WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. officials laid out a massive military response to the Haiti earthquake Wednesday, saying that ships, helicopters, transport planes and a 2,000-member Marine unit were either on the way or likely to begin moving soon.
A State Department official said the U.S. was checking into reports of at least three possible deaths of Americans in Haiti. Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley added that only 100 of the estimated 45,000 Americans living in Haiti had been able to communicate with U.S. officials and verify they were safe and sound.
Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. Southern Command, said one of the U.S. Navy’s large amphibious ships was likely to head to Haiti with a Marine expeditionary unit aboard. Fraser said other U.S. military forces were on alert, including a brigade, which includes about 3,500 troops.
Fraser said during a news conference with other U.S. officials that the Pentagon was “seriously looking at” sending thousands of Marines to assist with disaster relief efforts and security in Haiti.
President Barack Obama promised to mount an all-out rescue and humanitarian effort to help the people of Haiti overcome a “cruel and incomprehensible” tragedy.”
The president said the relief effort was gearing up even as the government was working to account for Americans who were in the country when the disaster struck late Tuesday afternoon.
The initial contingent of 2,000 Marines could be deployed to the quake-ravaged country within the next few days to either help with emergency aid distribution or enforce law in order in conjunction with U.N. peacekeepers already there, Fraser said.
The general said that a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, is also heading from Norfolk, Va., to the area and should arrive Thursday afternoon.
The dispatched troops would aim to keep the peace in the event of post-disaster unrest as part of a larger international effort overseen by the United Nations, whose peacekeeping operation headquarters was destroyed in the quake. About 100 U.N. personnel are believed to be trapped in the ruins of he building.
“It’s going to be our assessments that are going to determine, in conjunction with (the U.N. mission) and the other international partners who are there, how best to deal with any security situations that come up,” Fraser said.
“We don’t know precisely what the situation is on the ground,” he added. “So we’re leaning forward to provide as much as capability as quickly as we can to respond to whatever the need is when we get there.”
More immediately, Fraser’s Miami-based Southern Command is also dispatching a team of 30 people to Haiti to support relief efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake and make way for additional military aid.
Officials said two C-130 aircraft were departing Wednesday for Haiti with the team of military engineers, operational planners, communications specialists and a command and control group. The Air Force is sending people to provide air traffic control and operations at the Port-au-Prince airport.
Coast Guard helicopters early Wednesday evacuated four injured U.S. Embassy personnel to a hospital at the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Fraser said the military is also sending units to get Port-au-Prince’s airport secured and operating again. The airport is considered “operational,” he said, but the facility’s tower and other operations were damaged.
Fraser appeared with U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Rajiv Shah, the official named by Obama to coordinate American efforts in Haiti.
The president called upon all nations to join in helping stricken Haitians.
Obama spoke Wednesday in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room. Later, spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters the president had no plans to go to Haiti.
The president, who has been involved in ensuring a quick response since Tuesday night, said in a statement from the White House Diplomatic Reception Room that one of the government’s top priorities is to quickly locate U.S. embassy employees and their families, as well as all other American citizens living and working in Haiti. He urged Americans trying to locate family members to contact the State Department at 1-888-407-4747.
Obama sought to show a swift and united disaster response with the United States as an assertive leader, but he said the effort must be an international one. “We are reminded of the common humanity that we all share,” he said, with Vice President Joe Biden at his side.
The president outlined a series of steps to help the Haitian people and said the U.S. commitment to its hemispheric neighbor will be unwavering.
“We have to be there for them in their hour of need,” the president said.
Obama adjusted his Wednesday schedule, canceling a jobs event in Maryland to better monitor the situation in Haiti.
Obama encouraged Americans who want to help to go to www.whitehouse.gov to find options for contributing to the aid effort.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Steven R. Hurst and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this story.