The Maritime Administration’s Haiti Earthquake Response

1. Destroyed gantry crane at Port International de Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 2010. Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.
Destroyed gantry crane at Port International de Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 2010. Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.

In the late afternoon of January 12, 2010, a catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the small island nation of Haiti, killing an estimated 316,000 people, injuring 300,000 and displacing more than one million.[1]  The earthquake’s epicenter was approximately 15 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital and most populous city.  Major damage to the nation’s infrastructure and main port created its own set of challenges by hindering relief efforts and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

The Maritime Administration (MARAD) began monitoring events that day and officially “stood up” its Maritime Command Center (MCC) on January 14.  Staff reviewed requests from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Southern Command, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) and identified U.S.-flag commercial vessels that were available to provide support.  MARAD also assessed its Ready Reserve Force (RRF) and other MARAD-owned ships and began activating the first vessels for what came to be known as Operation Unified Response on January 15.[2]

RRF vessel SS Cornhusker State off the coast of Haiti, February 2010. Cornhusker State is providing potable water to ARC Buenaventura (BL-162). Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.
RRF vessel SS Cornhusker State off the coast of Haiti, February 2010. Cornhusker State is providing potable water to ARC Buenaventura (BL-162). Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.

Extensive damage to the Port International de Port-au-Prince, including toppled gantry cranes, collapsed piers, and obstructed waterways created significant challenges for ships trying to unload and deliver their cargo.  However, several RRF vessels were well-equipped for this specific response because they were designed to deliver cargo without a functioning port.

On January 17, MARAD activated SS Cornhusker State, an auxiliary crane (T-ACS) ship and SS Cape May, a sea barge clipper class (SEABEE) ship.  MARAD tendered the vessels to the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) on January 20. Cape May loaded cargo at Norfolk International Terminal and Cornhusker State loaded cargo at Naval Station Norfolk.

SS Cape May off the coast of Haiti, January 2010. Note the aft elevator used to lower Navy’s Improved Navy Lighterage System. Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.
SS Cape May off the coast of Haiti, January 2010. Note the aft elevator used to lower Navy’s Improved Navy Lighterage System. Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.

By January 30, both vessels had arrived in Port-au-Prince.  Cape May delivered the U.S. Navy’s Improved Navy Lighterage System (INLS)[3] and launched it using the ship’s rising deck and sliding carriage components.  The vessel remained on scene through mid-March supporting operations by providing potable water, limited meals and berthing for relief workers, and assisted with repairs to vessels with its 2,000-ton capacity barge elevator.

Cornhusker State used its cranes to directly transfer containers from incoming ocean-going vessels onto barges so cargo could be delivered to shore while the ships remained anchored offshore.  The U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Transportation System Recovery Unit operated onboard Cornhusker State where it managed port operations and directed marine traffic in the waters around Port-au-Prince.

RRF ship SS Cape May’s stern elevator lowering components of the Navy’s Improved Navy Lighterage System off the coast of Haiti, January 2010. Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.
RRF ship SS Cape May’s stern elevator lowering components of the Navy’s Improved Navy Lighterage System off the coast of Haiti, January 2010. Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.

The third vessel to respond, MV Huakai, a high-speed cargo and passenger ferry with roll-on/roll-off (Ro/Ro) capability, while not part of the RRF, was owned by MARAD via its Title XI[4] program.

TRANSCOM envisioned using the vessel to transport personnel and cargo quickly between the U.S. and Haiti because it could carry 500 passengers and 450 tons of cargo at speeds of up to 40 knots, depending on loaded a rapid port opening package, communications gear, forklifts, trucks, Humvees, supplies and other equipment at Fort Eustis, near Newport News, Virginia.  The vessel also carried personnel from the Army’s 689th Rapid Port Opening Element, MSC’s Expeditionary Port Unit Detachment, and elements from the Army’s 7th Sustainment Brigade.  It departed on the evening of January 27.

MV Huakai, a high-speed cargo and passenger ferry, arriving in Haiti, January 2010. Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.
MV Huakai, a high-speed cargo and passenger ferry, arriving in Haiti, January 2010. