WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama dispatched military troops and an air and sea flotilla to speed earthquake relief to Haiti on Wednesday, and governments from China to Venezuela rushed to help with aid and rescue workers, as well. Obama said the world’s help was critical to deal with a “cruel and incomprehensible” tragedy.
The massive effort to alleviate the spiraling toll of death and destruction kicked in as the devastation from Tuesday’s magnitude-7.0 quake revealed itself. Haitian officials predicted a death total of staggering proportions.
U.S. officials were checking reports of at least three deaths of Americans in Haiti. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said few of the estimated 45,000 Americans living in the country had been able to communicate with U.S. officials and verify they were safe and sound.
The United States set in motion a sweeping military response that included ships, helicopters, transport planes and possibly a 2,000-member Marine unit.
One of the U.S. Navy’s large amphibious ships, the USS Bataan, was ordered to Haiti with a Marine expeditionary unit aboard. The ship is one of more than a half dozen, including frigates, a destroyer and a guided missile cruiser, being sent to the Caribbean nation.
An Army brigade, which would include several thousand soldiers, from the 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, N.C., was standing by for possible deployment, and the Pentagon is “seriously looking at” sending thousands of Marines to assist with disaster relief efforts and security in Haiti, he said.
Fraser said it was possible that some military personnel would aid in security, bolstering Haiti’s beleaguered police, but final decisions on their use had not yet been made. Two C-130 planes carrying a military assessment team flew to Haiti Wednesday evening. The team is tasked with determining what military resources are needed to respond to the disaster.
The initial contingent of 2,000 Marines could pitch in with both emergency aid distribution and law enforcement in support of a small peacekeeping force already there, Fraser said. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson also was heading from Norfolk, Va., and should arrive Thursday afternoon.
Obama put newly appointed USAID administrator Rajiv Shah in overall charge of the American effort. He said the initial response would concentrate on search and rescue operations but would also look at longer-term humanitarian needs. Two 72-member American urban search and rescue teams were on their way, transported by military and civilian airlift.
“The goal of the relief effort in the first 72 hours will be very focused on saving lives,” Shah told reporters.
To ease the crushing burden on Haiti’s flimsy government and police apparatus, the U.S. announced it had suspended deportation of Haitians in the United States illegally.
The United Nations has released $10 million from its emergency funds, even as U.N. workers and peacekeeping troops on the island nation at the time of the quake struggled with their own losses. The U.N. headquarters building collapsed, and the reported death toll there was mounting.
“We’ll be using whatever roads are passable to get aid to Port-au-Prince, and if possible we’ll bring helicopters in,” said Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman for the U.N. food agency in Geneva. Its 200 staff in Haiti were trying to deliver high-energy biscuits and other supplies, despite looting and the threat of violence in a nation long plagued by lawlessness.
The American Red Cross ran out of medical supplies on the ground in Haiti, a spokesman said Wednesday. The small amount of medical equipment and supplies that were available to Haiti had been distributed, spokesman Eric Porterfield said. More were being sent, but he said he did not know when they would be arriving.
Across the globe, governments and aid groups were sending sniffer dogs to search for victims. They also were sending food and tons of emergency medical aid.
The sheer number of dead bodies was expected to pose a problem. The World Health Organization said it had sent specialists to help clear the city of corpses, and the International Red Cross was sending a plane Thursday loaded mainly with body bags.
Sixty-five rubble-clearing specialists and six sniffer dogs left France on Wednesday, while Spain dispatched three planeloads of rescuers and 100 tons of tents, blankets and cooking kits. Israel was sending in an elite Army rescue unit of engineers and doctors.
A military reconnaissance team from Canada was arriving aboard a C-130 transport plane to assess the need for mosquito nets, basic household goods, tents and sanitation packages.
One of the first teams expected to arrive in Haiti was a 37-member search-and-rescue unit from Iceland, along with 10 tons of rescue equipment.
The Irish telecommunications company Digicel said it would donate $5 million to aid agencies and help repair Haiti’s damaged phone network.
Doctors Without Borders said it had treated hundreds in tents near where its Martissant health center was damaged. The injuries include broken bones and some severe burns from domestic gas containers that exploded in collapsed buildings. It said hundreds more Haitians were being treated in tents elsewhere.
Canada planned an initial donation of $4.8 million, with more aid to flow after reports to Ottawa by military reconnaissance team.
China pitched in with a pledge of $1 million, while the European Commission has approved $4.37 million. European Union member states Spain, the Netherlands and Germany promised millions more.
Celebrities and artists rallied fans to support relief efforts. Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Ben Stiller, Adam Lambert and Ryan Leslie sent out Tweets urging followers to lend their help and support to the people of Haiti. Winfrey began her Wednesday show asking viewers to donate to the Red Cross. Singer Wyclef Jean arrived in Haiti, his native country, on Wednesday to focus on his family, his Haitian charity, Yele, and respond to the disaster, his publicist, Leslie Chasky said. Shakira, on her Web site, called for donations to Yele and to UNICEF.
Even as donations began piling up, the FBI warned Internet users to be wary of e-mail messages seeking donations in the aftermath of the quake. People who want to send money or assistance should contribute to known organizations and should be careful not to respond to unsolicited e-mails, officials said.
Associated Press writers Anne Flaherty, Pauline Jelinek, Matthew Lee and Julie Pace contributed to this story.