Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Relief From The Sea

The tolls in Haiti are staggering: 200,000 dead, 1.5 million homeless, thousands being evacuated from the country altogether. We read of a woman giving birth on a US Coast Guard cutter, of families being separated, of supplies being delayed for days. On the other hand, we hear of the maritime community rising to the occasion, from the US mobilizing civilian and military mariners on a massive scale, to small groups of boaters in Florida collecting relief supplies for air drop. I mentioned some of these efforts in my last post, and also mentioned that this isn't the first time mariners have come to the aid of victims of disaster, whether it be man-made or natural.

San Francisco, April 1906. During the earthquake and Great Fire, the crew of the cruiser USS Chicago (pictured above) evacuated as many as 20,000 people from the city to nearby Tiburon. It would be the largest such evacuation by sea until Dunkirk, almost forty years later.

Dunkirk, May - June 1940. About 850 vessels snatched more than 338,000 British and French soldiers from almost certain death or capture at the hands of the Third Reich. Seven hundred of the vessels -- the "Little Ships of Dunkirk" -- were small private craft that could get close to the beach, then ferry the troops to warships waiting offshore. Although Churchill reminded the British that "wars are not won by evacuations," the episode provided a huge psychological boost to the Allied war effort.

East Prussia and Polish Corridor, January - May 1945. Like many battles on the Eastern Front, this "Axis Dunkirk" dwarfed its better-known, Western Front equivalent. Over 15 weeks, 1,000 vessels from warships to small fishing boats evacuated as many as 1.2 million civilians and soldiers from German-held areas cut off by advancing Soviet forces. One-hundred fifty eight civilian vessels were lost while trying to ferry evacuees over the Baltic Sea to German-controlled Denmark. Some evacuations continued even after the German surrender on May 8.

New York City, September 2001. Following the terrorist strike on the World Trade Center towers, small craft of every size brought supplies and water into lower Manhattan, while evacuating as many as 500,000 people. Smoke and dust from the attacks reduced visibility to the point where the vessels were navigating by radar. Despite this, there were no casualties associated with the effort.

South Asia, December 2004. This earthquake and tsunami was the worst natural disaster in modern history, with nearly 230,000 dead and millions left homeless. Mariners of all stripes were involved. In addition to military and civilian ships from the region (India alone committed 32 warships to the effort), countries as disparate as Mexico, Pakistan and Australia sent vessels. Among the on-scene vessels was the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which ferried supplies to parts of Indonesia.

US Gulf Coast, August 2005. The US Coast Guard evacuated more than 33,000 people following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The US Navy and Military Sealift Command also aided the effort; MSC provided a hospital ship, as well as ship-based logistical support for first responders over a six-month period.