Washcloths arrived before water, and senators before surgeons. In the first chaotic days after Haiti’s earthquake, some vital aid was forced to wait because the U.S. military took relief flights at the Port-au-Prince airport on a first-come, first-served basis, according to landing logs.
The logs, reviewed exclusively by the Associated Press, document who flew in before and after the U.S. Air Force assumed control of the landing strip that was the sole lifeline for relief. They largely disprove accusations from some humanitarian groups that the U.S. held up aid in favor of military flights.
The Air Force did initially give priority to military units that were sent to secure the airport, distribute aid and keep the peace. But then it started taking flights according to a reservation system open to anyone.
Because of that, key aid was delayed in some cases while less-critical flights got in.
Nearly all the groups sending in aid insisted their load was urgent, said Air Force Capt. Justin Longmire, who has been coordinating the flight schedules and is helping prepare the airport to reopen for commercial flights today.
“Could I take the list of all the flights and put it in order of most important to least important? Water? Food? Digging equipment? Doctors? I don’t think so,” Longmire said.
The result: Church of Scientology ministers landed, as did AP reporters, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and diapers from Canada. But a French portable hospital and planeloads of doctors with medical supplies were diverted to the Dominican Republic.
Planes carrying half of a Norwegian field hospital landed in Port-au-Prince, while those carrying the other half were diverted to the Dominican Republic and had to be trucked in over the mountains, delaying the opening of one of Haiti’s first post-quake field hospitals.
“It was extremely frustrating,” said Norwegian Red Cross spokesman Jon Martin Larsen.
Before the quake, the single, 10,000-foot runway had handled 20 flights a day without radar, with pilots landing visually with the help of controllers on radios. Afterward, traffic on the runway soon rivaled that of any at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on a busy afternoon, with planes landing or taking off every two minutes.
With the seaport in ruins, hundreds of planes loaded with missionaries, medical teams and military forces dashed to Haiti without designated landing times and only 10 spaces for large planes to park. There was no room on ramps for planes to unload their cargo, and some planes didn’t have enough fuel to leave.
Air Force controllers started guiding air traffic a day after the quake and assumed official control from Haitian authorities three days later.
“When the Air Force took over the tower, things made a marked turn,” said Jon Fussle, a pilot for the nonprofit Haiti Relief Group.
Rescuers, countries and aid groups complained early on of a bottleneck that kept lifesaving equipment, medical care and supplies from Haitians who were trapped, injured or made homeless by the quake.
They blamed the Air Force as five planes carrying 85 tons of medical and relief supplies from Doctors Without Borders were diverted to the Dominican Republic, and three charter planes carrying water and tarps from the Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse were turned back.
However, most of the problems occurred before the Air Force took full control. And the AP review found that at least one Doctors Without Borders plane headed for Haiti without a landing slot and circled as controllers unsuccessfully tried to squeeze it in.
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes commended the U.S.
“The Americans taking over the Port-au-Prince airport was absolutely crucial,” he said Wednesday. “Clearly there were some glitches. But I don’t think there was any intention to favor military flights over humanitarian flights.”
While countless flights were diverted early on, only 17 – including six from the U.S. Defense Department and one from Doctors Without Borders – were diverted between Jan. 16 and Feb. 8, according to the logs. That is less than 1 percent of the 2,318 flights allowed to land during those weeks.