WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Wednesday promised an all-out rescue and humanitarian effort to help the people of Haiti overcome a "cruel and incomprehensible" tragedy, the ruinous earthquake that ravaged the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
The president said the relief effort is gearing up even as the U.S. government is working to account for Americans who were on the island nation when the disaster struck late Tuesday afternoon.
Obama said he named U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Rajiv Shah to coordinate American efforts, and the president called upon all nations to join in helping stricken Haitians.
Obama spoke Wednesday in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room.
The president, who has been involved in ensuring a quick response since Tuesday night, said in a statement from the White House Diplomatic Reception Room that one of the government's top priorities is to quickly locate U.S. embassy employees and their families, as well as all other American citizens living and working in Haiti. He urged Americans trying to locate family members to contact the State Department at 1-888-407-4747.
Obama sought to show a swift and united disaster response with the United States as an assertive leader, but he said the effort must be an international one.
"We are reminded of the common humanity that we all share," Obama said, with Vice President Joe Biden at his side during the brief statement.
The president outlined a series of steps to help the Haitian people and said the U.S. commitment to its hemispheric neighbor will be unwavering.
"We have to be there for them in their hour of need," the president said.
The White House said Obama had spoken with Shah shortly before making the statement and "underscored that he expects an aggressive and highly coordinated relief effort."
"We've mobilized resources to help rescue efforts. Military overflights have assessed the damage, and by early afternoon our civilian disaster assistance team are beginning to arrive," the president said. "Search and rescue teams from Florida, Virginia and California will arrive throughout today and tomorrow, and more rescue and medical equipment and emergency personnel are being prepared."
Obama adjusted his Wednesday schedule, canceling a jobs event in Maryland to better monitor the situation in Haiti.
Obama encouraged Americans who want to help to go to www.whitehouse.gov to find options for contributing to the aid effort.
The president received updates on the situation in Haiti and the U.S. response Wednesday morning from his national security adviser and the Department of Homeland Security.
Two U.S. defense officials said early Wednesday that the military was still in the assessing stage, trying to figure out what is needed.
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One said officials were working to try to get the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort to the area, though it was unclear whether it had been officially ordered to go. It would take some days for the ship, in port in Baltimore, to be serviced, supplied and arrive at Haiti, one official said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because plans were still being formed.
The 7.0-magnitude earthquake caused thousands of buildings to collapse in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, trapping untold numbers
The U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince has no confirmed reports of American citizen deaths. There are an estimated 40,000-45,000 Americans living in Haiti, but exact numbers are difficult to gauge because people come and go. All but one American employed by the embassy have been accounted for, State Department officials said.
Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said there are about a dozen wounded people — embassy staff, American citizens and family members of local embassy personnel — being treated at the embassy or the ambassador's residence for non life-threatening injuries like broken bones. Those who are ambulatory may be evacuated by U.S. Coast Guard helicopter that is expected to arrive shortly, mostly likely from Guantanamo Bay.
The first Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) from USAID is expected to arrive in Haiti from San Jose, Costa Rica around 1:30 p.m. The team from Fairfax County is expected to arrive around 3 p.m. from Dulles.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that U.S. military personnel worked throughout the night in response to the disaster in Haiti.
"We worked throughout the night to figure out how we can do that and do that as rapidly as possible," Mullen said. "An awful lot of people are working in that direction right now."
Former President Bill Clinton, who is U.N. special envoy for Haiti, said in a statement: "My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti. My U.N. office and the rest of the U.N. system are monitoring the situation, and we are committed to do whatever we can to assist the people of Haiti in their relief, rebuilding and recovery efforts."
Associated Press reporter Pauline Jelinek at the Pentagon contributed to this story.