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First U.S. military aid reaches quake-stricken Haiti

From Mike Mount and Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producers
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Haitian rescue effort
  • First team team will assess what Haiti needs to cope with the immediate aftermath
  • One task is to set up temporary air traffic control systems
  • Aircraft carrier, ships with medical facilities heading toward Haiti

Washington (CNN) -- With the first of its flights touching down in earthquake-devastated Haiti late Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. began deploying military planes, ships and ground troops to the Caribbean nation.

One of two planes carrying a 30-person assessment team arrived at Port-au-Prince airport about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. The team will assess what Haiti needs to cope with the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

One of the team's first jobs is to get the airport working to a point where it can handle all the flights coming in from around the world filled with people and supplies to help the victims of the quake.

The U.S. Southern Command is leading the Department of Defense's response. Gen. P.K. Keen, deputy commander of the Southern Command, was in Haiti when the quake struck and has seen the situation at the airport.

"He says the runway is functional, but the tower doesn't have communications capability. The passenger terminal ... has structural damage to it, so we don't know what the status of it is, " said Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. Southern Command. "So we have a group going in to make sure we can gain and secure the airfield and operate from it, because that's one of those locations we think we're going to have a lot of the immediate effort -- from an international basis -- going into."

The group includes a unit of U.S. Air Force Special Operations Forces that departed Hurlburt Field in Florida on Wednesday afternoon. They include airmen and equipment to set up temporary air traffic control systems as well as search-and-rescue experts.

Fraser also has ordered the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to steam toward Haiti. The ship was at sea near Virginia when the quake hit and as it sails south, it will stop at Mayport, Florida, Naval Station to pick up supplies.

The Carl Vinson "had a very small complement of aircraft on it when it was at sea," Fraser told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. "As ... it passes through or by Mayport, we're going to provision it with as much capability as we can, primarily looking at helicopter capacity ... because we need to be able to get around the country."

The carrier is able to provide needed helicopters for lifting aid from the ship into the country as well as moving construction equipment to places where the machines are needed to clear rubble.

The U.S. Navy also activated the hospital ship USNS Comfort, based in Baltimore, Maryland, on Wednesday. While the Southern Command has not officially asked for the ship, the Navy activated it proactively expecting it will be requested.

The ship takes up to five days to prepare after being notified. It could be ready at the latest by Monday. The ship is staffed by 64 crew and 560 hospital personnel, and when ready it will sail toward Haiti in case it is requested.

Southern Command has ordered a unit of about 2,000 Marines to head to Haiti. The Marines will deploy aboard a large deck amphibious ship, which would give the military more helicopters to work with in Haiti. It also has a large medical facility that could help with treating the injured. It's medical facilities are comparable to the facilities aboard the Comfort, and it is possible only one of the two ships would be sent.

The Army said a brigade of roughly 3,500 members of the 82nd Airborne Division is on notice that they may soon be sent to Haiti. The 82nd sent members to New Orleans, Louisiana, in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina.

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