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MacDill medical team leaves for Haiti amid relief bottleneck

The airport in Port-au-Prince, shown here in a satellite image taken Saturday morning, has a usual daily capacity of 13 landings. The traffic now is 200 sorties a day, say those on the ground. Beyond the overwhelming numbers, flights are delayed by the lack of a taxiway, meaning landing planes must turn around and go back up the runway before another can land, say officials there.

Photo courtesy of geoeye.com

The airport in Port-au-Prince, shown here in a satellite image taken Saturday morning, has a usual daily capacity of 13 landings. The traffic now is 200 sorties a day, say those on the ground. Beyond the overwhelming numbers, flights are delayed by the lack of a taxiway, meaning landing planes must turn around and go back up the runway before another can land, say officials there.

TAMPA — It took four tries, but a medical team left MacDill Air Force Base Wednesday afternoon to help earthquake victims in Haiti.

The holdup: a huge bottleneck at the airport in Port-au-Prince. It has just one runway. Before the earthquake its capacity on an average day was 13 landings.

Now it sees more than 200 sorties a day.

That is challenging U.S. military officials who are coordinating the landings with the United Nations, the Haitian government and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

MacDill officials spent three days finding a C-130 cargo plane available to carry the team's 13 members and their gear into the earthquake zone so they can prepare injured patients for medical flights out.

"All these aircraft with supplies, equipment, the 82nd Airborne coming out of Fort Bragg were trying to vie for priorities within the airlift system," said Col. David Cohen, vice commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill.

But the medical team isn't the only thing MacDill is sending to Haiti.

As of Wednesday, 50 U.S. Air Mobility Command missions and 222,000 pounds of supplies and equipment had gone through MacDill. Tankers from MacDill also had flown eight missions to refuel aircraft flying to Haiti.

With so much air traffic converging on the Haitian capital, the aid group Doctors Without Borders complained that six of its planes were rerouted to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, delaying the delivery of urgently needed antibiotics.

About a third of the planes moving through the Port-au-Prince airport are military, said Capt. Jon Stack, a spokesman for U.S. Air Mobility Command. Each flight needs to have assigned times to land and leave after unloading. If there's no room on the ground, planes are sent into a holding pattern or sent to another airport to wait.

And the single runway at Port-au-Prince is just part of the problem, said Wayne Westhoff, who has been to Haiti many times and teaches disaster management and humanitarian assistance at the University of South Florida.

There's no taxiway. That means that after planes land, they have to turn around and taxi to the terminal on the runway.

"It really holds up traffic," said Westhoff, an assistant professor in the USF College of Public Health. And still, he said, that's not the worst part.

"The biggest problem is once the cargo is unloaded at the airport, there's only one main road that goes to downtown Port-au-Prince," he said. "It's not like the roads we would think of here where you have a sidewalk and a white line down the middle. There are people walking down the road. It's just absolute chaos on a normal day."

Given those constraints, it's amazing that the airport can handle 200 flights a day, he said.

Military officials in Washington said Wednesday that the Port-au-Prince airport normally could only handle seven or eight planes on the ground at a time. But a satellite photo from Saturday morning shows a dozen of them, military and civilian, being unloaded at the terminal.

"If they had more than four or five planes in there, they must be really pushing them in close," Westhoff said.

Preparing the airport to receive supplies took "herculean work," said Army Maj. Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, the deputy commander of the military's response in Haiti.

"It takes forces on the ground to secure the areas where these drops must go in and to organize the people to avoid a chaotic distribution when those supplies come in," Allyn said. "And we needed to wait until we had adequate forces to enable that to happen."

Military officials are working to bring supplies in via two other airstrips — one near Jacmel, about 25 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, and the other in San Isidro in the Dominican Republic.

From there, some aid will be trucked into Haiti, Allyn said.

Officials also have been working to open the port at Port-au-Prince so supplies can also come in by ship.

"We are obviously very conscious of the need to have multiple ports of entry," Allyn said.

Times staff writers Kim Wilmath and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.

MacDill medical team leaves for Haiti amid relief bottleneck 01/20/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 21, 2010 4:22pm]
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