U.S. Hopes to Resume Haitian Earthquake Victim Airlifts Soon

Private flights still heading out; Fla. gov. says state is ready to help.

January 31, 2010, 11:18 AM

Jan. 31, 2010 — -- The U.S. hopes to resume suspended military flights to airlift injured Haiti earthquake victims in coming hours, a White House official said.

"The flights are on track to resume in the next 12 hours," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a Sunday evening statement. "Patients are being identified for transfer, doctors are making sure that it is safe for them to fly, and we are preparing specific in-flight pediatric care aboard the aircraft where needed. ... We are working with the Haitian government and the international community to meet this urgent need and save lives."

Officials had come under criticism over the suspension of flights amid reports that they were halted over disputes involving payment, but the White House told ABC News it had nothing to do with money.

"The flights were temporarily suspended because to medevac people you need somewhere to take them," a White House official said earlier Sunday.

In recent days, the U.S. military has run into problems finding facilities with the right medical capabilities and the capacity to treat severely wounded Haitians.

"Having received assurances that additional capacity exists both here and among our international partners, we determined that we can resume these critical flights," Vietor said Sunday evening.

It is also logistically difficult, the White House official said, to find places to land large C-130 military aircraft near an appropriate hospital.

So far, the state of Florida has taken in the majority of airlifted Haitians.

In an interview on "Good Morning America Weekend," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said "to his knowledge" no flights had been halted -- though, according to the White House, that is not the case.

In any event, Crist said he did not personally order any stop to airlifts to his state.

"It's all hands on deck here in the Sunshine State," Crist said. "We're welcoming Haitians with open arms and probably [have] done more than any other state and [are] happy to continue to do so."

Florida has helped more than 526 people from Haiti since the earthquake, Crist said, and 171 remain under care in Florida hospitals.

Crist conceded that a letter he sent to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday may have added to the confusion over airlifts.

In that letter, a copy of which was sent to ABC News, Crist said "Florida's healthcare system is quickly reaching saturation."

Crist asked that the federal government activate the "National Disaster Medical System to assist in distributing these critically ill medical patients to other states and to ensure states are appropriately reimbursed for their services."

Crist told ABC News that someone may have misinterpreted his letter and ordered a stop to flights.

"I think that's probably what actually did occur. That's unfortunate," he said.

Gov. Crist Says Florida Will Continue to Help Haitians With Medical Needs

The White House official conceded that Florida's limited resources did play into the decision made to suspend flights.

But White House spokesman Tommy Vietor was clear that the suspension was not a long-term policy decision.

"This is an unprecedented relief effort with enormous logistical hurdles, and we are working through those in an effort to resume medical evacuation flight," Vietor wrote in an e-mail to ABC News Sunday.

"The United States government is working collaboratively with our partners in states, internationally, with non-governmental organizations, and of course with the Haitian government to provide medical care to the Haitian people," Vietor wrote.

Vietor said the U.S. government is working to expand medical capabilities on the ground in Haiti by the hour.

Meanwhile, private airlift flights appear to be continuing.

From the Miami field hospital near the Port-au-Prince airport, ABC News' David Wright reported that a 5-year-old with tetanus and two other sick patients were sent to a Philadelphia-area hospital early Sunday on a private jet.

Other private flights were bound for Chicago, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla.

Crist said Florida will continue to foot the bill to help Haitians.

"The price tab continues to go up," he said. "But that pales in comparison to the human loss. We're bearing that. We're happy to do so. If our federal friends can help us, and they indicated they could, Secretary Sebelius and Secretary Napolitano. So I'm encouraged by that. We will continue to accept Haitians and the repatriations. The Floridians are a compassionate people, and our arms are open all the time."

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