Initial U.S. Effort Focused on Saving Lives

BY Quinn Bowman  January 13, 2010 at 11:59 AM EST

The top coordinator for the U.S. response to the massive earthquake in Haiti said the government’s first priority is to direct resources toward finding and rescuing people trapped by the earthquake.

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Administrator Rajiv Shah said at a news conference Wednesday that President Barack Obama’s first priority for the first 72 hours after the earthquake is to find people who need to be rescued. He said two 72-person urban search and rescue teams are on their way to Port-au-Prince to help people trapped by earthquake rubble, with a third team preparing to depart.

State Department official Cheryl Mills said that most of the damage caused by the earthquake is in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and that telecommunications there are severely limited. She said the U.S. ambassador to Haiti has reached Haitian President Rene Garcia Preval and that he is safe.

The U.S. Embassy is also still standing and serving as a support hub. There are 45,000 American citizens living in Haiti, she added.

Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser said that the Defense Department has already routed aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to Haiti, which will provide helicopters. Other Coast Guard and Defense Department ships are in the area, and while they do not have large humanitarian relief supplies, some ships can provide helicopters.

The Port-au-Prince airport, Fraser said, has an accessible runway but the air traffic control tower has limited function. The U.S. military is pushing to secure that airport and get it running.

He said the military is also seriously considering sending about 2,000 U.S. Marines aboard an amphibious ship to the region.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Fraser said he has been told that the situation on the ground is calm and that the troops would likely be used for life-saving efforts.

Shah said the federal government is also planning how to provide food, water and other infrastructure.

“We will have quite a lot of work to do in days and weeks ahead,” he said.

Shah was sworn in on Friday, and drew attention during his consideration for the post because he is only 36 years old.