USS ComfortA major international relief operation was launched to help the people of Haiti after their country was devastated by a massive earthquake that struck at around 1700 hours on Jan 12.

The epicentre of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake was less than 10 miles from the capital Port-au-Prince.

Relief experts say the death toll could reach 150,000, and millions of people have been left homeless after buildings collapsed.

The port area of the capital was badly damaged but parts of it could still be used to bring in the urgently needed relief supplies. Some of the main wharf had collapsed into the sea, and its large container crane had toppled forward with part of it submerged. A number of 40ft containers were floating in the harbour.

The US established Joint Task Force Haiti to oversee the US military relief efforts in Haiti, with Army Lt Gen P K Keen in command.

The Royal Navy usually has a guardship in the Caribbean, accompanied by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary oiler, but none were operating in the area at the time of the disaster. The guardship is designated APT (N).

One of the first tasks for US forces was to take control of the main airport at Port-au-Prince to enable relief supplies and personnel to be flown in. The US Navy soon had ships earmarked and loading supplies for the relief operation. The first US asset on the scene was the Coast Guard cutter Forward, which arrived at Port-au-Prince on Jan 13.

Within hours of the disaster, the cruiser Normandy sailed from the Norfolk Naval Station on Jan 13 after loading several hundred ready-to-eat meals and bottles of water. She left port within 15 hours of receiving her orders. The Normandy’s task was to escort the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson which had been in the Atlantic on a training exercise when she was ordered to Haiti. The Carl Vinson headed for the Mayport Naval Base in Florida at more than 30 knots and loaded 19 helicopters, personnel and support equipment from five different East Coast Navy squadrons in less than eight hours.

The US Navy hospital ship Comfort (pictured), 69,360 tons full load displacement, sailed from Baltimore on the morning of Jan 16. The ship was expected to be in Haiti for a minimum of six months. The Comfort, which has 19 operating rooms, intensive care facilities, and 1,000 beds, is berthed at Baltimore in a state of readiness, able to be operational within five days, but she sailed within four days of receiving her orders.

Before sailing, the Comfort embarked some 600 medical staff mostly from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia. Other specialists from many other US Navy hospitals and clinics also boarded the ship, which loaded medical supplies and foodstuffs.

The Comfort treated her first earthquake victims on Jan 19, before she reached Haiti. A 6-year-old boy and a 20-year-old man had both received treatment on the Carl Vinson and were flown by helicopter to the hospital ship for further treatment. Both were in a critical condition. The Comfort arrived off Haiti on Jan 20.

Other US ships assigned to the operation included the dock landing ship Gunston Hall, the rescue and salvage ship Grasp, and the oceanographic survey ship Henson.

More on this and other news in Sea Breezes Magazine - March 2010 Issue
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