A Simple Graph
March 16, 2010
05:30 PM EDT
It seems at first a simple graph; a few skinny bars reaching various heights along a non-descript x-axis. By most accounts it is a simple depiction I suppose—a graph in this instance showing the number of pallets of relief aid that flowed across beaches the Navy created in response to the earthquake in Haiti.
I, however, see something completely different when I look at that sparse graphic in the corner of the powerpoint slide I have my staff produce everyday. I look at the tiny measure of “three” on 18 January, and remember Captain Fred Wilhelm’s even and intent voice on the phone as he told me of the horror he and his GUNSTON HALL crew had encountered when they first went ashore in Killick, Haiti. The vastness of the medical emergencies and the devastation at what used to be a functioning Haitian Coast Guard base—turned into what he described as the “site of a plane crash”. I remember the urgency with which he dispatched his boat back to his ship to bring medical personnel and supplies—three pallets worth—including, though not specifically authorized, lots and lots of painkilling medicine to help the horribly injured. In that tiny measure of “three” I see a Commanding Officer making tough gut calls balancing policy and regulation against the immediate and dire compulsion of people in need; I see hurried but professional Navy medical personnel attending to people strewn about, too weak and injured to move, some already gone and sadly but necessarily passed by. I see young Sailors intently hand-over-handing boxes of medical supplies getting relief to those laying on the ground, too focused then to realize the images they were seeing that day would likely be with them the rest of their lives. I see other Sailors resolutely carrying other injured Haitians to that section of spare grass reserved for those who would not be in need of the helicopters hovering overhead, those who were to be compassionately administered a final dose of morphine to relieve their suffering during their last moments on earth. All this I see in that sad measure of “three”—the first pallets of relief delivered ashore into the vastness of devastation by the BATAAN Amphibious Relief Mission encountered in Haiti.
I see the next day’s scant measure of “four”, and remember the focus and effort and planning that went into putting together the first beach landing in Haiti, at a site found the previous day by the CARTER HALL, to whom I had given the simple order “Find a Beach!”. I remember flying overhead Haiti for the first time the previous afternoon as dusk crept upon us, racing to learn all we could of the area before night required us to return to our ship. My Marine counterpart, COL Gary Brandl, 22 Marine Expeditionary Unit Commander, and I had visited our Admiral onboard the aircraft carrier CARL VINSON to describe for him what we hoped to do the following day: land relief supplies via air and landing craft at sites not yet determined. So as we lifted off the huge carrier we, instead of flying directly to the flagship BATAAN, conducted our first visual reconnaissance over the coastline of Haiti, he looking out one side of the helicopter for a place for Marines to land relief from the skies the following day; me looking out the other, looking for a beach over which Navy craft could soon land supplies. In that “four”, I remember the overwhelming emotion of seeing the awful devastation from the air for the first time. The patchwork fires that burned in sections of the city of Leogone, the unbelievable number of flattened structures that gave rise to more questions than I could ever think to answer, the large “S-O-S” that had been spelled out in a field using large white boulders. I remember the relief I felt when I returned to the ship and learned that CDR George Doyon, CARTER HALL’s Captain, had come through and indeed “found a beach” suitable for landing the following day. I see the calm, steady approach of CDR Steve Murray, the Commanding Officer of the Maritime Security Squadron, as he ordered his boat forward to the shore the following morning—the first to touch down west of Port Au Prince, while he noted that most of the hundreds of Haitians waiting for him on the beach held machetes close to their sides. I remember the call over the radio when the first landing craft touched down, at 0943 that morning of 19 January, and realized then that the relief of Haiti had indeed begun. Equipment to make the beach suitable for additional landing craft and heavy vehicles were the bulk of that day’s effort across the shore, but in and amongst the various large trucks and bulldozers and humvees were stashed four pallets of relief supplies for those that we might first meet. I remember well that “four”, a potent number that signals to me now our purpose in providing relief and hope during those early first days.
I glance at the graph a few measures farther down the axis and see a series of spires that approach what was then the mystical number of “200”. Seemingly overwhelming the earlier two bits of numerical data, it signals the might of a nation and the character of its citizens as, by that time, a second beach had been opened and relief efforts were fully underway. I see CDR Nate Moyer, Captain of the FORT MCHENRY, leading a team of sailors ashore, climbing trees and toppled houses to raise a spider web of home-made and exposed copper cables tapping off the established electrical grid, hung too low for relief trucks to pass down the dirt path that served as the lone trail from our first beach landing site to the coastal highway. I see the movement of Navy hovercraft, “Landing Craft Air Cushion”—awkwardly shortened to “LCAC” in Navy parlance, and the slow, methodical, yet ever reliable work of the forty year old “Landing Craft-Utility” (“LCU”) lumbering towards the shore loaded down with tons of pallets. I see the movement of trucks, and forklifts, and ultimately the hands of Marines as the relief supplies wend their way towards the waiting hands and hungry mouths of Haitians, the supplies the product of a long trail of effort and hope, riding the backs of a logistics train that had been designed originally to kill, not to feed.
I see the highest spike on the graph, reached on 27 January, when 440 pallets of relief supplies crossed the beaches of Haiti en route to the citizens that had lived through the previous 15 days of hardships one can only imagine. I remember the decisions Gary and I made to stock up the staging areas we had created at the beaches, so that we would be able to provide a stable source of supplies over the coming days. A huge food program was set to begin in nearby Port Au Prince at the end of January—the UN sponsored “World Food Push”—to overwhelm the local population with food in an attempt to relieve concerns about basic needs. Gary and I didn’t want that to create a migration to the already overburdened capital so we preceded that with a food “push” of our own to the west.
In those days still, I heard stories that reminded me that when this was all over, I would need some time to myself to sort out what I had heard and seen. A baby found in a box labeled “do not throw away, baby inside”. The dozens of scavengers climbing over mounds and mounds of rubble looking for anything, anything at all, that might help them through the day. The skinny teenage boy who watched blankly at the side of the road as I drove by, because that is all he had to do.
I see the numbers taper off over the ensuing days, to a lower yet steady relief requirement as food once again became available and the patterns of reliability in everyday life began to be stitched back together by the Marine and Maritime Civil Affairs Teams that had been living in tents since our arrival. Food no longer the driving need as much as contacts and the establishment of NGO and interagency networks of sustainable support whose endurance provides their real capacity.
I see the many days marked on the graph since that have no spires at all; for pallets of relief no longer flow across the beaches the Navy created here in Haiti. Beaches not sanctified with blood like those of Normandy, but touched nonetheless with a sense of humanity, through the effort and sweat and hope by people who cared, for people in need.
Sometimes now, the administrative requirements of Navy bureaucracy overtake me as we wrap up our mission here and it is hard to remember the intensity of those days, the earnestness with which we all drove ourselves, hoping to help.
Whenever that happens though I have the solution…all I have to do is pull out a simple graph.
CAPT Tom Negus is commander of the Bataan Amphibious Relief Mission