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Devastation, Seen From a Ship

Published: January 13, 2010

The commander of the first American ship to reach earthquake-stricken Port-au-Prince, Haiti, described a scene of extraordinary devastation, with collapsed buildings reaching from the port into the hills above.

The Coast Guard cutter Forward, dispatched from the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, arrived early Wednesday, the only large vessel in the harbor.

Cmdr. Diane W. Durham, commander of the vessel, said Haitian officials told her that half of the 80 members of the Haitian coast guard stationed at the port had been killed in the earthquake.

An American Coast Guard helicopter evacuated four injured staff members from the American embassy in Port-au-Prince to Guantánamo Bay, where the United States has medical facilities. Two C-130 transport planes flew overhead, providing assessments of the damage to American officials who are planning a large deployment to Haiti to assist with rescue and recovery efforts.

Commander Durham said from the port, not many burning fires were visible in the capital, but collapsed buildings were everywhere in sight.

“It is hard to look out in this harbor and see a building that has not been affected,” she said, “from the waterfront up the hills to the larger buildings.”

“Everybody in this city has been hit,” she added.

Even in Guantánamo Bay, about 200 miles away from the epicenter, the earthquake was felt strongly enough to rock the Forward, a 270-foot long ship with a crew of 110 men and women, back and forth in the water. The ship set out for Haiti Tuesday evening.

In Port-au-Prince, many piers had collapsed into the harbor and oil had spilled into the water, Commander Durham said, but there did not appear to be obstructions in the channel leading into the port, meaning that other American or foreign relief ships should be able to approach the area. For now, though, there is no easy way to land rescue supplies from ships, she said.

Her crew has not been sent ashore to help in immediate rescue efforts, she said, because the ship’s responsibility for the moment is to provide air traffic control for other military planes and helicopters. The control tower at the main airport was knocked out by the quake, though its runway appeared to be intact.

All American Coast Guard personnel stationed in Port-au-Prince had reported in, Commander Durham said.

She said a Coast Guard helicopter flew over the United Nations compound and could see that there were people there trapped under building debris. Thousands of residents were seen assembled outside the gates at a government facility in the city, and large groups were also assembled in other streets and public areas. The pilot of her ship’s helicopter reported seeing people working in several areas to dig out survivors. But for the most part, she said, the city appeared to be waiting for rescue and relief efforts to arrive.

Three other Coast Guard ships are on their way to the island, as well as other Defense Department vessels including the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson.

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