USS Carl Vinson’s choppers rush supplies to Haitians

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON — Desperate to get supplies into Haiti, the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, off the coast of the quake-ravaged nation, pulled the bottled water and Gatorade from the vending machines and ship stores.

The water, along with medical supplies, was loaded onto helicopters and delivered into the country today.

By day’s end, the ship was out of goods to deliver.

Getting more supplies to the ship is the biggest challenge, said Rear Adm. Ted Branch.

“We have lift, we have communications, we have command and control, but we don’t have much relief supplies to offer,” Branch said.

The aircraft carrier in the bay of Port-au-Prince a few miles off the coast is the frontline of the American relief effort here.

About 15 helicopter flights launched from the carrier’s deck today, dropping goods into Haiti. Helicopters were also making trips back and forth to Guantanamo Bay to pick up people and supplies. They took hundreds of cases of water and Gatorade on the 10-mile hop to Port-au-Prince.

Branch said the choppers took supplies to six different sites today. But he said the overall coordination isn’t what it needs to be.

“Everyone is trying to help. Everyone is trying to do their part,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say the coordination hasn’t come as far as it needs to do make this as efficient as possible.”

The Navy has distributed all of its supplies at the Port-au-Prince airport. Other groups have supplies, but have faced difficulties moving them into Haiti because of the destruction.

“There are supplies there under the control of other agencies who want to deliver those supplies themselves and they are stymied by lack of transportation on the ground,” Branch said. “Unless we can get that coordination to work, to allow the most efficient distribution to happen, we’ll continue to have problems.”

More supplies were expected to be flown in from Guantanamo Bay on Saturday.

The carrier was off the coast of Norfolk, Va., when it got orders at around midnight Tuesday to head to the ravaged country. It had been at dry dock for the past four years getting a complete overhaul.

Traveling at about 32 knots, the nuclear-powered carrier slowed off the coast of Mayport, Fla., to pick up additional helicopters, and now has 19 on board.

The Vinson was the first American naval ship to arrive in Haiti.

Today, three other amphibious ships were ordered to head to the region. A cruiser and two frigates were ordered to stand by at their homeports.

The carrier, which normally has a crew of 2,800 and has added a further 700 for this mission, arrived in Haiti early this morning. Its landing strips served as the logistical hub of operations.

Today, the first flight, surveying potential drop points for relief supplies, left the carrier at around 6 a.m.

During the day, the ship doesn’t anchor, instead moving as the winds change so the helicopters can land. At about 3:30 p.m., Branch briefed reporters from the flight bridge.

Below, the last helicopters of the day were readied to leave. On the flight deck, rotors whirred as the choppers, an MH-53 and an SH-60, waited to make the last flights of the day. The helicopters are not flying after dark because there are no lights to mark power lines and towers.

A medevac helicopter also launched from the ship to help with the rescue of an American citizen found in the rubble of a hotel. At least one of his limbs had to be amputated and he was brought onboard to be treated.

To deliver supplies, the command must also figure out the best way to drop supplies. The big helicopters, such as the MH-53, kick up a lot of debris, and Branch said they might instead break the supplies into smaller loads.

The 82nd Airborne is on the ground helping provide security for supply drops. Today, Branch said the crowds were “pretty well behaved. We might have surprised them.”

But he cautioned: “No one knows what will happen in the coming days.”

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