U.S. is flying doctors and food to Haiti in massive earthquake relief effort

With hundreds of American firefighters involved in a furtive search-and-rescue operation in Haiti working against the clock, the U.S. government was flying medical teams, food and water into the earthquake-stricken nation for a relief effort of historic proportions.

Four days after an earthquake that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and left the capital in ruins, an expanded search and rescue in the rubble of Port-au-Prince will soon transition to a relief effort. Search-and-rescue operations were to continue at least through the weekend.

“It is a massive effort, with over 400 firefighters,” Tim Callahan, senior regional advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean in the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, said today.

“We’re moving here from help being on the way to delivering that help,” said Denis McDonough, National Security Council chief of staff.

Yet, as a measure of the enormity of the catastrophe, for all the search efforts underway, the U.S. teams had managed to rescue just 15 people as of this morning, Callahan said. The numbers saved by other governments’ teams were unavailable

Callahan is coordinating disaster relief for the U.S. government. Based in Costa Rica, he has been in Haiti since Tuesday night after the earthquake struck.

“One of the first priorities that the government of Haiti had . . . is the search and rescue of survivors,” Callahan said today in a conference call with reporters. Noting that the first search-and-rescue team from Fairfax County, Va., was on the ground within 12 hours, he said there are now 24 international search-and-rescue teams working.

“There are many places to search, but the teams are doing an incredible job to search schools, houses, hospitals,” Callahan said. “Obviously there are a lot of challenges of security and transportation.”

As concerns shift toward long-term recovery, a massive relief effort also is underway. Food and water are being shipped in, with 14 distribution points established by the government. And relief workers are providing shelter as well, often as simple as plastic sheeting.

“Another high priority of the country is water,” Callahan said. Water purification units have been brought in, as well as containers. “As water is brought in, in trucks and so forth, families will have water containers to store clean water.”

The government of Haiti “has the lead,” Callahan said, and it is setting the priorities for aid distribution points and other matters. Foreign countries and the United Nations are coordinating with nongovernmental organizations as well.

“Our main focus . . . is to assist with the coordination effort,” Callahan said.

The White House has committed $100 million in U.S. aid.

“What you’ll continue to see throughout the weekend now is the delivery of that assistance,” said McDonough, joining Callahan in the conference call. As the president has said, the dollar amount of U.S. aid “can and will grow,” McDonough said today.

The U.S. is providing 600,000 daily rations, packets of 2,300 calories of food, for survivors of the earthquake until a broader U.N.-sponsored World Food Program is in place, McDonough said.

The Coast Guard has delivered 106 disaster team members from the Department of Health and Human Services to assist with medical care, McDonough said. An additional 108 members of another HHS disaster team also are arriving.

Field medical clinics are being opened, and the Navy hospital ship Comfort was being dispatched from Baltimore to Haiti today. Five clinics are being run by Doctors Without Borders, the Argentine government and others. World Health Organization medical kits are being donated as well

“There will be a dramatic increase in medical assistance available,” McDonough said.

“The port of Port-au-Prince is not functioning, as a result of the earthquake,” McDonough said. Other ports of entry are being used and the Coast Guard is providing means to convey material ashore.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was to arrive in Haiti today aboard an airplane delivering assistance, and she will return to the U.S. aboard a plane carrying American survivors home, McDonough said, attempting to dispel any notion that the secretary’s visit was preempting any emergency transportation in or out of Haiti.

“The president has no plans to travel to Haiti at the moment,” McDonough said.

President Obama was meeting with former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at the White House this morning.

The president has asked his two predecessors to assist in a fundraising drive for earthquake relief, and Clinton already is serving as the special United Nations envoy to Haiti.