Dover C-17 crews flew four missions to the storm-ravaged island nation in early October
Delawareans breathed a sigh of relief in early October as the devastating storm that was Hurricane Matthew moved away from the Delmarva Peninsula. However, although First Staters dodged the destruction, hundreds of thousands in the Caribbean nation of Haiti did not.
Almost 1,000 people were killed and more than 300,000 displaced by the storm, which also sparked fears of a renewed outbreak of cholera in the country.
Only a few days after the Category 4 storm hit the southern tip of the country, two aircrews from Dover Air Force Base set out to bring in relief supplies and equipment to help alleviate some of the suffering being felt by Haiti’s people.
Flying the C-17 Globemaster III out of the 3rd Airlift Squadron, one crew, commanded by Capt. Jeremy Roberts, made three trips to the island, while a second crew under Capt. Jeff Hogan flew a single mission. In all, 13 Dover airmen -- pilots, relief pilots, loadmasters and crew chiefs -- took part.
“All of us on the crew were eager to do it,” Roberts said. “It’s rewarding and humbling to be able to help people when they’re in need.”
Acting on about five hours notice, Roberts’ crew lifted off two days after Matthew made landfall near the town of Les Anglais. Over the next three days they shuttled between a staging base in Honduras and the Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince. Hogan’s crew left Oct. 8, first flying to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and then directly to Port-au-Prince.
Flying in, both crews quickly learned how critical their mission had become.
Mountainsides had been denuded, with soil washing into rivers that eventually emptied into the Caribbean, staining the blue waters a muddy brown, he said.
“Looking down on the city, I really couldn’t see that much devastation because most of the devastation was on the western tip [of the country],” Roberts said. “But you could definitely sense the chaos because of the amount of air traffic in the area and the urgency in the controller’s voice.”
Aircraft from European and Latin American countries crowded the airspace, with American Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters flying to reach remote areas cut off by the storm.
Landing was complicated by the design of the L’Ouverture airport, which has only one runway and no taxiways; arriving aircraft had to taxi back down the runway to reach staging areas.
American crews working out of tents unloaded the Globemasters, readying the cargo to be packed onto helicopters, and space on the ramp was so tight the C-17s only could be backed away from their parking areas.
The Dover crews were on the ground for only about two hours each trip.
The Haitians crewmembers they encountered appeared to appreciate the massive relief effort, loadmaster Airman 1st Class Micah Ericson said.
“They seemed really glad we were there, pleased that someone was looking out for them,” he said.
Fellow loadmaster Staff Sgt. Dan Matthews agreed.
“They lost everything, and having the Air Force show up with food and water and supplies, I think that gave them hope,” he said.
Although Dover crews did not go out on with the Army helicopters, they soon learned something about what others had seen.
According to a report filed on the military.com website, a major bridge between Port-au-Prince and the town of Jérémie had been wiped out by Matthew, leaving its 31,000 residents almost completely isolated from the rest of the country. That town’s tiny airport is too small to accommodate relief aircraft other than helicopters.
An Air Force officer told Roberts people were aimlessly milling about on the far bank of the river.
“There were just thousands of people walking around,” he said. “It looked like a scene from ‘The Walking Dead.’ They couldn’t get over the bridge; they were only looking for food and water.”
In all, Roberts’ crew brought in more than 101 tons of equipment, including water, food and generators, as well as almost 100 U.S. Army, Navy and Marine personnel and civilian contractors from a staging base in Honduras.
For their mission, Hogan’s crew airlifted emergency personnel from an Air Force contingency operations wing in New Jersey, as well as about 97,000 pounds of cargo and supplies.
Although most think of the military as the nation’s combat arm, it’s actually much more, Roberts said: it shows how the Air Force can quickly put together a plan to save lives.
“When people picture what we do, it’s combat. But it’s not always combat,” he said. “One of our capabilities is rapid global mobility, and this is a good example of how something can go from an idea to execution in just a matter of hours.”
And although it will be up to officials at the Pentagon to decide if Dover’s aircrews are again needed in Haiti, they’re ready to do the job, Matthews said.
“They call on Dover Air Force Base when people need help,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility but also an honor and a privilege.”