 87ened airborne will begin arriving in days. private agencies are a lifeline, but many aren't sure their building survived.

    >> as of right now, we don't know if that center is still standing .

    >> reporter: haiti only has just begun to climb back from three devastating hurricanes two years ago. haiti is about 600 miles from florida. it is crushingly poor. has almost 9 million people. 2 million of them crowded into the quake zone, the capital of port-au-prince. then president bill clinton sent u.s. troops followed up by peace keepers to quell a violent uprising in 2004 . there has been relative peace under president preval.

    >> i have no doubt haitian people have the spirit to survive. we can't bring them back to that level they have known of so many years of just bare subsistens without an economy structuring.

    >> reporter: new york police commissioner trained them years ago. kelly today.

    >> the pre-existing conditions in haiti were so bad to begin with, then you superimpose something of this catastrophic nature and it is going to be a long-term heavy lift for u.s. government , among others.

    >> reporter: no one doubts americans are generous, but with two wars and an economic crisis at home, there will be a question of resources, but not tonight. u.s. government is not hesitating to respond to the overwhelming human disaster in our own backyard.

    >> andrea mitchell tonight, thank you.

    >>> as we noted a moment

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