President Barack Obama and the U.S. moved to take charge in earthquake-ravaged Haiti on Thursday, dispatching thousands of troops along with tons of aid to try to keep order as well as rescue the suffering in a country dysfunctional in the best of times.
Tested with the first large-scale humanitarian disaster of his presidency, Obama ordered a relief effort of historic proportions despite the deep strains it was sure to put on both the U.S. budget and on military forces who are already fighting two wars. He pledged an initial $100 million — with the likelihood of more later.
"The United States is providing a lot of the glue that is keeping people communicating and working together as we try to assert authority, reinstate the government and begin to do what governments have to do to rebuild," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Fox News Channel.
Aware of the deep political cost George W. Bush paid for an ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina, the White House has labored to show Obama has been intensely engaged since immediately after the 7.0-magnitude quake late Tuesday afternoon. Details of evening Situation Room meetings, phone calls with world leaders and canceled events were being released almost hourly.
'Help is arriving'
Obama announced that "the first waves" of the American response were in place Thursday, with two search-and-rescue teams on the ground, Coast Guard cutters in port, the U.S. Southern Command in control of the airport and airlifts bringing in urgently needed supplies and ferrying out the injured.
But the chief emphasis out of Washington was the huge amount of U.S. help that was still on the way — some half-dozen ships and 5,500 troops making their way across the Caribbean.
Officials noted the difficulty of getting resources in as fast as they would like because of needed preparation time and then the barriers of damaged communications, roads, airport and port. Obama himself warned it would take hours "and in many cases days" to get the full U.S. contingent to Haiti.
"None of this will seem quick enough if you have a loved one who's trapped, if you're sleeping on the streets, if you can't feed your children," Obama said at the White House, his second appearance on the topic in as many days. "So today, you must know that help is arriving. Much, much more help is on the way."
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration halted all civilian flights to Haiti, while flights in the air before the ban spent hours circling the main airport awaiting permission to land. The Haitian government said there was no more room on ramps for planes to unload their cargo, and some planes on the ground at Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport didn't have enough fuel to leave.
The role of heading the relief effort and managing the crisis quickly fell to the United States, for lack — in the short term, at least — of any other capable entity.
The government of Haitian President Rene Preval was severely disabled, with the president's own residences damaged and the Parliament building collapsed along with other ministries and departments. In one sign of difficult conditions and dearth of official Haitian activity, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama had tried twice, unsuccessfully, to get through to Preval.
The large United Nations mission in Haiti, some 9,000-strong, was still operating, with about 3,000 peacekeepers patrolling the still-calm streets of Port-au-Prince, the country's capital, population center and heart of earthquake damage. But the U.N.'s abilities to respond aggressively to possible problems were hobbled as well. Its headquarters building was destroyed, and dozens of its personnel, including some leaders, were dead or missing — leaving it in need of rescue help itself.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told commanders via videoconference during the president's Wednesday night Situation Room meeting that the military has "no higher priority right now" than the relief efforts. Those efforts include providing security, Gibbs said.
However, there was sensitivity in Washington to any impression the U.S. was taking over Haiti, a country that has seen dramatic American interventions before, not always to good effect, and is suspicious of involvement by its much larger and wealthier northern neighbor.
So Gibbs, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley and others emphasized that the U.S. was responding only as requested by the Haitian government, with the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, in regular contact with Preval.
A senior administration official said Obama had directed U.S. officials to "work with and through" the Haitian government "to the greatest extent possible." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss private meetings.
"We have no intention of supplanting the leadership of Haiti," said Cheryl Mills, Clinton's chief of staff who is coordinating the efforts at the State Department.
One factor in the delicate U.S. approach is a desire to not undermine Preval and recent efforts to bring more stable governance to Haiti after decades of dictatorship and disaster have left it the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.
Still, officials from Obama on down promised the U.S. would be around to help long-term. Looking toward the long road of recovery and rebuilding, Obama tapped his two immediate predecessors, Bush and Bill Clinton, to help — following Bush's model of enlisting Clinton and his own father, George H.W. Bush, to shepherd the U.S. response after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Officials said that a primary goal now — beyond immediate relief — is to restore the U.N. peacekeeping command to full strength in Haiti. For though Obama wants to effectively handle the crisis, there is no upside to what could become, in effect, protracted U.S. control of the impoverished country.
Crowley confirmed the death of one American, career diplomat Victoria DeLong, a cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy who was killed when her home collapsed. He said three other Americans were known to be missing and the embassy had made contact with nearly 1,000 U.S. citizens in Haiti, a fraction of the estimated 45,000 there.
By next Monday, as many as 5,500 U.S. infantry soldiers and Marines will be on the ground or on ships offshore, said Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman. Those include the first soldiers, from the 82nd Airborne Division, some of whom were due to arrive Thursday, and about 2,200 Marines.
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was expected Friday, and a hospital ship with 12 operating rooms, the USNS Comfort, was to get to Haiti by a week later.
Obama also asked individual Americans to donate to relief agencies. And first lady Michelle Obama was taping a public service announcement on behalf of the Red Cross.