The following account comes from the Commanding Officer of the CGC Forward, Commander Diane Durham. The CGC Forward was the first U.S. military ship to arrive after the Haiti earthquake. These are CDR Durham’s accounts of the cutter’s operations since the day of the earthquake and come directly from her as she patrols off the coast of Haiti. We’ve included Coast Guard photos to try and help tell the story. As Guardians continue to report in from Haiti, we will do our best to bring you their stories here at Coast Guard Compass.
Day of the Earthquake (12Jan): FORWARD was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, enjoying liberty at the U.S. Navy base. The duty section and off-duty crew onboard were jolted by unusual movement of the ship and quickly gathered to respond to an onboard emergency. We quickly learned that it was an earthquake… soon after we learned of the devastation to Port-Au-Prince (PAP), Haiti. The crew was recalled from various points around the base and we were underway by 10:00 pm. We made best speed through the night.
Day One (13Jan): We arrived in PAP harbor early morning, met by cheering from Haitians on the ships at the entrance of the harbor. We had to move our original anchorage point due to a heavy crude oil spill. The FORWARD crew was stunned at the level of devastation that could be seen ashore and the crowds gathered in open areas waiting for assistance. Once moored, the Haitian Coast Guard (HCG) boated out to tell us of conditions ashore. Some crew went ashore and witnessed the destruction of the HCG base buildings, the injured civilians needing critical medical care, and, unfortunately, rows of dead victims. This information was forwarded to relief coordinators so they would know the conditions they would find. We provided as much water and food as we could to the HCG to share with the civilians on their base. We also provided air traffic advisory for the Coast Guard aircraft performing damage assessment overflights and medical evacuations of the critically injured U.S. Embassy personnel. The FORWARD’s small boat was sent out to start port assessments to determine if relief supplies could be landed in PAP harbor. Hundreds of pictures were forwarded to let incoming relief ships know of the conditions in the harbor.
The helicopter assigned to FORWARD (from Air Station Detroit) flew a senior member of United Nations (UN) forces for a damage assessment. These are the comments from the mission commander: “He directed us over a hilltop base ‘Fort National’, it had also collapsed. They had been pulling out bodies and draping sheets over them. As the day drew on we saw more people coming to the streets and open area. At the end of the day all open/public areas were filled with homeless people. Maybe they were coming out in hopes of UN support for food and water. Maybe they were escaping their homes because they were unsafe. Maybe they were escaping the hundreds of bodies buried in the hillside communities. Tremors continue now, [my co-pilot] and I flew into the UN air base to coordinate possible refueling and lift operations. As we spoke to UN officials at Alpha Base the ground heaved up and down under all of us like the earth burped. They said “that was nothing” but I couldn’t conceive how the concrete ramp could move up and down while we stood there. In fact I don’t know how to describe what we saw today. Don’t think I can give justice to the grand scale of human suffering that is happening now as I sit well fed and cared for on the cutter.”
Day Two (14Jan): By this time Department of Defense was providing air traffic control for the numerous other aircraft arriving on scene. FORWARD departed PAP harbor to perform additional port assessments. Before leaving the harbor, we provided medical supplies as well as more food and water for those suffering on the HCG base. As we started to weigh anchor, two other CG cutters, TAHOMA and MOHAWK, started delivering medical supplies they had loaded in Guantanamo Bay Cuba and established a field clinic at the HCG base. We had a different, but just as important, mission… to explore potential relief delivery areas from PAP west along the north shore of the south claw of Haiti. There was not much infrastructure left to support the level of relief operations required.
Day Three (15Jan): FORWARD continued the critical port assessments in advance of arriving USN, international military, and relief organization assets. This time FORWARD focused to the north and west of PAP along the south side of the north claw… and found options with a major road open to PAP. FORWARD crews went ashore to assess the infrastructure, investigate reports of collapsed bridges, and determine if larger vessels could get in to deliver supplies. Many people came out to show the port assessment team what assets were available and the integrity of the infrastructure. There was very little damage in these areas.
Day Four (16Jan): As our port assessments were completed, we steamed to the Windward Pass to assume the position of a Commander Task Force. With surface and air assets, we have two missions right now. One – to pave the way for supplies to be delivered into the port of Cap Hatien (one of the many ports that will be used through the next few months). Two – prevent migrant smugglers from trying to profit from the misfortune of the Haitian people by putting them in more danger on the open seas in unstable vessels.
Day Five (17Jan): Our helicopter and a cutter crewmember performed damage assessment overflight of Route 1 from Cap Haitien to Gonaives (we already had completed Gonaives to PAP). This verified that relief efforts delivered to Cap Haitien can be trucked to PAP, it means Cap Haitien is a viable port. Our task unit continued to work with local Cap Haitien officials to pave the way for relief supplies.
Day Six (18Jan): Our helo performed medical evacuations from Killick Haitian CG Base to the Sacred Heart Hospital in Milot. The flight mechanic talked about two children on the first flight who wanted to hold his hand for comfort. In total, they transferred nine non-ambulatory people in stokes litters. The task unit continued its work in Cap Haitien.