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All of the aid problems being experienced in Haiti are caused by logistics, and the logistical problems are caused by the destruction of the infrastructure.

First a little geography. Port au Prince is about 200 miles from Guantanamo, 400 miles from San Juan, Puerto Rico, 700 miles from Miami. It only has one airport capable of accepting reasonably sized cargo aircraft.

Some people talk about using the Dominican Republic, but its airport has a shorter runway, and the two southern roads that connect Haiti and the Dominican Republic can best be described as tertiary. With continuing aftershocks, the northern road through the mountains is probably not a good choice as it may be blocked with rock slides. The southern road to not paved all the way, and is a narrow two-line road at best.

The US Coast Guard did the initial survey, and determined that there was one, undamaged, runway at the Port au Prince airport, but the control tower was unusable; and the port facilities were destroyed. As a result, the US Southern Command sent a AFSOC Special Tactics team to reopen the airport, and started an amphibious assault group toward the area. Initial aid was shifted to the aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, because it could off-load its supplies with helicopters.

It may come as a shock to Greg Palast [via Susie Madrak], but if the US hadn’t already arrived and activated the airport, the aid from Iceland et al. still wouldn’t be in Port au Prince. The bulk of US aid is coming later because it needs the facilities of the landing system the amphibious group will construct to land and it needs a distrubition system on land

If the roads out of the airport don’t get cleared, aid will stop, because the airport is already getting backed up, and they can’t get the necessary equipment in to relieve the bottleneck.

Currently people need to know what is going on, because many who are able would help if they could be mobilized, and civil unrest is certain if the only “news” people get is rumor. It has been long enough that scavenging will become looting, and real violence will start, because people aren’t seeing any sign that anyone is doing anything to help. This could have been avoided by dropping hand-cranked radios so people would have a source of news and a visible sign that people are aware of their situation.

Roads need to be cleared so aid can get through to the people who need it, and in large enough quantities so there is a feeling that more is coming. When it comes out at irregular intervals at different places in small quantities, people spend all their time looking for the next distribution site, and the supplies become a target for theft and violence. People are thirsty, hungry, and frustrated. It won’t take much for them to get angry and violent.

Update: The DR has significantly up-graded the Santa Domingo Airport since I was last interested in it.


1 Kryten42 { 01.18.10 at 1:42 am }

A good summary Brian, and quite right too. Thanks. 🙂

2 Bryan { 01.18.10 at 9:12 pm }

I’m going to post on the airport, and we own the problem, because the US built the stupid thing. Once you see the aerial, you recognize the problem, a truly terrible design.

3 Jack K., the Grumpy Forester { 01.18.10 at 11:10 pm }

…most people don’t understand the dynamics involved in moving thousands of people and tons of aid supplies across long distances to some point on the globe. The folks I hang out with are masters at it, being able to magically create temporary small towns full of people out of thin air on short notice, but that magic requires an intact infrastructure and some sort of controlling authority. Neither of those were present in Haiti after Tuesday’s earthquake…

4 Bryan { 01.18.10 at 11:29 pm }

One of the big problems, Jack, is that some agencies can create these feats of magic, having refined the process over decades of experience. If the US was truly in charge and could do whatever they wanted, this would be a lot easier. They are doing what they can, where they can, trying not to step on too many toes.

When you look at things like the AlCan Highway, the Burma Road, you know that things can be done, but they take time, money, and the power to do whatever is necessary.

If people think there’s a mess now, I can imagine what it would be like if the control tower had not been damaged, and the regular Haitian controllers were trying to handle this volume of traffic. They normally handled three flights a day, and the airport was designed for one flight an hour. Why would they be expected to have more than two fuel trucks, or two aircraft tractors?

Actually, your guys would be better able to move stuff between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, because they have they roads you guys use all the time. The problem is that there are millions of people who need to be fed and housed, rather than hundreds.

It’s warm there, maybe you guys could volunteer…