Special Report: U.S. mariners do the heavy lifting at quake-ravaged Haitian capital

Sailors assigned to Amphibious Construction Battalion 2 bring cargo into Port-au-Prince on Causeway Ferry 116. The cargo was offloaded from the Military Sealift Command vessel USNS 1st Lt. Jack Lummus.
A floating causeway delivers relief aid from Jack Lummus while Haitians prepare the dock for landing. (Photos courtesy U.S. Navy/Logistic Support Specialist 1st Class Kelly Chastain)

The need was immediate and overwhelming. The earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12 left an estimated 230,000 people dead and more than 2 million others without shelter, food and other necessities. These basic supplies typically would be delivered where the damage was most severe: the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Damage to the lifeline of the nation — the city’s port — posed a critical challenge. The quake crumbled seawalls, submerged the main dock and collapsed its terminals. It tossed cargo containers and machinery into the water, preventing ships from navigating to shore to deliver aid.

“Infrastructure is made up of nodes linking the economic system,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mark Sheppard of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Maritime Transportation System Recovery Unit. “The earthquake destroyed those nodes and brought the system to its knees.”

Stepping into the breach was an array of U.S. maritime agencies and companies, among them Crowley Maritime Corp. and its Titan Salvage subsidiary, the U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC), the Coast Guard, and SEACOR Holdings Inc., which helped restore the flow of fuel to Haiti’s main depot, Terminal Varreux.

The Coast Guard cutter Oak, based in Charleston, S.C., took one of the first steps in the maritime relief effort by improving navigation in the harbor. The ship, which was scheduled for a trip to Haiti later in the year, arrived in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 17 with 30 tons of bottled water and medical supplies. Working with a local port pilot, the crew surveyed the harbor for hazards, then placed four new navigational buoys and repositioned one to mark a safe approach for relief vessels to the main terminal.

As the flow of aid to the island grew, however, it became apparent that the port’s damaged infrastructure would not be able to handle the demand. Ships had been using the south pier, part of which collapsed during the quake, to unload relief containers one at a time. Use of the pier was halted when divers discovered its pilings were compromised during aftershocks, making it dangerously unstable.

To get relief supplies ashore, Crowley Maritime began a lightering operation involving two of its containerships, Marcajama and Crowley Americas, and two shallow-draft landing craft. Twelve 20-foot containers of relief supplies were delivered to a beach in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 22, with 462 containers delivered a week later by lightering and by offloading at the port of Rio Haina in the Dominican Republic.

Working under contract with the U.S. Transportation Command, Crowley also mobilized two 400-foot-long, 100-foot-wide deck barges to serve as temporary docks in Port-au-Prince, along with two 230-ton crawler cranes.

“The barges protrude away from the shore, end to end, approximately 800 feet,” Crowley spokesman Mark Miller said in February. “The barge closest to the beach is (connected) to shore with ramps, so basically you’ve designed or formed a long finger pier. Early on in the process we had vessels that were going into Rio Haina and cargo was being brought over the road into Haiti. There’s a small amount of that still happening, but the majority of the cargo is being brought directly into Port-au-Prince via water.”

The civilian-crewed Military Sealift Command joined the lightering effort, using its own vessels and four ships from the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force to move heavy equipment and supplies. The crane ship SS Cornhusker State was deployed to Port-au-Prince, and the heavy-lift ship SS Cape May delivered Navy Seabee construction gear and roll-on, roll-off equipment. The cargo vessel USNS 1st Lt. Jack Lummus and its sister ship, USNS Pfc. Dewayne T. Williams, delivered portable piers and lightering gear to help Army, Navy and Marines personnel move cargo ashore.

The 522-TEU Lummus, which was offloading cargo at the Marine Corps Support Facility on Blount Island, Fla., when the earthquake struck, was loaded with more than 120 pallets of relief supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development in around-the-clock shifts. Cargo included electrical generators, water purification units, building materials and medical supplies, as well as aid from Florida residents.

A buoy chain splashes into the water as crewmembers aboard the Coast Guard cutter Oak set navigational aids into the Port-au-Prince harbor. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandyn Hill)

“When the local community around Blount Island discovered that Lummus was departing for Haiti, everyone wanted to help,” said Rich Bolduc, MSC’s senior representative in Jacksonville, Fla. “A church in Tampa donated a cinder block-making machine, and later, the Lummus master made sure it got ashore in Haiti.”

Two ferries in the U.S. Maritime Administration’s reserve fleet, MV Alakai and MV Huakai, were activated to bring trucks and heavy equipment into Port-au-Prince. The high-speed ships, formerly part of the defunct Hawaii Superferry service, were placed under the control of the MSC.

Huakai’s crew included Al McLemore, a retired California Maritime Academy emeritus professor, and nine other academy alumni. The team, assembled by alumnus John Keever, finished its preparations in 10 days and set off from Norfolk, Va.

Sailors assigned to Assault Craft Unit 2 unload humanitarian supplies from the Military Sealift Command crane ship SS Cornhusker State in Port-au-Prince. (Courtesy U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kim Williams)

“One of our biggest challenges was obtaining required Coast Guard safety certification under tight time deadlines,” McLemore said. “The Huakai’s equipment includes several 100-person life rafts … among the largest available on the market today. Because they had been idle for an extended period, we had to get them back to the manufacturer on a rush basis to have them inspected and updated to meet Coast Guard certification. The team literally worked day and night to get everything ready, and on (Jan. 27) we were ready to go.”

