by J. F. Kelly, Jr. | Coronado

The massive earthquake that devastated Haiti was one of many disasters that have been visited upon this unfortunate island nation of seven million. Colonized by Spain after its discovery by Columbus in 1492, the native population was nearly wiped out by disease. Ceded by Spain to France in 1677, its people fared little better. Slaves imported from Africa were used to clear much of its forests to plant sugar cane.

Revolt against French colonial rule brought independence but not prosperity. Civil war quickly followed. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson invoked the Monroe Doctrine in 1915, sending Marines to occupy the turbulent, lawless and poverty-stricken nation in what was considered America’s backyard. They withdrew in 1934 and the situation promptly worsened. A voodoo doctor, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected president and the country became a virtual police state. He was succeeded by his son who proclaimed himself president for life.

In a widely-acclaimed free election in 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide became president and lasted less than three years before being deposed. Thousands of refugees fled the island in rickety boats for Florida’s shores, bi-passing nearby Cuba. The U.S. again intervened, sending in U.S. troops in 1994 and eventually returning Aristide to power. This time, he lasted about three years before being forced into exile.

Haiti shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic which occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island. Haiti has a much lower literacy rate than its larger neighbor and is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It is periodically visited by devastating hurricanes. Its economy and infrastructure are extremely fragile. Foreign aid to Haiti is about ten times higher than foreign investment there. Without this aid, principally from the U.S., it would quickly become a failed state.

Continued U.S. presence and aid will be required for some time, even after the lengthy process of dealing with the effects of this disaster. Over-committed and financially burdened as America is, it cannot refrain from doing what needs to be done to save this nation which is essentially a basket case on our doorstep.

The earthquake rescue effort included generous help from all over the world. Unfortunately, it was hampered and delayed by Haiti’s collapsed infrastructure. Only the United States, which initially committed more aid than all the rest of the world combined, had the resources to provide immediate, massive help. Within a day, the U.S. Air Force took control of the hopelessly overwhelmed Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, allowing at least some medical supplies, medical personnel, food, water and troops to land. The troops were needed to provide security amid panic and rioting. Distribution of supplies and equipment was seriously impeded by the airport’s single runway, very limited parking and staging areas and lack of heavy lift equipment which finally had to be flown in by the Air Force.

The 97,000-ton Navy aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and her escorts arrived offshore within three days, providing a floating airport, command center, three fully-equipped operating rooms, food and medical supplies and the ability to distil fresh water from seawater. Its nineteen helicopters ferried personnel, supplies, food and water from ship to shore. The Vinson was followed by the 40,000-ton Amphibious Assault Ship Bataan, whose 45 helicopters, 1,700 marines and several operating rooms provided additional assistance.

Meanwhile, the 70,000-ton Navy Hospital Ship Comfort, with its twelve operating rooms, 1000-bed hospital and 1200 medical personnel prepared for another humanitarian mission, having previously provided a safe, offshore medical sanctuary off New York during 9/11, assistance during Hurricane Katrina, and previous missions in Indonesia and the Caribbean. Additional amphibious ships were ready to provide landing craft and helicopters. Navy ships can be re-supplied at sea and remain on station indefinitely. They do not necessarily require port facilities, which is fortunate since Haiti’s were destroyed by the earthquake. Neither do they require over-flight permission or diplomatic clearance.

America’s military forces are not structured or sized primarily to provide humanitarian assistance, but when natural disasters occur, as they do with regularity, they are quick to respond. Naval forces are unique in this mission because of their mobility and flexibility. The U.S. Navy is not just a powerful force for peace, it is frequently the first on the scene of a disaster and sometimes the only source of assistance if airfields are inoperable. When disaster strikes, whether caused by man or nature, U.S. presidents still find themselves asking, “Where are the nearest Navy ships and how long will it take them to get there?”

But they may not always be there. Thirteen aircraft carriers were considered the minimum necessary to meet our defense commitments just a few years ago. Soon we will be down to ten with no reduction in commitments. The entire deployable fleet now consists of 285 ships, a far cry from Ronald Reagan’s goal of 600. We are a maritime nation and we need a larger fleet. Since shipbuilding is a very lengthy process, we had better get started. CRO

copyright 2010 J.F. Kelly, Jr

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California.

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