On the morning of October 4, 2016, Hurricane Matthew made landfall in the southern tip of Haiti. It was the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall since 1964 with maximum sustained winds of 145 miles per hour, and 12 to 20 feet of storm surge in some areas. United States Embassy and U.S. government personnel took shelter-in-place as the outer bands of Hurricane Matthew reached Port-au-Prince and wreaked havoc with heavy rain and strong winds. One day after the storm passed, the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) were called upon to help the people of Haiti, and formed Joint Task Force – Matthew (JTF-M).
Initial reports indicated that the hurricane caused catastrophic damage, including heavy wind damage and extensive flooding in Haiti’s Southern areas. Strong winds downed trees and power lines, while destroying large swaths of agricultural fields. Reports indicated that roads along the southern coastline were washed away and impassable. Major cities like Ile-a-Vache, Les Cayes, and Jeremie experienced severe flooding, and as much as half of all homes had been destroyed. Eventually, it was determined that the hurricane killed more than 1,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless. The number of deaths continued to increase as information trickled in from remote areas previously cut off by the hurricane.
Immediately, U. S. Navy Commander Ted Kim, the Senior Defense Official/Defense Attaché (SDO/DATT) made an arrangement with the Haitian Aviation Authority to leverage the Haitian airport to execute U.S. military relief operations. Security Cooperation Office - Haiti (SCO-HA) and Coast Guard Liaison Office (CGLO) personnel were dispatched to inspect and occupy the domestic terminal and tarmac. At 1 PM, the first U.S. military aircraft arrived from Puerto Rico - a U.S. Coast Guard HC-144 fixed wing patrol aircraft. This aircraft provided the first aerial overflight of the damage zone and transported Provisional President of Haiti Jocelerme Privert, the U.S. Ambassador, as well as United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and United Nations disaster relief personnel. Later that evening, the JTF Commander and his staff arrived in a C-130 aircraft. After unloading their gear and equipment from the plane, SCO personnel helped them settle in at the airport terminal and establish a JTF Command Center.
On October 6, two days after the hurricane had passed, the rest of the JTF assets and personnel arrived with nine helicopters and 250 personnel. The air assets consisted of two CH-47s and three CH-53s for heavy lift, two HH60s for Medical evacuation, and two UH60s with personnel movement and medium lift. At the same time, U.S. Air Force South started to deliver necessary equipment, gear, supplies, and supporting personnel to augment JTF-M as two C-17 aircraft landed at the airport. Within a span of 24 hours, JTF-M expanded to 426 boots on the ground in Port-au-Prince. SCO and CGLO personnel led a group of JTF logistics, force protection, and contracting personnel to find additional lodging and supplies around the city. During the mission, SCO-HA assisted JTF-M in procuring essential supplies locally: cleaning equipment, toiletries, ice machines, portable water, etc.
With roads still cutoff, 72 hours after the hurricane had passed through, JTF-M transported 48 specialized Haitian National Police (HNP) officers to reinforce and evacuate injured HNP officers out of the disaster areas. JTF-M delivered much needed food and water to the police officers trapped behind closed roads. During the delivery of goods, desperate people tend to rush into the helo landing zones, putting themselves in great danger. Upon request by the JTF Commander, HNP officers were assigned to provide security at the helo landing zones to prevent injuries from rotor wash. At least one HNP officer flew on every relief flight to provide security, and to coordinate with HNP officers on the ground, resulting in no reported injuries or deaths after more than 90 relief flight operations.
Numerous afloat assets also provided support to JTF-M, both U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard.
On October 7, USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19), a U.S. Navy amphibious transport ship received orders from SOUTHCOM. The ship arrived in Haiti on October 9, and immediately supported the relief efforts with an additional three CH-53 helicopters. On October 8, USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7), another U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship, departed Naval Station Norfolk to relieve USS Mesa Verde in support of SOUTHCOM’s relief efforts in Haiti. USS Iwo Jima arrived on October 13 with 11 helicopters, including one V-22 Osprey, and more than 1,100 sailors and marines onboard. The airlift and fast transport capabilities of these ships made them uniquely suited to support the delivery of emergency relief goods, and transport of relief personnel in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.
The USCGC Hamilton (WMSL-752) played a vital role in allowing the interim president of Haiti and the U.S. ambassador to reach the badly damaged town of Jeremie. With their unique capabilities as a National Security Cutter, they provided safe and critical transport by sea into a town that was cut off from other governmental institutions.
During the two-week mission, SCO-HA and CGLO became critical links between the U.S. Embassy, U.N. agencies, the Government of Haiti, and JTF-M. SDO/DATT coordinated daily meetings with the ambassador, JTF commander, and USAID team leader. The JTF commander and his staff received embassy access badges, and were allowed to have full access to the Embassy to work with USAID personnel. SCO-HA coordinated with JTF-M to organize SOUTHCOM Commander Admiral Tidd’s visit to Haiti on two occasions in one week, ensuring the U.S. ambassador and the visiting USAID director from Washington D.C. participated in the critical meetings with ADM Tidd.
On October 19, JTF-M officially completed its two-week mission to support the early stages of Hurricane Matthew disaster relief mission in Haiti. JTF-M brought unique capability that only the U.S. military could offer, and provided critical support to the USAID response. Throughout the mission, JFT-M completed 98 humanitarian flights to hard-to reach areas, delivered 275 metric tons of food and relief supplies, and transported 170 response-critical personnel. This is a great example of SOUTHCOM rapid response missions, where they support U.S. Government efforts to reduce immediate human suffering in the aftermath of natural disaster, and establish a foundation for long-term recovery.