WASHINGTON — Racing to help save lives, U.S. ships and planes are rushing to the Caribbean as President Barack Obama vows that the U.S. will give its "unwavering support" to the people of earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
"I have directed my administration to respond with a swift, coordinated and aggressive effort to save lives," Obama said at the White House after he canceled a trip to nearby Maryland to spend more time on responding to a tragedy he called heart wrenching.
"The people of Haiti will have the full support of the United States in the urgent effort to rescue those trapped beneath the rubble and to deliver the humanitarian relief — the food, water and medicine — that Haitians will need in the coming days."
The White House set up an information page on how to help Haiti, at http://www.whitehouse.gov/HaitiEarthquake.
Obama said the first priorities for the U.S. are:
_ Accounting for U.S. embassy personnel, their families, and the roughly 40,000 U.S. citizens who live and work in Haiti; Americans trying to locate family members in Haiti were told to call the State Department at 888-407-4747.
_ Mobilizing resources to help rescue efforts.
_ Coordinating the U.S. government response. Led by Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah, the effort will include the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and State.
"Because in disasters such as this the first hours and days are absolutely critical to saving lives and avoiding even greater tragedy, I have directed my teams to be as forward-leaning as possible in getting the help on the ground and coordinating with our international partners, as well," Obama said.
Two search and rescue teams — one from San Jose, Costa Rica, the other from Fairfax, Va. — flew to Haiti on Wednesday, each with 72 people trained in urban rescues. A third team, from Florida, was standing by, officials said.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Forward arrived off Port-au-Prince, the capital, Wednesday morning, U.S. officials said. It's equipped to coordinate military aircraft over Haiti with satellite communications equipment. Another cutter, the Mohawk, was due to arrive Wednesday afternoon.
Two Coast Guard C-130 planes arrived Wednesday to fly up and down the Haitian coast looking for people needing help, while two Coast Guard helicopters arrived to provide rescue or other assistance, officials said.
The USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, was racing toward Haiti and expected to arrive Thursday afternoon.
Already at sea from its port in Norfolk, Va., on a training mission, the carrier did not have helicopters aboard that will be needed for airlift work in Haiti, officials said. They were being flown to the carrier as it made its way to the Caribbean.
Another Navy ship may be sent in coming days to carry a force of about 2,000 Marines to help provide security, support the embassy or support humanitarian work. The Marines also could be needed to support the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
"We're very seriously looking at that," said Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Central Command.
The Pentagon also dispatched a team to help operate the airport in Port-au-Prince in case that becomes necessary. "It's a difficult environment that we're going into," Fraser told reporters in Washington.
White House aides said there was no talk of Obama visiting Haiti anytime soon, noting that it would distract police and rescue workers.
Private charities rushed aid as well.
The American Red Cross offered all of the relief supplies from its warehouse in Panama, enough to meet basic needs of 5,000 families.
The country of 9 million is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, with 80 percent of the population living under the poverty line.
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