Obama tells Haitian leader that U.S. aid will continue

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 - 1:29pm

WASHINGTON — Even as the United States military withdraws the forces it sent urgently to Haiti after its devastating earthquake in January, President Obama on Wednesday pledged a lasting commitment to aid and assistance.

“The situation on the ground remains dire,” Mr. Obama said after meeting with President Rene Preval at the White House. “And people should be under no illusions that the crisis is over.”

Pentagon officials said on Wednesday that about 10,000 American military personnel were still deployed to Haiti, down from the peak of 22,000. About 4,700 are based on land and 5,300 afloat.

Navy officials said earlier that the hospital ship U.S.N.S. Comfort had completed its mission and would leave the area on Wednesday for its home port, Baltimore. The medical crew of the huge hospital ship treated 871 patients, including 540 of the critically injured who were brought on board in the first 10 days the ship was off the Haitian coast.

The two nations’ leaders stood side by side in the Rose Garden Wednesday afternoon following a private meeting in the Oval Office, where Mr. Obama received an update of conditions in Haiti and promised not to abandon its people. He said the United States “has been proud to play a leading role” in the international response to the earthquake and would continue its partnership in the long road to reconstruction.

“As you declared during last month’s national day of mourning, it is time to wipe away the tears — it is time for Haiti to rebuild,” Mr. Obama said, looking at Mr. Preval. “And to you and to the Haitian people, I say today, as you embark on the heavy work ahead, you will continue to have a steady and reliable partner in the United States of America.”

The two leaders praised the work of the search and rescue teams from across the country that went to Haiti in the days immediately following the earthquake. Members of several of the teams were in Washington on Wednesday for the occasion of Mr. Preval’s visit.

“I also want to acknowledge the enormous generosity of so many individual Americans, who gave what they could to support Haiti, even in difficult economic times,” Mr. Obama said. “I know that the support of the American people will continue to be essential as Haiti tries to recover and rebuild.”

Mr. Preval thanked Americans for coming to Haiti’s aid with financial assistance, military assistance and humanitarian relief after the earthquake, which killed more than 230,000 people and left more than 1 million homeless. He said the disaster should serve as a warning for the world.

“Dear friends, we must draw the lessons from what occurred in Haiti,” Mr. Preval said. “These are lessons for all of mankind. The Haiti earthquake was immediately followed by the earthquake in Chile, as well as other earthquakes throughout the world.”

He added, “The countries that have seismic risks are not merely those countries which are located on top of seismic faults. In fact, the tsunamis which are the repercussions of breaks and faults threaten other regions, as well as the United States. In addition to earthquakes and tsunamis, global warming is a major concern for the entire planet.”

Mr. Obama paid tribute both to the many nongovernmental organizations helping in Haiti and also the uniformed American forces who were sent there immediately after the disaster, and now beginning to pull out.

The hospital ship was among the most visible symbols of that aid, although it could deal with only the most urgent and complex cases among the countless thousands of Haitians needing medical care.

While docked in Haiti, the 894-foot ship provided the most sophisticated medical care available there, but it has not had any patients for more than a week, the navy said.

“The situation on the ground in terms of the medical situation has improved,” said Jose A. Ruiz, a civilian spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command. “Demand for medical care is not exceeding the capacity of facilities on the ground.”

Mr. Ruiz said on Wednesday that the duties of the remaining American forces included helping to distribute aid, remove rubble and complete engineering assessments of damaged structures. With the Haitian government and police, as well as United Nations peacekeepers, reasserting control in the streets, the American forces were largely in a supporting role, he said.

Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of the Southern Command, said early this week that “our mission is largely accomplished.”

But some Haitians have expressed concern that the troop departures could signal a decline in international interest in Haiti, and possibly point toward a resurgence of security concerns.

Meanwhile, a large team has been working in Haiti to develop a long-range reconstruction and development plan for the country in time for a donors’ conference, which is scheduled for March 31 at the United Nations in New York. Planners are emphasizing the need for decentralization, shifting government and private facilities away from the battered capital city. Mr. Preval emphasized that theme on Wednesday.

Several members of Congress, including Representative Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, were on hand for the White House ceremony.

Mr. Obama lingered in the Rose Garden afterward, as the sun poked out of the clouds, to shake hands and sign autographs for members of the search and rescue teams. He knelt down to pat a dog named Cadillac from the Los Angeles County Fire Department that also traveled to Haiti in the days following the earthquake.

“Now, no relief effort of this magnitude is without its difficulties,” Mr. Obama said. “But there should be truly no doubt in anybody’s mind: along with their Haitian and international partners, these men and women made a difference in countless lives of men and women and children.”

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