U.S. soldiers load a military helicopter with water at the Toussaint L'ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 15, 2010.
"Haiti's Lifeline Runway"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
January 12, 2012
Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Two years ago, the US military proved its strength — in logistics
MOTHER EARTH'S cruelty arrived in Haiti two years ago today. She came by land and by sea, killing people, destroying property, and devastating the ports. But she did not arrive by plane; that runway was spared. If there was any mercy in Haiti in January 2010, it was that a single transportation lane was somehow left alone. One sole landing strip, unscathed at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, provided a lifeline to the outside world.
The story of what happened at the Louverture airport is long forgotten. The US military took over the airport and gave the Air Force the means to control the most elaborate airlift since Berlin in 1948.
Every crisis response must necessarily be contoured by history. The United States could not be seen as running Haiti because we had already done that several times in the 20th century; Cuba and Venezuela were already calling US relief efforts the Yankee invasion; airdrops were limited because they would seem too much like a military attack. Because the earthquake had been a slow shake moving from one side of Port au Prince to the other, many Haitians believed that the country was being bombed by Americans.
The US Agency for International Development led the US government's response, which included the tremendous assets of FEMA, the Coast Guard, and the US military. That first night, the Haitian airport was quiet. There was no air-traffic control, no tower communications, no navigational or landing aids. Haiti's only seaport was damaged, and no ships could approach the nation to deliver goods. A single dangerous lane of traffic could be driven from the Dominican Republic, but that trip was over 10 hours.
When morning came, the Air Force did a fly-by and determined that the airport could handle the rush of aid. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convinced then-Haitian President Rene Preval to cede operations to the US military. Given the history of US military involvement in Haiti, including the entry of US forces in 1994 to reinstate President Jean-Bertrand Aristide during her husband's presidency, Clinton's request was not easy. But Preval was well aware of his country's physical isolation, which meant that someone else had to come in and control logistics.
A plastic folding table and some chairs were set up in the grass next to the runway. There was no electricity, no computers, not even telephones. There was also no space for long goodbyes; the airport could park only 12 planes. Regimented slot times were provided to incoming flights and unloading happened quickly.
The airport normally received 25 flights a day. In the 12 days after the earthquake, it would manage 2,222 airplanes and an additional 800 helicopters with only hand-held radios to guide them in. Relief was coming, managed by a system less sophisticated than a fourth-grader's playroom.
But the logistical feat was sometimes overshadowed by international political battles. The US controlled the airport, and therefore it owned the guest list. The supplies flying into the airport needed to be prioritized. Haiti's government had singled out food and water as their top delivery need.
Medical equipment and personnel ranked 10th on Haiti's list of needs; morally, that was a judgment only Haiti could make. This led to what seemed like a cruel act — favoring the 20,000 US troops who could set up a supply system — that made the French-based NGO Doctors without Borders cringe and complain.
Two years later, the runway is still there, updated and improved. And its legacy is still being felt. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commandant who a few months later would lead the government's response to the BP oil spill, said having witnessed the airlift in Haiti directly influenced his request to control the airspace over the Gulf of Mexico; too many planes, with no one in charge, would have been another disaster.
The military's strength is in logistics, not humanitarian decision-making, a lesson that we seem to discover again and again. In the future, the United States should defer to the host nation, its neighbors, or the United Nations and give them the responsibility of establishing a priority list for flights. We shouldn't take on the ethical dilemma of deciding who comes in first.
Haiti may still be the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Two years ago today, the luck of one open runway saved it from greater suffering.
It was about 10,000 feet of forgiveness.
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