President Barack Obama dispatched thousands of troops to help stabilize Haiti Thursday and promised $100 million or more in quick earthquake aid, putting the U.S. firmly at the head of a relief effort of historic proportions.
U.S. forces secured the airport in the capital and began an airlift of urgently needed medicine, water and other essentials.
As many as 5,500 U.S. infantry soldiers and Marines will be on the ground or on ships offshore by Monday, a Defense Department official said. More than a half dozen ships were heading there Thursday or preparing to get under way, said spokesman Bryan Whitman. They included the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, to arrive Friday, and a hospital ship with 12 operating rooms, the USNS Comfort, expected by Jan. 22.
Obama said the $100 million the government is initialing directing toward the relief effort would certainly grow over the year as the recovery turns from emergency to rebuilding the already deeply impoverished nation.
"This is one of those moments that calls out for American leadership," he said.
Meanwhile, an administration official said Obama is tapping former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to assist. It was Bush who did the same with his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Clinton, after the 2004 tsunami.
Their roles will be defined in the coming days, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because a formal announcement had not been made. An official close to Bush confirmed that he was joining Clinton to help.
At the State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed the death of one American citizen he did not immediately name, with three others known to be missing after Tuesday's 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Crowley said the U.S. embassy has made contact with nearly 1,000 American citizens in Haiti, a fraction of the estimated 45,000 Americans there.
Amid continuing efforts to assess the disaster's cost, the first U.S. Army infantry troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in North Carolina were expected to arrive later Thursday. About 100 troops will find locations to set up tents and make other preparations for the arrival of roughly 800 personnel from the division on Friday and a full brigade of some 3,500 by the end of the weekend, Whitman said.
They come on top of some 2,200 Marines, also to arrive by Sunday or Monday.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called it "a full court press" to provide security, search and rescue and delivery of humanitarian supplies.
Aware of the political cost George W. Bush paid for a slow government response to Hurricane Katrina, administration officials took pains to emphasize that a huge amount of assets is in motion toward Haiti, but it's hard to deploy as quickly as desired because of needed preparation time and the barriers of badly damaged roads, airport, port and communications. Obama himself warned preemptively it would take hours "and in many cases days" to get the full U.S. contingent on the ground.
"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. "So today, you must know that help is arriving. Much, much more help is on the way."
As a start, the president said the U.S. military has secured the severely damaged airport in Port-au-Prince, so that it can receive round-the-clock deliveries of heavy equipment and emergency supplies from the United States and countries around the world.
A second 72-member Urban Search and Rescue team also hit the ground early Thursday, arriving from Los Angeles.
For Washington, managing its role in the crisis required a rush mentality coupled with consideration of the sensitive topic of whether it must in effect take over Haiti's now almost-nonexistent governmental structure.
"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," Clinton said in an interview on Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends."
Yet Crowley, her spokesman, stressed that while U.S. troops sent to Haiti will be under U.S. command, they're there primarily to support and rebuild the United Nations' 9,000-member peacekeeping mission and to do what it is asked by the Haitians.
"We're not taking over Haiti," he said. "We are helping to stabilize Haiti, we're helping to provide them lifesaving support and materiel and we're going to be there over the long term to help Haiti rebuild."
Crowley said U.S. officials are maintaining constant contact with the Haitian government and following its priorities.
A senior administration official said Obama explicitly directed the civilian and military personnel coordinating U.S. relief, during a Situation Room meeting Wednesday night, 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.
One factor in the delicate U.S. approach is a desire to not undermine Haitian President Rene Preval and recent efforts to bring more stable government to Haiti after decades of instability and disaster that have left it the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.
And yet there were continuing signs of the near-total inability of Haiti's government to perform its duties. While the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, had spoken several times with Preval, Obama had not yet been able to reach him, said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.
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