Haiti, Five Years after the Earthquake and the U.S. Military Humanitarian Assistance Mission

The response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake was the U.S. military’s largest international humanitarian effort in history.
By Cmdr. Ted Kim, Senior Defense Official/Defense Attaché and Chief of Security Cooperation Office U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince | 13 January 2015

Rapid Response

Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Lemon, right, a hospital corpsman assigned to Maritime Civil Affairs Team 203, is shown helping to load food and medical supplies aboard a rigid hull inflatable boat on the amphibious dock landing ship USS Gunston Hall during Operation Unified Response, Jan. 18, 2010. (Archive image.)

January 12, 2015 marks the fifth anniversary of the Haiti earthquake. The massive earthquake with a magnitude of 7.3 destroyed half of the buildings and homes in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, killed more than quarter million people, left more than 1.5 million people homeless, and resulted in an immense humanitarian crisis.

The response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake was the U.S. military’s largest international humanitarian effort in history. The U.S. military began mobilizing immediately and providing support to the international response and relief effort. Within days, the U.S. Air Force reopened Haiti’s international airport. U.S. Coast Guard cutters arrived on the scene and began delivering emergency supplies and evacuating U.S. citizens. More than 22,000 U.S. service members were in Haiti at the height of the mission. Of those, about 14,000 were in ships at sea and air, operating aboard 58 aircraft and 15 nearby vessels, while 8,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen were on the ground at any given time.

According to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study, the U.S. Government (USG) channeled $461.7 million via military actors to Haiti in 2010 through the Department of Defense (DoD) Overseas Humanitarian Disaster and Civic Aid.

While the earthquake response effort is over, the U.S. military continues to execute a humanitarian mission in Haiti and support the work of Haiti’s government and international agencies in recovery. Here are just a few examples of the humanitarian assistance that the U.S. military continues to execute in Haiti:

Disaster Preparedness

Since the devastating 2010 earthquake, the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), in partnership with U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the concurrence of Government of Haiti (GoH), has completed more than 60 collaborative projects in the field of humanitarian assistance and disaster response with a total budget of $45 million. SOUTHCOM constructed 10 emergency operations centers (EOC)/Disaster Relief Warehouses (DRW) in each department and eight fire stations throughout the country. The EOC is where the GoH and international partners come together during an emergency to coordinate response, allocate resources and plan for recovery activities. The DRW serves as a central point for aid distribution to shelters and other temporary evacuation locations.

In addition, there are eight community clusters of which four are located in Artibonite department, two in Sud department (Les Cayes) and two in the Grand’Anse department (Jeremie). Comprised of a school, a clinic, and a well, the cluster is the result of joint efforts between SOUTHCOM and local authorities to provide a community center for the outlaying settlements and serves as a shelter during a disaster. The USG’s mission is to collaborate with the GoH and international partners so that Haiti is better prepared to cope after a sudden disaster (earthquakes and mudslides) or an imminent disaster (tropical storms and hurricanes). Also, these strategically located regional centers can alleviate swarms of people rushing towards the capital in search of food and shelter.

As part of the whole-of-government approach to support the recovery initiatives, USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) has supported the Directorate of Civil Protection (DCP), a Haitian version of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to develop a national emergency response plan, specifically for hurricane response. This plan can be adapted for use in other emergency responses such as landslides and flooding. More importantly, it provides a framework for integrating the DCP and international partners under the emergency response system. This integration has streamlined the relationship between the DCP and international partners and has improved information sharing along all emergency management stakeholders prior to and during events.

The GoH has been committed to improving its disaster response capability and continues to make gradual progress since 2010. The DCP has successfully utilized the National EOC to manage Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy in 2012 and supported the response to the cholera outbreak in 2010 with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), United Nations (UN), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Last November, the efficiency of disaster preparedness was tested once again. When copious rain had caused flooding in and around the city of Cap Haitien in northern Haiti, at least 2,000 homes were destroyed, 12,000 people were displaced, and 12 lives were lost. A vast number of crops had been damaged and livestock were killed. The DCP immediately activated the EOCs/DRWs in the northern region to coordinate responses from the GoH agencies, UN and NGOs. The GoH had successfully managed the disaster without requesting assistance from the USG.

With the EOC/DRWs in every department, response infrastructure and relief resources are readily available in affected areas after a disaster. GoH officials are better prepared to process and disseminate information and coordinate responses in the face of disasters. The critical resources and emergency workers are prepositioned for faster responses to ease the suffering of people.

Louisiana National Guard Partnership

Once, there was a strong connection between Haiti and Louisiana, a former Francophonie state. Louisiana has never forgotten its Haitian connection, regularly lending assistance to those who live on the island through good times and bad. The Louisiana National Guard State Partnership with Haiti is one of 22 Latin American partnerships that spearheads the SOUTHCOM’s State Partnership Program (SPP) and one of 65 worldwide partnerships that makeup the National Guard State Partnership Program. The Republic of Haiti signed a bilateral affairs agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense and the State of Louisiana in June 2011, establishing the Louisiana National Guard (LANG) Partnership Program. Since then, LANG has fostered a solid relationship with the GoH and continues to be a viable enabler in building capacity in Haiti.

