USA/Haiti — Military Stays Ready to Respond When Haiti Calls

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)