Haiti and the tyranny of logistics

We’ve been following the massive effort to bring succor to the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake.

There’s a massive rush by concerned citizens and groups to get aid to the Haitian people. But there’s two problems. First, getting aid to Haiti. Second, getting aid distributed inside Haiti.

Just getting supplies to Haiti is problematical. Haiti is on the island of Hispanola, so you can only get there by ship or by plane.

For airplanes, there’s really only one airport in Haiti, at Port au Prince. The runway is open, but the airport doesn’t have the capability to refuel or otherwise service aircraft. That means that airplanes need to land with enough fuel to fly out to another airport to refuel. But every pound of fuel that they have to have on board to get out is a pound that can’t be devoted to aid supplies. Also, the airport isn’t designed to accommodate large numbers of flights daily. There is little parking space, and very little cargo handling equipment. What little there is, is designed to handle luggage, not large pallets of relief supplies.  The earthquake pretty much demolished all the navigation and air traffic control facilities as well. The Air Force has taken over the airport, and they have special teams (Combat Controllers) who are providing air traffic control services. But there’s still a very real limit on the number of planes that can get into the airport. And airplanes, as big as they are, can really only carry a tiny fraction of the volume of supplies needed. If you want to move large amounts of supplies, you need ships.

The “Port” in Port au Prince, however, is badly damaged. The cranes at the port that would handle containers have collapsed, and the quay where ships would tie up is either collapsed or blocked. And no one really knows what other hazards are in the port right now.  We discussed briefly before some of the Navy’s early response efforts to the earthquake.  We briefly mentioned the amphibious warfare ships the Navy is sending. These will be among the first folks on scene able to move bulky cargo ashore, using their landing craft. That’s a good start, but sooner or later, we’ll need to be able to unload cargo ships. First, the Coast Guard is sending the bouy tender Oak to Port au Prince. More than just tending bouys, she’ll survey what needs to be done to open the port. Navy Construction Battalions (the famous SeaBees) will also be on scene soon to improve the port facilities.

But there’s a pretty good chance that the port won’t be usable for quite some time. So, how do we get the supplies ashore? Well, last March, we discussed the Army’s history of amphibious warfare. We briefly mentioned that the Army has a capability to send logistics over the shore.

Not surprisingly, the Navy/Marine Corps team has even greater ability to conduct Logistics Over The Shore, or LOTS.  EagleSpeak, who seems a decent sort for a lawyer, has an excellent overview of what LOTS looks like. It’s not as good as a fully functional port, but it can provide a much greater capability than just using the airport, or the limited capacity of the amphibious warfare ships. All of this takes time to set up, but it has to be done if we are to provide any relief.


So we’ve addressed some of the problems facing just getting supplies to the island. But what about the supplies that have managed to reach Haiti? Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. It was a mess long before the earthquake. There is very little infrastructure. Few good roads existed, and many that did have been damaged or destroyed. Getting food and water to people where no roads exist is a huge problem. Well, you say, just use helicopters! That’s a natural thought, but it just isn’t enough. The video linked here shows just how futile it is to try to feed and water people by helo. You pretty much have to move supplies by truck. That’s an area where the Army and the Marines excel.  It’s a fair bet that the troops of the 82nd Airborne that are there (from the division’s reconnaissance squadron) are busy determining which roads are servicable, which need repairs, and where supplies are needed. They are busy setting up Landing Zones, distribution sites, selecting sites to set up water purification units, and such.

Now, obviously, as involved as the military will be, it isn’t an all military show. There’s several  foreign governments helping out, as well as tons and tons of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and other charities. Galrahn at Information Dissemination has an excellent roundup of what the Navy is doing. Be sure to delve into the comments, as there is a discussion of some of the challenges facing the military in working with NGOs. Some are used to working side by side with the services, and some are insistent on going their own way, with the possibility of friction and duplicative effort.

10 thoughts on “Haiti and the tyranny of logistics”

  1. Who cares. I say we nuke the place. If the Dominican Republic side of the island is doing great, and the Haitian side is still medieval, after all the help we’ve given them in past(Ask Bill Clinton), screw it. We got our own problems.

  2. I’m not quite ready to nuke the place, but to think we can do much more than provide food and water to the folks is pretty much wishful thinking.

    I’ve known folks that deployed to both Somolia and Haiti, and the consensus was that the Hatians were pretty much worse, even if they didn’t shoot at you.

  3. The link to Information Dissemination has some great info about the military/NGO interface and the problems that can occur there.

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