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Opinion: Relief requires flexibility

The US military can and should move quickly, but should listen to advice from seasoned pros on the ground.

Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne load a U.S. Navy helicopter at Port-au-Prince international airport in Haiti on Jan. 18, 2010. (Hans Deryk/Reuters)

PARIS, France — For world-class calamities, a United States military airlift is the best way to bring massive relief. Yet when minutes matter, it is often the greatest obstacle.

The swarm of troops that choked off Port-au-Prince’s crippled airport as they set up camp was like firemen rushing to a blazing building and then stopping for lunch.

In the long run, orderly deployment helps relief teams work more efficiently. But by then, cries from the rubble have ceased. Many of the injured are dead, untreated. And angry, desperate people are ready to kill for a drink of water or a scrap of food.

(GlobalPost correspondent Ioan Grillo in Port-au-Prince reports that desperate Haitians have begun to fend for themselves.)

Michelle Chouinard of Doctors Without Borders/Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), old hands at handling emergencies, barely masked her wrath in a television interview.

She saw U.S. transports land weapons and rulebooks, but an MSF charter carrying a 100-bed field hospital and two operating theaters was among aircraft turned away.

Flights from all directions were diverted or scrubbed, delaying the arrival of doctors with vital medicines and rescue teams with sniffer dogs.

It is hardly fair to criticize from 4,500 miles away, but I have covered similar post-calamity chaos a dozen times and watched U.S. forces in action since the 1960s.

Military commanders operate by the book, but disasters don’t correspond to books. Relief takes flexible thinking by experienced pros.

After Haiti, the world needs to figure this out.

As the experts insist, an international disaster command should coordinate all players. The Pentagon must consider force security. But the victims matter, too.

In 1991, when a cyclone killed 140,000 in Bangladesh, the U.S. Marines’ Operation Sea Angels saved lives with daring helicopter airlifts to outlying islands.

But in Somalia the next year, generals ignored pleas to deliver aid directly to the stricken center of the country. They bogged down in nightmare at the Mogadishu port.

As families starved hundreds of miles away, U.S. Marines moved around crates with forklifts while Somali kids harassed their patrols in the capital’s mean streets.