U.S. military struggles with weak infrastructure and poor inter-agency coordination in Haiti aid effort

The U.S. military has sent 11,274 servicemen to help the 3 million neediest victims of last week’s earthquake in Haiti. Yet despite their access to sophisticated equipment, soldiers are lugging water to shore one bottle at a time and often find themselves unaware of other relief efforts by aid groups.

“I’ve got the USS Carl Vinson right there, capable of desalinizing 400,000 gallons of water a day, and what are my guys doing? Filling plastic jugs on deck with a garden hose,” a high-ranking Navy official said outside U.S. Southern Command in Miami.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is directing dozens of federal and humanitarian agencies in Haiti. USAID, the government agency tasked with providing foreign disaster assistance, is in turn taking guidance from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Haitian government. All are facing the difficulties of operating in a poor country whose already-weak infrastructure has nearly been destroyed.

“We need to get out of frantic mode,” the Navy official said, while pacing and chain-smoking. “People need to understand we are going to be there for a very long time.”

Relief efforts must simultaneously address long-term and immediate needs. Gang activities must be brought under control — criminals have moved to claim parts of the city, stringing up corpses to mark their territories — before ports and water tanks can be rebuilt. Employees at Southern Command’s imagery unit watch the situation on the ground unfold through high-resolution satellite and reconnaissance images, aware of the urgency of better coordinating efforts.

In some cases, resources are within reach but are not available to the people who need them. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson arrived in Haiti on Friday. Its 50-bed medical ward sits mostly empty — the Wall Street Journal reported they have treated only nine patients.

“The key right now is coordination,” said Tim Callaghan, the senior regional adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean at USAID’s Office Foreign Disaster Assistance. In a conference call from Haiti on Sunday, Callaghan and Col. Buck Elton, the commander of Special Forces in Haiti, explained that they managed to take control of the airport and process 600 flights in Port-Au-Prince, without traditional airplane navigation aids or a control tower.

Back at Southern Command headquarters, in response to calls for better coordination, APAN, a repository for military assets and intelligence on a restricted network, was being made available to non-military personnel.

“We are planning on making APAN available to the public,” said Bob Appin, a spokesman for Southern Command, hours before the network was opened.

Southern Command recently has taken steps to implement an information sharing network for relief efforts on a 3D Google Earth environment. Anyone can request a log-on, and see the layers of information the military is collecting to help relief workers on the ground coordinate their efforts.