By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 28, 2010 - When a disaster strikes, people assume it should be easy to get relief supplies in. But it's not always a simple proposition. Can the airport's runway support the weight of cargo aircraft? What is the security situation like? What equipment does the airport have for unloading and loading? How many people and the means to support and supply them will be needed?
All of these questions and more are in the realm of Joint Task Force Port Opening at Toussaint L'Overture International Airport here. The unit, operating under U.S. Transportation Command, opened the airport after the magnitude 7 earthquake that hit Haiti Jan. 12 and has been responsible for operations on the airport's ramp since then.
The task force contains the Air Force's 621st Contingency Response Group, from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and the Army's 688th Transportation Detachment for rapid port opening from Fort Eustis, Va.
The disaster in Haiti marks the first time "the whole enchilada" has been used in an operation, said Air Force Col. Patrick Hollrah, the task force commander.
"Something of this magnitude takes the whole team to make it happen," he said during a recent interview. "This is, unfortunately, what we were made to do. It is our job to respond to these."
The unit was the second one on the ground after the Air Force Special Operations Command team. "[The special operations team] brought a special tactics team with them that was restoring order and starting to control the airflow in," Hollrah said. "There were literally airplanes parked everywhere."
The terminal building, while still standing, has cracks all through it and cannot be used.
Aircraft parked where they could and crews improvised the unloading process. That caused confusion beyond belief, the colonel said. Relief supplies got intermixed and trucks drove straight down the ramp to load supplies.
"We started working in tandem [with the Air Force special operations team] to get airplanes unloaded so they could get off the ramp to clear off parking spaces so more airplanes could come in," Hollrah said.
It was a short time from order to execution, so the team surveyed the area on the flight down to Haiti and had an idea of how they wanted to set up the unit.
"The biggest challenge was the volume of air traffic, volume of vehicles and the volume of people on an airport ramp," he said. "Anywhere else, a ramp is a restricted area. Not here."
The unit is trying to get control of the safety and distribution parts of the equation, but it is slow going. "Eventually, we'll get back to a point that improves safety and allows the traffic to flow where it needs to when it needs to," Hollrah said. "It will also make the unloading and distribution process faster."
Aerial port airmen unload the aircraft and move the goods off the ramp. Army vehicles take the goods and move them to a forward distribution node, about a mile away. "This opens up the ramp space and stops having trucks drive right on the ramp to pick up supplies," said Army Maj. Vicky Snow, the 688th commander.
The soldiers stack the goods and, using rough-terrain forklifts, load trucks from governmental and nongovernmental agencies. By far, the most goods in the supply yard belong to the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is responsible for picking up the relief supplies and distributing them. That process is moving smoothly.
Nongovernmental agencies also pick up their goods at the yard, and this can be more of a problem. In one case, someone donated a plane to airlift supplies to the effort, and several organizations placed goods aboard it without tracking numbers, or even labels.
"Separating these out and ensuring they go to who they belong to can cause problems," Snow said. "In other cases, they don't have the right trucks to load with a forklift, so we have to break down the palettes and load [the vehicles] by hand. This takes time."
These are small units. "We have all our people cross-trained, and everybody pitches in to ensure the mission gets done," Hollrah said. "We're a bridging force that can come in quickly to get the process started. Then we turn the responsibility over to government or non-governmental agencies."
The unit not only handles supplies coming in, but also helps the State Department with refugees getting out.
"We have a high-volume evacuation of American citizens," said Air Force Maj. Matt Jones, the task force's operations officer. "We've been averaging 1,200 American citizens per day that have been getting on U.S. military and commercial aircraft and getting back home."
Before the earthquake, the airport saw 30 flights on a busy day, and those were mostly during daylight. At its peak, since the disaster, the airport received 120 flights per day 24 hours a day. The most recent statistics show the airport has handled at least 12 million pounds of relief supplies, and this does not count critical supplies that medical and relief personnel brought with them.
The joint task force will continue until its services are no longer needed, Hollrah said, or until the mission is taken over by other organizations.