Haiti and the U.S. Coast Guard: A Sailor's View from Ground Zero

After returning from a post-earthquake and tsunami medical relief mission in American Samoa, I was stunned to learn of the extent to which Haiti was affected by its own recent disaster. 

Though there has been extensive coverage of the relief efforts on that island nation, the role of the United States Coast Guard is less well-known. The following is excerpted with permission from an e-mail sent from one of the officers aboard a USCG Cutter on scene the day of the massive earthquake.

We left for a regularly scheduled patrol to this area just before the New Year. 

We were on a port call in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) the day the earthquake struck. 

Though we were more than 100 miles from the epicenter, we felt the quake.  Many of us quickly reacted, as those kinds of vibrations on a ship usually meant that something ran into us or that a piece of engineering equipment was malfunctioning.  Badly.

Once we figured out it was an earthquake, we passed the word to the crew to anticipate a change in our mission.  We received our orders to sail and left GTMO at 2200...four hours later.

We arrived in Port au Prince Harbor around 10 am yesterday.  The destruction to the city was obvious. 

We'd spoken to a Coast Guard C-130 that was departing the harbor as we sailed into Port au Prince, so we had some idea of what to expect.  But it was still hard to believe.  We could see through binoculars hundreds of collapsed buildings, including the Haitian National Cathedral.  The harbor had a pretty heavy oil slick from a ruptured pipeline.  The air was still full of smoke and dust from fires and structural collapses. 

Right after we arrived, a Haitian Coast Guard boat hailed us.  We asked them to come aboard to give us their perspective on the damage.  They told us that many people had died even within their base of operations which was a few miles from the city's center. 

They called the city a catastrophe.  They said they were overwhelmed ashore, as many people had gone to their base to seek help.

We gave them lunch and some food to take back to their crews, and told them we'd do what we could to help.  Because our mission was to get on scene quickly and provide communications, initial damage assessments for the port, and support to helicopters (flight deck and fueling) and other aircraft, we didn't have the relief supplies so desperately needed by the Haitians. 

I wish we'd have had a flight deck full of supplies, but even that would have been a drop in the bucket compared to what was needed.

We sent out our boats to take photos of the port infrastructure to see if we could deliver supplies directly to Port au Prince. 

The commercial port was basically gone; huge cranes had fallen in the water, and most of the wharf had collapsed. 

We received permission to send an interpreter and one of our sailors ashore with the Haitian Coast Guard to assess the damage at their base.

I'm not new to the Coast Guard, so I've seen a few things.  But these pictures were horrific.  So many people were killed and injured.  Our helicopter had also taken photos while flying over the city.  Homes and buildings were down and people were crowding in open areas like soccer stadiums, plazas, and large streets to avoid teetering buildings. 

We felt aftershocks all day while at anchor in the harbor and continued to see buildings collapse even into this morning.

A sister ship arrived later in the afternoon, so we met with them to talk about our plans for the evening.  This morning, another sister ship arrived.  They had some supplies they'd been able to get from GTMO before leaving. 

We met again to assess what little maritime infrastructure exists in Haiti, especially now.  Our sister ships delivered some supplies to the Haitian Coast Guard base and helped with some first aid. 

We left Port au Prince this afternoon after surveying a smaller port area about ten miles away.  We're off to check out a few more places to see if they're viable before all of the relief ships and the hospital ship, USNS MERCY, arrive.  They'll probably do some of their own surveying and certainly will have help from other agencies on that. 

Hopefully our info can assist, too.

Being the first ship on scene earned us a lot of press.  Our Captain was interviewed by national media, including multiple networks and newspapers, and live on CNN. 

We're definitely not the only ship or asset out here, though.  I saw several other nations beginning to get support to Haiti, including a Canadian C-17 (large cargo aircraft). 

I feel like we can't do enough.  Our crew was super gung-ho, and I know many of them wanted to be on the ground helping out.  They would have suited up to dig people out of rubble and give as much aid as possible if given the chance.  But that's not our job and we're not really equipped for it.  We're glad to do everything we can.

The damage really is catastrophic.  I can't imagine what it's like to live here.  The country didn't have the basic infrastructure to begin with, much less try to help its people afterwards.

The earthquake happened right at the end of the day.  People were at work. Children were in school. 

Some of the pictures really hit home for me.  Life is so precious...and fragile.

I'm not sure what other job we'll be assigned to do here, but I know our crew will do it professionally.  I'm very proud of them.

I know a lot of this is probably old news based on what's being reported in the media, but I wanted to let you know we're safe and doing what we can to help. 

Dr. Linda Halderman is a General Surgeon and policy adviser to California State Senator Sam Aanestad.  After the September 29, 2009 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the South Pacific, she served on American Samoa providing medical relief.
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