Ken Keen, a three-star Army general, was in Haiti on Tuesday at the U.S. ambassador’s office shortly before nightfall when the quake began. The ambassador’s office is high above the city of Port-au-Prince. Keen heard “the screaming and yelling of the people in the valleys below.”
Now Keen is the commander of the U.S. military mission in Haiti, working alongside the Haitian government and the U.N. security mission to get humanitarian assistance to a population in dire need of it. Updating bloggers on a conference call Sunday night, Keen made it clear that one of the most difficult obstacles he has to overcome is the sorry state of Haiti’s pre-earthquake transportation infrastructure.
Take the airport. Yes, airport, singular. Haiti has a single airport, with just one runway and one taxiway. Before the quake it managed 13 flights daily. But maintaining that pace is a death sentence for Haitians in need of water, food, shelter, medical care and other necessities. So Haitian President Preval authorized the U.S. Air Force to control the so-called “slot times” for letting planes land and then depart, which the airmen set at two hours per plane. That means planes have to be back in the air after two hours’ wheels-down to unload their cargo and refuel if necessary. The pace has meant over 100 planes went through Haiti on Sunday with no delays, Keen said, the first time in six days the airport hasn’t reported a delay. But the rapid turnaround also meant a mobile hospital had to get back in the air — a major problem, and one Keen sounded frustrated about.
The quake seriously damaged Haiti’s major seaport. Keen sent divers into the port, which he called South Port, and found “we do have some separations [between] the pylons and the pier.” He estimated it would be at least the end of the week before the port could be opened, something he called “absolutely critical” to move cargo in and take pressure off the airport.
It’s a tense moment. Keen was proud of delivering 233,000 bottles of water to civilians on Sunday, but said it was “nearly not enough,” considering there are an estimated 3.5 million Haitians — nearly a quarter of the population — suffering from the quake. A more sustainable solution for hydration is on its way: 16 water purification units are being shipped to get people off of bottled water. The USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier with 19 helicopters, is just offshore, and the hospital ship Comfort will arrive later this week. In the next several weeks, Keen said his military contingent will grow to about 10,000, with half kept offshore to minimize the logistical needs — food, water, shelter — that go along with large-scale deployments.
“Everyone is doing the best they can,” Keen said. “Obviously, there is much more to do.” And only a handful of ways of getting the necessary assets into the country.