WASHINGTON — Southern Command’s withdrawal of troops from the earthquake response mission in Haiti does not mark the end of U.S. military involvement there, Southcom’s deputy commander said today.
In fact, the military will remain prepared for the next natural disaster to strike the small island nation in the wake of the summer hurricane season and beyond, Army Lt. Gen. P.K. “Ken” Keen said during a presentation about Haiti’s future at the U.S. Institute of Peace here.
History indicates there will be more natural disasters in Haiti, and just one week into the hurricane season, Southcom already is responding in the region, Keen said. The USS Underwood, which played a large role in the Haiti earthquake response, arrived off the coast of Guatemala with its embarked helicopter squadron on May 31 to respond to flooding and landslides from Tropical Storm Agatha, which has killed at least 150 people there.
“Haiti still is in a very risky position,” Keen said, with many people still living in tents. “You really do not need another hurricane to have a disaster in Haiti. All you need is about 5 inches of rain in 12 hours and you have another disaster.”
Keen, the first commander of Joint Task Force Haiti, has worked in Central and South America for much of his career, and was awarded Brazil’s distinguished Order of Rio de Branco on May 26 for his leadership during the Haiti mission. He recalled today the magnitude 7 earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12 while he was there on a prearranged visit to discuss Southcom’s role in the region.
The resulting “Operation United Response” became the largest and longest-running U.S. military response to a foreign disaster ever, Keen said. The mission included more than 22,000 military personnel working to restore order, provide humanitarian and medical support, and reopen airports, roads and bridges.
Keen said the response, which included numerous foreign partners, was appropriate given the devastation: At least 230,000 people were killed, more than 1 million were displaced and many more were injured.
Regardless of how good the Haitian government’s capacity had been, it still would have needed international help, Keen said. “If this earthquake had struck any community in the United States, it would have needed the international community to respond,” he said. “It was just of that magnitude.”
Southcom is working with the U.S. Agency for International Development and other organizations to improve the Haiti’s capacity to respond to disasters as much as possible, Keen said. The most important long-term capacity for emergencies Haiti can possess is to have an effective national police force, he said, adding that U.N. stabilization forces are doing a good job maintaining law and order there.
To the surprise of military and international aid workers, the general said, Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince has not returned to the gang violence it had before the earthquake struck. “I submit that did not happen because of the work of the U.S. military there and all the other militaries,” he said, adding that Haitian citizens have been demonstrating peacefully about their frustrations with the rebuilding process.
And, Keen said the pace of recovering is frustrating to everyone involved. “Sometimes it’s hard to find that progress and it happens little by little. Sometimes it happens too slow to suit us.”
Keen said he walked through the camps for displaced people every day he was there for more than three months. “It was in those camps where I could get the best feel for the challenges they were facing,” he said.
While the last 300 U.S. military personnel left Haiti earlier this week to end the earthquake response mission, about 500 Louisiana National Guard members are preparing to begin construction projects in Haiti that will continue into the fall, and medical exercises are planned to treat hundreds of Haitian people per day in outlying areas, he said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)