Coast Guard helping rebuild Haiti’s ports

by Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley

An international port is a crossroads of culture, languages and international exchange. A port is a nations lifeline to the world through imports and exports. On Jan. 11, 2010 the international port of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was just this, Haiti’s lifeline to the world with 95-percent of the ports activity consisting of imports to the country.

The port of Port-au-Prince was forever changed on Jan. 12, 2010, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the nation’s capitol and the port. Within moments, the harbor facilities had crumbled to the earthquakes onslaught. Piers crashed into the harbor, strewing shipping containers across the water and sinking the port’s cargo cranes and their vital link to the world.

“Infrastructure is made up of nodes linking the economic system,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mark Sheppard, Coast Guard Maritime Transportation System Recovery Unit (MTSRU) member. “The earthquake destroyed these nodes and brought the system to its knees.”

The economic system that brings supplies into the country of Haiti directly revolves around the port and its link to the world. This is where the U.S. Coast Guard has stepped in to help rebuild the broken node that is the port and help the system come back online.

An integral part of the recovery of the port is the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Oak. The Cutter Oak, which is homeported in Charleston, S.C., was engaged in Haiti even before the event that forever impacted the area.

Two crewmen from the Cutter Oak were in Haiti, they were predeployed to Port-au-Prince to assess the harbor for the ship’s upcoming trip to the area and were there when the earthquake struck. They came through it unscathed, and were able to return home to their families.

While the two crewmen were transiting home, the rest of the crew were on their way south from South Carolina to Port-au-Prince. The crew of the Cutter Oak arrived four days after the quake and immediately offloaded bottle water and medical supplies and assisted in helping those who had been affected by the disaster.

While many crewmembers of the cutter were ashore helping tend the wounded, their fellow shipmates were surveying the harbor and preparing to service any affected aids-to-navigation and place additional buoys to help mark a safe route into the harbor.

Working with a native port pilot and his knowledge of the harbor, the crew of the Oak placed four new buoys and repositioned one to better prepare the port for ship arrivals.

“The crew has done an excellent job,” said Cmdr. Mike Glander, commanding officer of the Cutter Oak. “Many members of my crew have told me that this is one of the most rewarding things that they have personally done.”

As more and more shipping started to arrive with supplies to help the people, it quickly became clear that there was a need for a coordination of ship movement in the harbor.

Working together with the MTSRU, which is a team uniquely designed for coordinating the rebuild of a transportation infrastructure, the crew of the Cutter Oak became a floating traffic control center. Orchestrating the movements of the many ships that were arriving from countries like Mexico, Columbia, France, Cuba and the United States.

Despite all the vessels arriving to bring much needed supplies to help the people of Haiti, the port, which is an essential system node, was all but destroyed. Because of the destruction and limited usability of the port, there quickly became a bottleneck in the system.

While there was a continued focus on the port of Port-au-Prince through military and civilian joint operations, recovery assist teams or “RAT” teams made up of Coast Guard men and women from across the U.S. started surveying smaller port facilities throughout Haiti in an effort to reduce the bottleneck at the port of Port-au-Prince.

“Overall the port infrastructure is a lot better than expected,” said Chief Brown, Atlantic Area Strike Team and MTRSU member. “Although that doesn’t mean there are not challenges to overcome.”

The port operations at the only surviving pier in the main point of entry to Port-au-Prince came to a screeching halt Jan. 26. Divers found that support legs of the pier had disappeared during tearthquake aftershocks, making the pier unstable and dangerous to use.

Further challenges have presented themselves by the fact that crews are working in a foreign country.

“With this being a foreign port, it is hard to know local logistics,” said Brown. “We don’t even know if all of the port managers are alive, and those who are, are trying to take care of their homeless families while working each day towards putting their country back together.”

Together with the resilient people of Haiti, the crew of the Cutter Oak combined with the oversight and expertise of the MTSRU, the ports of Haiti are poised to steadily come back online.

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