This month marks the five-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that struck the island nation of Haiti. Below is a reflection on the Coast Guard’s service in rebuilding Haiti in the months after the earthquake and the focus on ensuring a stable nation in the years to come.
Written by Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Sommella
A devastating earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010. An estimated 3 million people were affected by the quake, including 230,000 who lost their lives. More than 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed or were severely damaged, leaving 1.5 million Haitians homeless. Notable government buildings were significantly damaged or destroyed, including the Presidential Palace. While the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince withstood the initial tremors, the Embassy staff suffered the loss of eight members.
On that day and the following weeks, the U.S. Coast Guard demonstrated tremendous agility and flexibility to assist the people of Haiti. On patrol and ready to respond, Coast Guard Cutters Forward, Mohawk and Tahoma were the first U.S. assets to arrive on scene.
Forward entered the Bay of Port-au-Prince the morning of Jan. 13 and Mohawk arrived later in the afternoon taking station off the Haitian Coast Guard Base. These units provided critical air traffic control for military aircraft, conducted damage assessments of the port, and ferried supplies and injured people with embarked boats and helicopters. Other Coast Guard assets began arriving soon thereafter to assist in the recovery efforts, including the Coast Guard Cutter Oak and aircraft from Air Station Clearwater, Florida. Already on the ground in Port-au-Prince, Cmdr. Evan Grant, the 7th Coast Guard District Liaison was meeting with the Haitian Coast Guard counter-parts and immediately provided first aid to the onslaught of women, children and men who came from nearby streets and destroyed building seeking assistance.
Five years later, Haiti still has many challenges, but the U.S. Coast Guard continues to help the country move forward. The recently signed Western Hemisphere Strategy has once again put Haiti in the forefront and made the country a top priority. As Haiti is an island nation, its future is very much tied to the sea. The Coast Guard Cutter Cypress, a Pensacola, Florida, based sea-going buoy tender, was just the second cutter visit in the past three weeks and fourth cutter to visit Haiti in the last six months.
While the previous cutters were primarily working with their Haitian Coast Guard and law enforcement partners to assist with securing borders and disrupting illicit transnational threats, the Cutter Cypress was in the Bay of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, refurbishing and checking six buoys on the approach to the main shipping channel to assist in the safeguarding of Haiti’s maritime commerce. These aids to navigation allow mariners and sea-going container ships to sail safely in and out of port increasing goods and services flow in and out of Haitian markets more quickly. The strong working relationships between the U.S. Coast Guard, along with the Department of State, the Department of Defense and other international partners are making a difference to ensure Haiti’s waterways are secure, prosperous and thriving.
While the Cutter Cypress had an aggressive work schedule, they took time on this very somber day to pause and remember those who lost their lives and the valiant first responders who answered the call. Cypress hosted personnel from the U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince, Haitian Coast Guard Commandant, Jean Mary Wagnac, and his colleague Eric Prevost, Director General of Service Maritime et de Navigation d’Haiti, or SEMANAH, Haiti’s waterways and navigation safety agency, for a special ceremony at sea.
While no longer wearing the Coast Guard uniform and now officially retired, Grant joined the group in his current capacity as a Department of State technical advisor to the Haitian Coast Guard. At 4:53 p.m., the exact time the earthquake struck, the crew of Cutter Cypress manned the rails, carried out a moment of silence and played taps as the names of the Americans and Haitians who worked at the U.S. Embassy and died during the earthquake were read aloud. The guests then laid a wreath into the waters of Port-au-Prince, together remembering all Haitians lost that day.
As the Haitian government and its people work through these uncertain times, the men and women of the Coast Guard are always ready to assist the Haitian Coast Guard and SEMANAH move forward.
Secretary of State John Kerry recently said, “…The United States stands firmly with the Haitian people in their efforts to forge a more prosperous, secure, and democratic future. Together we can achieve these goals, because, in the words of Haiti’s motto and coat of arms, l’union fait la force – unity makes strength.”