U.S. Military Responds to Haiti Crisis

Marines ships en route to Haiti
An amphibious task force with 2,200 marines on board is en route to Haiti to provide aid following a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that has devastated the country.

Even before a devastating 7.0-magnitute earthquake struck Tuesday, Haiti's infrastructure was shoddy at best, with construction codes virtually non-existent. Today, the U.S. military began a massive relief effort.

Two C-130 transport planes flew in with military engineers and communications specialists. A Coast Guard cutter arrived in Port-au-Prince this morning. An aircraft carrier - the USS Carl Vinson - should get there by Friday. And as many as 5,500 U.S. troops are expected within days, as CBS News correspondent David Martin reports.

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Like all military operations, this one began with reconnaissance missions. A Coast Guard flyover showed hundreds of people in the street, apparently trying to get away from the threat of collapsing buildings. A Coast Guard helicopter had already MedEvaced four badly injured Americans to Guantanamo, Cuba.

By afternoon Wednesday C-130s were bringing in teams to make ground level assessments of the damage and set up a control tower and satellite communications - the first steps in piercing the fog of an epic disaster.

"The bottom line is we don't have a clear assessment, right now, of what the situation on the ground is, what the needs within Port-au-Prince are, how extensive the situation is," said Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. southern command.

Fraser has been ordered to provide food, water, medical care, and shelter as well as restore essential services like electricity to a hard luck country that has just been set back a generation. The airfield has only one runway and a Coast Guard cutter has surveyed the main port and found a chaos."

"Piers have collapsed into the water, cranes have toppled over, shipping containers are in the water, buildings at the wharves have collapsed," said Coast Guard commander Diane W. Durham.

Helping Haiti will require scores of ships and aircraft and thousands of American servicemen and women. The aircraft carrier Vinson is due to arrive within 48 hours loaded with helicopters.

An amphibious task force with 2,200 marines on board will get there about two days later. And 3,500 paratroopers are on alert at Fort Bragg, N.C., available to prevent looting and control crowds. The first of them could be on the ground as early as tomorrow.

Defense Secretary Robert gates told Gen. Fraser late Wednesday that this operation has the highest priority and he should not hesitate to ask for anything he wants.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.