WASHINGTON – U.S. officials are laying out a massive military response to the Haiti earthquake, saying that ships, helicopters, transport planes and a 2,000-member Marine unit are either on the way or likely to begin moving soon.
Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. Southern Command, said Wednesday 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.
The Navy announced late Wednesday the amphibious assault ship USS Batann had been ordered to get underway as soon as possible carrying the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. The ship is one of more than a half dozen, including frigates, a destroyer and a guided missile cruiser, headed to the Caribbean nation.
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.
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.
President Barack Obama promised earlier Wednesday to mount an all-out rescue and humanitarian 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.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cut short an extended trip to the Asia-Pacific region to deal with the earthquake crisis in Haiti, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates called off a planned trip to Australia where he and Clinton were to attend an annual summit.
Clinton told reporters in Hawaii on Wednesday that she would return to Washington to help oversee U.S. relief efforts instead of continuing on to Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand as she had initially planned.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates postponed his trip so he and Clinton "can continue to work on the crisis in Haiti." Obama has directed his administration to provide all aid necessary to assist in relief efforts.
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 and 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.
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.
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.
Referring to possible use of U.S. troops to maintain order, Fraser said: "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."
"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."
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.
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.
Obama encouraged Americans who want to help to go to http://www.whitehouse.gov to find options for contributing to the aid effort.
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