Huakai loaded forklifts, trucks, Humvees, communications gear and other equipment at Fort Eustis, Va. Personnel on the ferry included members of the Army’s 689th Rapid Port Opening Element and MSC’s Expeditionary Port Unit Detachment. The ferry arrived in Haiti on Jan. 30.

“Signs of the earthquake weren’t that apparent from the water, but when we got to the wharf, part of one pier had collapsed into the water and fuel and water lines to the dock had been broken,” McLemore said. “Fortunately, the Huakai’s articulated ramp allowed us to scissor out to one side onto a functioning pier to offload men and materiel.”

While the ferry supplies and lightering helped ease the suffering, the long-term relief effort — and the future of the port — hinged on removing navigational hazards and making the piers functional again.

In mid-January, a team from Titan Salvage surveyed Port-au-Prince harbor to map navigable routes and pinpoint underwater obstacles that needed to be removed. Titan determined that a lightering operation could be safely conducted, which led to the initial offloading by the 820-TEU Marcajama. The salvagers determined that they had a lot of work ahead of them.

“Besides the obvious destruction of both the earthen shore sides having opened up huge cracks and fissures, the entire 1,400-foot concrete northern dock collapsed and submerged into the harbor,” said Titan project manager Leo McDonough. “The south pier suffered heavy damage, with hundreds of pilings cracking and the connecting causeway to the outer dolphins collapsing into the sea. The two ro-ro ramps fell into the harbor, rendering them useless. There were sunken containers, a sunken container reach-stacker and tractor-trailers with chassis. Two container cranes were partially submerged and at dangerous angles of inclination, and they blocked access to the northern dock.”

To help remove these obstacles — along with a collapsed Washington gantry crane and concrete pilings that supported the submerged dock — Titan used a 300-ton crane barge from Resolve Marine Services and a 225-ton crane barge from Associated Marine Salvage. Titan employed the AMS crane to install six 3-foot-by-80-foot pilings to serve as mooring points for Crowley’s 400-foot-by-100-foot deck barges, McDonough said.

“There are some derelict wrecks, but none that interfered with our operations,” he said. “There are a few sunken containers in the outer harbor, but these are not hazards to navigation. It is believed that these containers were empty, and after falling into the harbor during the quake (they) floated for some time before grounding or sinking.”

Divers from the U.S. Navy’s Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, Company 2-1, surveyed the port’s sea floor and helped clear debris with assistance from USNS Grasp, a 255-foot salvage ship with a 7.5-ton boom on the forward deck and a 40-ton boom aft.

“There’s still a lot of debris in the water, but it has been cleared from the shipping lanes to allow pier-side offloads,” said Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Barone, officer in charge of the dive unit. “The debris that is still in the water is not as critical now because it does not stop the flow of humanitarian aid.”

In addition to shutting down Haiti’s largest harbor, the earthquake disabled its main fuel source: Terminal Varreux in Port-au-Prince. The marine depot, which has 18 large storage tanks and a capacity of 45 million gallons, receives and stores more than 70 percent of the country’s fuel oil, diesel fuel and gasoline. It also stores propane and edible oils used for cooking.

For three weeks after the earthquake, tankers were unable to unload at Terminal Varreux. While the majority of the depot’s storage tanks were left intact, the quake destroyed docking facilities and damaged the network of steel pipe leading from the waterfront to the tank farm.

Haiti’s WIN Group, which owns and operates Terminal Varreux, hired SEACOR Holdings of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to bring the facility back on line. SEACOR installed a temporary mooring system, bypassed damaged piping with 200 yards of new piping, and removed damaged structures and debris from the docking area. Additional emergency construction will give the terminal the capability to receive containerized cargo.

Tanker shipments to the terminal resumed Feb. 5. SEACOR dispatched NRC Perseverance, a 110-foot oil-spill response vessel, from a refinery in St. Croix to guard against pollution in Port-au-Prince. Perseverance carried 10 tons of water, medicine and other relief supplies donated by organizations on St. Croix.

“We’re all taking a deep breath now that the fuel supply to Haiti has been restored,” said Youri Mevs, managing partner of WIN Group. “Without fuel, the recovery effort (was) clearly paralyzed. We commend SEACOR for mobilizing so quickly to address this dire situation, as well as WIN Group’s staff in Port-au-Prince. They all worked around the clock through very challenging circumstances.”

Titan, which specializes in handling difficult salvage projects around the world, was prepared for a test in Haiti, and that’s what it got.

“Initially, there was no infrastructure whatsoever,” McDonough said. “We were prepared to be entirely self-sustained, including bringing in an accommodations vessel to support the team. As local services came back on line, we were able to organize heavy equipment support through our port agent. However, scheduling and logistics in general were complicated. Communications were also difficult because some cellular towers were damaged and the cellular system was overwhelmed by the influx of foreign support. Language barriers existed to a degree.”

Despite the difficulties, Titan and other maritime responders have managed to expand the flow of aid into Port-au-Prince from an initial trickle to hundreds of containers per day in early March. The scope of the disaster, however, has left mariners who have seen the devastation — including Rear Adm. Mark Buzby of the MSC — with no illusions about the task ahead.

“Obviously, our work is not yet done, and the MSC presence in Haitian waters will be required for quite some time to sustain the flow of supplies that is keeping the Haitian people fed, clothed and able to rebuild their lives,” he said.

By Professional Mariner Staff