U.S. Southern Command is supporting the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in delivering and coordinating humanitarian relief to Haiti, which has been hard hit by Hurricane Matthew, Southcom Commander Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd told reporters here today.
Tidd, during a conference call from Southcom headquarters in Miami – itself only a day away from the hurricane’s high winds and rain -- said Haiti is the only country so far whose government has requested U.S. assistance in the wake of the storm.
Southcom is standing up Joint Task Force Matthew, commanded by Navy Rear Adm. Cedric Pringle, to support requests for humanitarian assistance, Tidd said, “and we've moved or we're in the process of moving nine helicopters to the Cayman Islands for potential onward movement to Haiti.”
Haiti Hurricane Damage
Hurricane Matthew has caused heavy wind damage and extensive flooding in southern Haiti, and strong winds have downed trees and power lines and destroyed agricultural fields, Tidd said. “We have reports indicating that communication infrastructure [is damaged] and that roads along the southern coastline are impassable,” he added. “We should have more information coming through USAID and our six-member attache's office within the embassy country team over the next few hours.”
Teams on the ground using aircraft provided by the U.S. Coast Guard have been able to observe some of the damage along the coast, Tidd said, adding that Southcom expects to get detailed reports in the coming hours.
This morning, in consultation with the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince and USAID, Southcom directed a small task force command team headed by Pringle to deploy to Port-au-Prince, and they’re expected to arrive later today, Tidd said.
Military Helicopter Support
“The helicopters are a mix of Army and Marine Corps heavy- and medium-lift helicopters that are moving in two waves through Grand Cayman Island and via Jamaica,” the admiral said, and they include four Army H-60 helicopters, two medical evacuation helicopters and two utility helicopters that have search-and rescue-capability.
Cutters from Coast Guard District 7 in Miami are already converging on the scene as the heavy seas begin to move out, and Southcom is working in close coordination with them, Tidd noted.
“We expect the first helicopters to be on the ground at Port au Prince Airport tomorrow,” he said. “There's still some heavy weather between Jamaica and Haiti right now that prevents [the helicopters] from moving on today, but we're watching the weather closely, and as soon as they can tomorrow, we hope they will be on the ground.”
The military personnel associated with the nine helicopters are a team of about 100 Marines, soldiers and Navy personnel, and Pringle will arrive shortly with a joint task force headquarters staff.
“We expect that over the next few days that will grow to about 50,” Tidd said, “so right now we're looking at 150 to 200 people, U.S. military personnel, supporting efforts [being undertaken] by USAID on the ground in Haiti.”
Initially, they will work with the Haitian government and USAID to conduct surveys to determine which areas are hardest hit, he added, then using the medium- and heavy-lift helicopters they’ll start moving humanitarian supplies to the outlying areas, especially those areas that seem to be cut off by damage to bridges and roads on Haiti’s southern peninsula.
Ensuring Haiti Relief
About Jamaica, Tidd said initial reports are that the country has requested no DoD assistance to support efforts there.
The storm is chewing through the Bahamas, and then it's projected to head up the southeast coast of the United States, the admiral said. At Southcom headquarters in Miami, all nonessential military and civilian personnel were released from work today at 2 p.m.
A small team of essential personnel will remain on duty at the headquarters until the storm comes through and weather conditions improve, Tidd said. “They will be prepared to monitor all of the personnel accounting taking place throughout the theater during the inclement weather [and will] ensure that the Haiti relief mission is unaffected by the storm and [that we will] be able to coordinate as needed with local, state and federal agencies,” he added.
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)