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This photo provided by Medecins Sans Frontieres shows wounded people gathered outside the office of Medecins Sans Frontiere in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 13. Haitians piled bodies along the devastated streets of their capital after the strongest earthquake hit the poor Caribbean nation in more than 200 years and crushed thousands of structures. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Collapsed floors are seen on a damaged multi-story building in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12 after the Haiti earthquake. (Carel Pedre / The Associated Press)
The aircraft carrier Carl Vinson leaves Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on Tuesday on its way to its new homeport of San Diego. The carrier has been rerouted to respond to Haiti's earthquake. (MC2 Rafael Martie / Navy)
Seven ships — including the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson — are or have orders to get underway in anticipation of humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti, according to Navy officials.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday afternoon conveyed to U.S. Southern command that providing humanitarian relief "is a very high priority for the president and for this department," said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary. The secretary said the Defense Department would do its best to provide "anything and everything they need, be it personnel, equipment, lift, whatever it may be," as quickly as possible.
The defense secretary has not signed any deployment orders as of Wednesday evening, Morrell said, adding that the Joint Staff was working on manning requests.
"The secretary wants this building moving with a sense of urgency - which it is - and he wants to make it clear to the commander that we will do our absolute best to get whatever he thinks he needs, as quickly as possible," Morrell said.
Asked if Gates was satisfied with the speed of the response so far, Morrell said, "Absolutely. He is very comfortable with the fact that everybody is taking this extremely seriously and is doing their absolutely best to respond as quickly as possible. …
"To describe us as still in the assessing stage … would not be accurate. We are in the action phase. We are moving assets into or towards Haiti as we speak to quickly alleviate the suffering of the Haitian people."
Carl Vinson was rerouted Wednesday and is expected to arrive off the coast of Haiti Thursday. The amphibious assault ship Bataan and dock landing ships Fort McHenry and Carter Hall have been ordered out of Norfolk, Va., to conduct humanitarian relief exercises in preparation for Haiti relief efforts, said Ted Brown, spokesman for Fleet Forces Command.
Also on standby to assist are the Norfolk-based cruiser Normandy; the Mayport, Fla.-based frigate Underwood; and the Baltimore-based hospital ship Comfort. The hospital ship can carry 650 medical professionals and their equipment to the region, which has reported the destruction of numerous hospitals.
In addition, Little Creek, Va.-based Navy Expeditionary Combat Command is preparing an untold number of troops for service in Haiti, if called upon. NECC provides tailored packages that include explosive ordnance disposal, maritime expeditionary security, riverine, expeditionary diving and salvage, naval construction and expeditionary logistics.
The Navy also has a host of P-3 Orion aircraft and helicopters committed to relief efforts.
U.S. Southern Command, based in Miami, has deployed a team of 30 people to Haiti to work with U.S. Embassy personnel as well as Haitian, U.N. and international officials to assess the situation and facilitate follow-on U.S. military support, said Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, SouthCom commander. The team includes military engineers, operational planners, a command and control group and communication specialists. They will arrive in Haiti on Wednesday on two C-130 Hercules aircraft.
Elements of the Air Force 1st Special Operations Wing were deploying to the international airport at Port-au-Prince to provide air traffic control capability and airfield operations. They are expected to arrive in Haiti on Wednesday afternoon. The United Nations on Wednesday said the capital's main airport was "fully operational," though there is no power in the control tower.
Early Wednesday morning, Coast Guard helicopters evacuated four critically injured U.S. Embassy staff to hospital at Naval Station Guantanamo, Cuba, for further treatment.
A U.S. P-3 from the Forward Operating Location at Comalapa, El Salvador, also conducted aerial reconnaissance of the affected area.
SouthCom has supported 14 major relief missions in the region since 2005, including assistance to Haiti in September 2008. During that mission, U.S. forces from the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge and other units airlifted 3.3 million pounds of aid to communities that were devastated by a succession of major storms.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Haitian people and all those affected by this devastating earthquake," said Army Col. James Marshall, SouthCom spokesman.
Last summer, the hospital ship Comfort conducted a four-month deployment as part of "Continuing Promise 2009." The ship visited Antigua, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama. Each visit lasted about 10 to 12 days.
Vinson and its crew of about 3,200 sailors left Norfolk on Tuesday en route to their new homeport in San Diego. The carrier, which is commanded by Capt. Bruce Lindsey, was joined by Carrier Air Wing 17 and the cruisers Lake Champlain and Bunker Hill. As flagship of the newly established Carrier Strike Group 1, Vinson was to provide maritime security as it circumnavigates South America and provide humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, if required.
That call came only hours later when a magnitude-7.0 quake devastated the impoverished nation Tuesday afternoon, leveling thousands of structures and leaving an untold number trapped in the ruins. Death tolls are expected in the thousands, and International Red Cross spokesman Paul Conneally said 3 million people, one-third of Haiti's population, may need emergency aid.
Bunker Hill and Lake Champlain have not been assigned to the relief mission, a Navy official said Wednesday.
The United Nations has 9,000 peacekeepers in Haiti, but most are searching for survivors in their headquarters, which collapsed on an unknown number of people. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was reported as saying in his radio address that "it would appear that everyone who was in the building, including my friend Hedi Annabi, the U.N. Secretary General's special envoy, and everyone with him and around him, are dead."
Staff Writer William McMichael and The Associated Press contributed to this report.