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Haiti relief planes coordinated from folding table at overwhelmed airport

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti

Cargo jets narrowly passed each other on descent and takeoff. Helicopters crisscrossed overhead. Airplanes taxied right into the grass as other pilots circled in holding patterns over the island.

At Haiti's main hub for aid, the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, typical aviation rules don't apply anymore. When a country is mired in devastation and despair, even the most orderly systems tend to fall apart.

"It's a miracle no one's having crashes," observed Fiona Brandt, a 28-year-old nurse and evacuee waiting to get on a Coast Guard plane that four hours earlier had taken off from Clearwater.

Sitting in the grass near the single 9,000-foot runway are a group of Federal Aviation Administration guys at a folding table.

They have a few handheld radios, some clipboards and binoculars.

This makeshift "control tower" is handling about 160 flights a day for an airport used to handling about 12.

• • •

A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 plane left Clearwater on Friday afternoon carrying seven crew members and a mountain of Pampers. After a three-hour trip, the crew spotted Haiti below, and a heavily accented Haitian voice reached out to them on the radio, directing them through the country's airspace.

But as the plane got closer to Port-au-Prince, the tower frequency changed and the pilots were welcomed by a voice that sounded American. The controller kept them in a short pattern, then cleared them for landing.

Just below, a smaller plane flew in the opposite direction.

"There's a plane right beneath us, holy ... ," co-pilot Mike Benson said into his headset.

It was Benson's first flight into Haiti since the Jan. 12 earthquake, and he had heard stories about the chaotic Port-au-Prince airport. After landing, he was relieved.

"It wasn't as bad as the rumors," he said.

Coast Guard navigator Matthew Tucker, 26, was on his fourth trip delivering aid and picking up evacuees. He was impressed with how much the airport had improved since the previous week.

"It was a lot less organized before, and on one of our flights, we were held (in the air) for four hours," he said.

He noted another new feature outside the dark, empty and damaged airport terminal. The people standing for hours, desperate to get on the next flight out of Haiti, now stood in orderly lines and had tents over their heads.

• • •

The frustration and desperation at Toussaint L'Ouverture is nothing like what's going on around it. Approaching overhead, pilots and passengers can see rows of collapsed buildings and people standing for miles along streets, waving their arms.

On the ground behind the airport, it's all marching soldiers, small buses carrying Haitian children and military Hummers. The smell of human decay that marks the rest of the city is masked by jet fuel and exhaust. Smoke plumes from fires can be seen in the surrounding mountains.

Military planes mingle on the same strip with commercial airlines and private jets. Troops from Japan, Iran and Poland come and go, and those staying longer than a day set up camps in a nearby field where they stash relief supplies.

"You walk through there, and the whole world is dumping stuff in the grass," said Mark Ackerman, a staging area director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And while that stuff is waiting to go out to distribution areas, it sometimes disappears. Ackerman, who has been at the airport for more than a week, had asked people around him to keep an eye on his trash bin-sized power generator. It was gone a couple of days later.

Ackerman pointed out one of the best deliveries to come to the airport: a white portable trailer that arrived Thursday and will soon house the FAA air traffic operations. It will take the place of the folding table arrangement.

"Not that it's been a problem," Ackerman said quickly. "It's a hell of a chess game out here is what it is."

Even so, the airport's bustle was a calming sight to Miami Fire Rescue Chief Maurice Kemp. He was in Haiti for a few days overseeing search and rescue missions and was waiting to head home.

"This is probably the safest place in the country right now," he said.

• • •

The sun was going down, the Pampers were unloaded and the Coast Guard crew was ready to take evacuees. More than 40 people — mostly doctors, nurses and aid workers from the United States, but also a few women with babies — crowded outside the plane.

One woman ran up to Benson, the co-pilot, and asked whether she could get on the flight. Benson directed her and two others with her back to the U.S. Customs line. To his surprise, the group was cleared and back before the plane's doors were shut.

"I thought I'd never see them again," he said.

The Coast Guard was willing to take whoever Customs cleared, which up to now has been U.S. citizens, orphans with adoptions under way and severe medical emergencies.

With limited seats on the C-130, many had to sit or lie on the metal floor, uncomfortably positioned around rows of railing. Two Coast Guard crew members passed out earplugs for adults and headphones for babies.

Some had questions for the crew: Where were they going? What would happen when they got there? How would they get home?

Homestead Air Force Base, Coast Guard maintenance technician Travis Edwards told them, but "I don't know how it's going to work after that."

The passengers, exhausted from the chaos they had just left behind, asked no more questions and sat quietly as the engines began to roar.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Haiti relief planes coordinated from folding table at overwhelmed airport 01/24/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 24, 2010 11:12pm]
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