WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama said Thursday that "one of the largest relief efforts in our recent history" is moving toward Haiti as he continued to mobilize the U.S. response to the island's devastating earthquake.
As many as 5,500 U.S. infantry soldiers and Marines will be on the ground or on ships offshore by Monday, a Defense Department official said. More than a half dozen ships, including a hospital ship with 12 operating rooms, also were heading there Thursday or preparing to get under way, said spokesman Bryan Whitman.
Obama said the U.S. government is initially directing $100 million toward the relief effort, a figure he said would certainly grow over the year. "This is one of those moments that calls out for American leadership," he said.
Meanwhile, an administration official said Obama is reaching out to former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton for their assistance in the relief effort. It was Bush who tapped his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Clinton, to assist with the tsunami response.
Their roles will be defined in the coming days, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because a formal announcement had not been made.
An official close to Bush confirmed that he was joining Clinton in the relief efforts.
At the State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed the death of one American citizen, with three others known to be missing after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The agency did not immediately release the name of the victim. Crowley said the U.S. embassy has made contact with nearly 1,000 American citizens in Haiti, just a fraction of the estimated 45,000 Americans there.
Amid continuing efforts to assess the disaster's cost in lives and lost property, the first U.S. Army infantry troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in North Carolina prepared to leave for Haiti with arrival expected later Thursday. That's a little over 100 troops that will find locations to set up tents and other essentials in preparation for the arrival of another roughly 800 personnel from the division on Friday and the full brigade of some 3,500 by the end of the weekend, Whitman said.
They come on top of some 2,200 Marines, also to arrive by the Sunday or Monday, as the military ramped up what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called "a full court press" to provide security, search and rescue and delivery of humanitarian supplies.
Obama said more than a half dozen U.S. military ships were also expected to help, with the largest, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, arriving Friday, and the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort expected to arrive by Friday, Jan. 22.
Obama, evidently remembering the political cost to George W. Bush of a slow government response to Hurricane Katrina, warned preemptively that it would take hours "and in many cases days" to get the full U.S. relief contingent on the ground, because of the badly damaged roads, airport, port and communications.
"None of this will seem quick enough if you have a loved one who's trapped, if you're sleeping on the streets, if you can't feed your children," Obama said. "So today, you must know that help is arriving. Much, much more help is on the way."
As a start, the president said the U.S. military has secured the severely damaged airport in Port-au-Prince, preparing it to receive round-the-clock deliveries of heavy equipment and emergency supplies being flown in from the United States and countries around the world.
For Washington, managing its role in the crisis required a rush-mentality coupled with consideration of the implications of its role.
"The United States is providing a lot of the glue that is keeping people communicating and working together as we try to assert authority, reinstate the government and begin to do what governments have to do to rebuild and reconstruct this damaged country," Clinton said in an interview on Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends."
Sensitive to questions about whether the U.S. would need — or choose — to essentially take over Haiti's now almost-nonexistent civil and governmental structure, Crowley, her spokesman, stressed that U.S. troops sent to Haiti will be under U.S. command but there to augment and support the United Nations mission.
"We're not taking over Haiti," he said. "We are helping to stabilize Haiti, we're helping to provide them lifesaving support and materiel and we're going to be there over the long term to help Haiti rebuild. But, the key is: we are maintaining constant contact with the Haitian government even given the difficult situation. What we're doing is following the priorities that the Haitian government has outlined for us."
Obama said Americans are being evacuated as quickly as possible. Crowley said 164 Americans have been airlifted out, including 42 non-essential officials and employee family members and 72 private citizens who were taken out on Coast Guard C-130s. Another 50 private citizens left on an Iceland Air flight. There are 360 Americans registered to leave on evacuation flights that will continue today.
"We will not rest until we account for our fellow Americans in harm's way," Obama said.
The president also said he has directed Vice President Joe Biden to travel to South Florida this weekend to meet with members of the Haitian-American community and responders.