WASHINGTON — Up to 10,000 U.S. troops will be in Haiti or off its shores by Monday to distribute aid and prevent potential rioting among desperate earthquake survivors, it was disclosed Friday, as President Obama promised long-term reconstruction help.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said the total American presence in and around the beleaguered country could rise beyond 10,000 as U.S. military officers determine how much assistance may be needed in the days ahead.
His assessment came as the State Department updated the toll of U.S. dead from Tuesday's 7.0 magnitude quake to six and cautioned that the casualty count is likely to rise still further.
Obama on Friday promised an expansive U.S. effort to help Haiti survive its disaster, not just in the frantic push to save lives now but also as part of a longer-term, costly effort to help rebuild the country. Under pressure to show a coordinated and forceful response to the humanitarian crisis, Obama offered his third national update in as many days from the White House, saying Washington has a special responsibility to help an imperiled neighbor.
Obama, who had been unable to contact President Rene Preval several times this week, talked for 30 minutes with the Haitian leader. He told Preval the world has been devastated by the loss and suffering and pledged full U.S. support for both the immediate recovery effort and the long-term reconstruction.
For his part, Preval said the needs in his country are great but that aid is now making its way to the people. Preval asked Obama to thank the American people "from the bottom of my heart."
Said Obama: "The scale of the devastation is extraordinary, as I think all of us are seeing on television, and the losses are heartbreaking."
Speaking from the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, he announced he would meet on Saturday at the White House with the two presidents who preceded him in the Oval Office, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. They've been enlisted to get the American people more broadly involved in the recovery effort. Bush and Clinton will lead that drive going forward.
In a joint news conference at the Pentagon with Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the primary goal is to distribute aid as quickly as possible "so that people don't, in their desperation, turn to violence." He suggested that the U.S. is aware of perceptions it could have too-high a profile in the ravaged country.
"I think that if we, particularly given the role that we will have in delivering food and water and medical help to people, my guess is the reaction will be one of relief at seeing Americans providing this kind of help," Gates told reporters.
The secretary also said "there will be a lot of other people there as well," noting Brazil also has a significant presence. He said it was vital to get food and water into the country and called the security situation "pretty good," except for some isolated cases of scavenging for food and water.
The secretary said military planners have been reluctant to drop food and water packages from the air because it could lead to lead to rioting. But bringing in supplies by sea and air have proved difficult because of Haiti's badly damaged sea port and congested airport.
Crowley, the State Department spokesman, acknowledged the limitations of the initial U.S. effort to get water, food and other emergency requirements into Haiti. He said, for example, that the main port at Port-au-Prince, the capital, was so badly damaged in the quake that it is not useable. He likened the stream of aid thus far as flowing through a "garden hose" that must be widened to a "river."
The arrival off the Haitian coast of the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier laden with helicopters, essentially provides a "second airport" from which aid can be delivered to the stricken capital, Crowley said.
As of Friday morning, 846 of the approximately 45,000 Americans in Haiti had been evacuated from the country, Crowley said. Another 160 were at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince awaiting evacuation, he added.
Gates said the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti has primary responsibility for security in the capital.
Mullen said the hospital ship USNS Comfort, with hundreds of medical professionals and medical support, should be off the Haitian coast by the end of next week.
"While these assets tend to the immediate material and medical needs of the people of Haiti, these ships, aircraft and troops also deliver hope, although it seems that supplies and security cannot come quickly enough," Mullen said.