On Saturday, August 14, 2021, at 8:29 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck southwestern Haiti. According to the Haitian government, the earthquake and its impacts killed some 2,248 people, and another 650,000 needed humanitarian assistance. In the face of tragedy, U.S. diplomats, military, and humanitarian assistance professionals worked to provide critical assistance to a partner nation in need. As a diplomat working as a foreign policy advisor (POLAD) to U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), I was proud to take part in this effort.
Shortly after the earthquake and Haitian Prime Minister Henry’s declaration of a state of emergency, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison issued a U.S. diplomatic disaster declaration. This type of declaration is issued by a U.S. ambassador to urgently inform the U.S. Government that emergency assistance is needed by a partner nation. On that Saturday morning, it kickstarted emergency responses by the U.S. government in support of Haitian efforts. That same afternoon, President Biden named U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power as the senior official to coordinate an immediate U.S. response to the disaster given USAID’s statutory responsibilities.
Within hours, U.S. Coast Guard helicopters began lifesaving efforts and delivering aid, a testament to the urgency with which the United States comes to help its partners in their time of need. Ferried from point to point first by Coast Guard, then by Department of Defense helicopters, a search and rescue team from Fairfax, Virginia, and a USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) were soon on the ground helping to save lives.
As more and more U.S. government assets came into play to assist Haiti, the U.S. military’s Southern Command under its then-commander, Admiral Craig Faller, stood up Joint Task Force – Haiti to coordinate military support to the civilian, USAID-led response.
“Our Task Force is working around the clock to save lives. We’ve got all components on deck: the Coast Guard, the Army, the Puerto Rican National Guard, Navy ships and Marines offshore, and Air Force transport planes all providing support.”Admiral Craig FallerFormer Commander, Joint Task Force - Haiti
At its peak, Joint Task Force – Haiti had 19 helicopters, 8 transport aircraft, 6 ships as well as approximately 1,200 personnel mobilized to support the whole-of-government response efforts. By September 2, when the Joint Task Force completed its mandate for emergency response support, it had flown 671 missions to deliver some 600,000 pounds of humanitarian cargo, transport aid workers, and rescue hundreds of people.
This emergency response support would not have been possible without close coordination among U.S. diplomatic, humanitarian, and military institutions.
Unlike in U.S. domestic emergencies, the U.S. efforts in Haiti were in support of a partner nation and had to be properly coordinated with the host country. As such, U.S. Ambassador Sison maintained close communication with Haitian Prime Minister Henry and other senior Haitian government officials to ensure close coordination at even the highest levels of the Haitian government.
USAID’s DART was at the tip of the spear, providing first-hand, on-the-ground assessments and coordinating U.S. efforts among numerous local and international stakeholders.
Also on the ground, U.S. diplomats in Port-au-Prince assisted American citizens while others worked together with USAID experts and the Joint Task Force to facilitate Haitian authorization for numerous aspects of the relief operations. These included access for forward-deployed fuel supplies, airport coordination support, emergency visas for response teams, security coordination around deliveries, flight permissions, and more.
POLADs at SOUTHCOM — State Department officers detailed to the command — facilitated information flows between SOUTHCOM and the Department of State to ensure that policymakers were aware of military support developments on the frontlines in sync with information from USAID’s response team. POLADs helped to bring the diplomatic perspective to military operations, ensuring the military commanders and teams benefit from diplomatic expertise. POLADs worked across offices at SOUTHCOM and with diplomats in Haiti and Washington D.C., ensuring diplomacy on multiple fronts, including at the Organization of American States, was synced with the latest Joint Task Force efforts.
As the need for urgent logistic support from the military waned, U.S. diplomats and humanitarian experts from USAID endeavored to build a global response to the UN humanitarian appeal of $187 million. At the same time, they also ensured continued delivery of shelter, food, and supplies to help victims and their communities put their lives back together leveraging an additional $32 million in U.S. financial assistance.
The ability of the United States to provide a whole-of-government response to partners when disaster strikes is an example for others and a force for good. Each part of the U.S. government serves an important role. Even in situations where another civilian agency leads an integrated response, State Department POLADs serve a key part of ensuring alignment in policy, planning, and action. Integrating diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, and defense enables us to save lives, alleviate suffering, galvanize additional responses, and facilitate a more rapid recovery. The United States is able to respond to complex challenges big and small and is and should be seen as a trusted partner.
About the Author: Caleb Becker is a Foreign Service Officer serving as the Political Advisor to the Operations Director at U.S. Southern Command.