President Obama ordered thousands of U.S. troops Thursday to spearhead earthquake rescue operations and stabilize Haiti, and pledged $100 million in quick aid, taking pains not to appear as if the United States is taking over the devastated country.
With Haiti’s already weak government unable to function normally because of massive destruction and communications severely damaged by Tuesday’s quake, however, it fell on U.S. service members and civilians to provide the first response.
“This is one of those moments that calls out for American leadership,” Mr. Obama said. “To the people of Haiti, we say clearly and with conviction, you will not be forsaken. You will not be forgotten. In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who canceled a planned trip to the South Pacific to deal with the response to the 7.0 magnitude earthquake, called Washington’s effort “a full-court press” to provide security, search and rescue, and to deliver humanitarian supplies.
“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 and reconstruct this damaged country,” she said on Fox News, in one of five morning TV interviews.
Mr. Obama also asked former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to help, and “both of them have agreed to take part in this,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. Mr. Bush made similar requests to his father, George H.W. Bush, and Mr. Clinton after the 2004 tsunami in Asia.
The first U.S. Army infantry troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., arrived in Haiti late Thursday. About 100 of them were to set up tents and make other preparations for the arrival of about 800 personnel from the same division on Friday and a full brigade of 3,500 by Sunday, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
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In addition, about 2,200 Marines were expected to arrive by Monday. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was to arrive Friday, and a hospital ship with 12 operating rooms, the USNS Comfort, is expected by Thursday next week.
A port, the airport and roads in the capital, Port-au-Prince, were badly damaged by the earthquake, and Mr. Obama said it may take some time before all the aid reaches everyone who needs it.
“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,” he said. “So today, you must know that help is arriving. Much, much more help is on the way.”
Even though Americans took over air traffic control responsibilities, administration officials said the president instructed them to work closely with the Haitian government to avoid accusations that the United States is running the country.
“We are not taking over Haiti,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. “We are helping to stabilize Haiti. We are helping to provide them lifesaving support and materiel, and we are going to be there over the long term to help Haiti rebuild.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) put a ground stop on all civilian flights to Haiti on Thursday, after almost a dozen planes spent hours circling while awaiting permission to land at an already crowded airport that lacked sufficient supplies for refueling. The control tower was destroyed in Tuesday’s earthquake.
Several aid flights were diverted to the Dominican Republic and later sent back to the United States, according to the FAA Web site.
The State Department said its SMS campaign - which allows people to make donations by texting 90999 on their cell phones - had raised $5.9 million by 7 p.m. Thursday. The international aid pledged by late Thursday totaled about $300 million, including Washington’s $100 million. Other large contributions were offered by Canada, Britain, Norway, Japan and Spain, among others.
Mr. Crowley said that about 260 rescuers in eight teams - mostly Americans, along with several helpers from Spain, Chile and Iceland - searched for survivors Thursday. Aid from about 30 other countries arrived in Haiti, but its distribution was “a challenge to coordinate,” he added.
He also said the U.S. Embassy had contacted about 1,000 of the 45,000 Americans estimated to live there. One embassy employee, cultural affairs officer Victoria DeLong, was crushed to death in her home Tuesday, Mr. Crowley said. She had worked for the State Department since 1983.
The United Nations headquarters in New York said 36 U.N. personnel were confirmed dead and nearly 200 remained missing.
“We’ve been mounting a swift and aggressive response,” said Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, whom Mr. Obama tapped to coordinate Washington’s aid efforts.
“Many of the urban search-and-rescue teams come with their own capabilities to get around and to be self-sustaining, and so that’s important in this first 72-hour period, because you obviously want them deployed as quickly as possible,” he said.
The Haitian Red Cross said it thought 45,000 to 50,000 people had died and 3 million more - a third of Haiti’s population - were hurt or left homeless. On Wednesday, the government estimated the fatalities at more than 100,000.
“We have already buried 7,000 in a mass grave,” Haitian President Rene Preval said.
Many people were still trapped alive in the rubble after two days, and about 1,500 corpses were piled up outside the main hospital and bodies littered many streets, Reuters news agency reported.
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