CARIBBEAN SEA, ABOARD THE AMPHIBIOUS ASSAULT SHIP IWO JIMA – This ship loaded with supplies arrived off the Haitian coast around noon Wednesday and immediately launched relief flights into the country's southern region, moving food and necessities to the country’s most affected areas.
The arrival of the Iwo Jima, whose aircraft multiply the U.S. capacity to deliver relief, escalates the American response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew. Over the past eight days, the death toll in Haiti has topped 1,000 and scattered outbreaks of cholera have increased the urgency of relief efforts. The mission, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, was set in motion just hours after the storm passed through Haiti.
With the amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde and Iwo Jima on station, they add 11 helicopters, including MV-22 Ospreys, MH-60S Knighthawks and heavy-lift CH-53 Sea Stallions, 1,760 sailors and about 750 Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit to the efforts.
Iwo Jima will serve as the command and control platform and provide a flight deck large enough to serve as a staging point for what will be an air-intensive effort, said Capt. James Midkiff, the ship’s commanding officer.
"I think the bulk of what we're going to be doing is heavy lift," Midkiff said. "I think there is a good assessment of the island and what they need: Number one is moving the medical supplies and the food supplies to the right people for USAID so they can distribute it to the population."
Iwo Jima will embark about 300 Marines and three CH-53s from Mesa Verde, as well as Expeditionary Strike Group 2 staff, responsible for the sea-based effort.
"This ship is really made for the [humanitarian assistance, disaster relief] mission," Midkiff said. "It can drop the big green hammer if it needs to, but isn't this a nice mission where we can help out people in the Western Hemisphere? It’s very suited for this mission."
Iwo Jima and Mesa Verde will spend Thursday turning over before Mesa Verde departs later this week.
Sailors on board said they are excited to help out, even though they do not know how long the mission will last.
"I think it’s amazing, people go their whole naval careers and don't get the opportunity to help people in this manner," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephanie Matson, who works on Iwo’s flight deck. "I think it’s a great opportunity to help these people."
On the beach, Task Force Matthew, which is based out of Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture International Airport, has grown to about 400 troops and 12 helicopters. Pilots and aid workers on the ground described a busy and hectic scene with dozens of civil and military aircraft sharing limited space with commercial flights leaving the island.
The effort has mainly entailed getting food, water and supplies where it is needed most, said Marine Capt. Peter Koerner, a task force spokesman. As of Thursday morning, the effort had moved 349,000 pounds of supplies.
"The task force helicopters continue to distribute the 480 metric tons of aid donated by USAID as part of the ongoing U.S. disaster assistance to Haiti," Koerner said in an email.
Iwo Jima’s trip to the region was hampered by severe weather from Matthew and Tropical Storm Nicole, now a Category 2 hurricane, but the ship managed to get to Haiti a full 18 hours early, said Midkiff.
"We showed up 18 hours early," he said. "Everybody is healthy, we didn't break anything. I think there is a lot of expectation for us to get down here. I think the world has done a good job getting there with airplanes, getting there early, but we're going to come in and what we move in one day is what they've moved in a week."
Each of the four MV-22 Ospreys on Iwo Jima will be able to move exponentially more than supplies and troops than some of the aircraft on station already, which may only be able to lift one pallet at a time, officials said.
"Four warehouse pallets can fit in the back with a full crew," said Staff Sgt. Michael Creamer, a crew chief with the 24th MEU. "So, stacked to the ceiling, four pallets worth of stuff and then up to 24 [Marines] in the back with various gear, whatever they've got."
Marine Maj. Matthew Kloby, an Osprey pilot embarked here who deployed to Haiti in 2010 when an earthquake devastated the country, said he expected that the mission would be similar to that response.
"[The Defense Department] is generally able to respond in a quick manner to a global catastrophe such as this and provide that initial relief," he said. "While other nonprofits and [nongovernmental organizations] take time to mobilize and get to the area and then provide their relief, the DoD is then able to provide that interim support for the affected region."
Creamer said that this particular mission hits home for him.
"I’m from South Florida so I’ve seen my share of severe weather," he said. "And whenever something like this happens it’s easy to feel like you’re isolated. There is a mountain of things you need to overcome to get back to your normal life. And these people have been hit with some pretty bad storms.
"So hopefully they see us out there helping, it will bring them a little bit of comfort to know that people from as far away as the United States are out here trying to do what we can."