LANG has witnessed the fruits of its enduring relationship with the Haitian National Police (HNP) and the DCP. LANG has conducted over 60 military-to-civilian engagements to support the SOUTHCOM’s security cooperation objectives since partnership inception. Engagements have focused on supporting senior leadership visit, interoperability with international partners and NGOs, assisting in the development of emergency response capacity and promoting respect for human rights.

The National Guardsmen have exchanged ideas with their Haitian counterparts acquired during combat deployments as well as those learned through other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response, 3,000 National Guardsmen assisted in the Gulf oil spill cleanup efforts. This deployment has given LANG solid experience to share specialized expertise with Haitian counterparts including its processes for supporting the National Incident Command System and executing response efforts at all levels.

During the fiscal year (FY) 2014, LANG conducted 16 subject matter expert exchanges in Haiti valued at $608,000 to promote contingency planning and response which increased the technical expertise of 388 Haitian government officials. DCP personnel and HNP officers have benefitted from subject matter exchanges on FEMA’s National Incident Management System (NIMS) and have also participated in simulation disaster response exercises sponsored by LANG. These professional exchanges between Haiti and Louisiana have resulted in GoH’s adoption of U.S.-based knowledge and techniques for disaster preparedness and response. These exchanges establish a solid base from which further engagement can build upon with the goal of enabling the GoH to manage and coordinate national disaster response with minimal outside support. In fact, strong partnership with Louisiana has increased GoH’s confidence to the point where they are now conducting disaster readiness rehearsals on their own.

Denton Cargo Program

The Denton Cargo Program provides transportation for approved humanitarian assistance commodities destined for approved countries. The program is jointly administered by USAID and the DoD. It allows for the transport of humanitarian goods on a space available basis using U.S. military transportation. The program was initially created to use the extra space on U.S. cargo aircraft that were delivering supplies into Central America. The shipment utilized space available on a routine flight to Haiti to fly commissary goods, supplies and equipment to military personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince.

Haiti, still recovering from the devastating earthquake, receives tons of donated goods from the U.S. annually. Since 2010, the U.S. military conducted more than 100 flights carrying more than 3,000 metric tons of humanitarian goods. During the FY 2011, approximately 393 tons of humanitarian goods were delivered from the U.S. to Haiti. The goods delivered increased dramatically in 2012 as a combination of disasters struck in Haiti, drought in the first part of the year, followed by Tropical Storm Isaac in August and Hurricane Sandy in October. During the FY 2012, approximately 964 tons of goods were delivered. While internally displaced people remain high and recurring disasters continues to threaten vulnerable population, large volumes of goods flowed to Haiti in FY 2013 and FY 2014 as approximately 1,543 and 1,193 tons of goods were delivered respectively.

Delivery items are mostly food, clothing, and education supplies donated by the U.S.-based charity organizations to the GoH directly or approved charity organizations operating in Haiti. Sometimes, the program approves large items. Since FY 2011, the Denton Cargo Program delivered 12 fire trucks and ambulance vehicles to HNP firefighters and first responders. In August 2012, Florham Park Fire Department in New Jersey donated a fire truck to the Volunteer Emergency Service of Croix-des-Bouquets; a small city situated just outside Port-au-Prince. Prior to the Croix-des-Bouquets Volunteer Emergency Service, there was no emergency response service in the area. The fire truck is the first fire suppression vehicle in the history of the city.

The Denton Cargo Program makes the humanitarian mission possible. Because donated items are on the military plane, the goods are expedited and delivered without delay. Transportation costs are one of the biggest expenses charity organizations face with international aid. Through opportunities such as the Denton Cargo Program, additional savings can be achieved through pooling and sharing of resources. The money saved can be used to bring more goods to more people in need.

Five Years Later

Before the earthquake, Haiti was already one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Five years after the earthquake, Haiti is still challenged, with over 200,000 internally displaced people still living in temporary shelters in difficult conditions and children collecting plastics bottles from the trash in order to survive. Recovery has been long and fraught with difficulty with the threat of cholera and regular tropical storms, but the people of Haiti and international communities are making steady progress every day. Children dressed in neatly pressed school uniforms with colorful ribbons tied to their hair are going to school in the morning. Construction crews are working late into the night paving the washed out roads or laying cinder blocks for building houses under dim light.

After five years of dedicated support, the U.S. military has been recognized by the GoH and international communities for taking on a leading role in expanding disaster readiness capacity, promoting respect for human rights, and delivering goods to reconstruct a more equitable future for the people of Haiti. The U.S. military has emphasized the importance of building partner capacity to address emerging threats. Instability in Haiti will threaten U.S. and partners’ interests in the Caribbean. DoD’s efforts to humanitarian missions are designed to promote stability in Haiti and the region. When this close neighbor with strong people-to-people ties is more prosperous, secure, and stable, Haitians and Americans both benefit.


1. Haiti is divided into 10 departments (French, départements), “provinces”.

2. Any opinions, analysis, recommendations, or conclusions should be attributed to the author, and is not necessarily the view of DoD, DHS, or the USG

About the author:

Commander Ted Kim, U.S. Coast Guard, is Senior Defense Official, Defense Attaché, and Chief of Security Cooperation Office (SCO) at the U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He is a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and earned advanced degrees from the University of New Orleans, the George Washington University and Georgetown University. The author would like to thank the SCO, SOUTHCOM, and the Louisiana National Guard for their dedication and hard work.

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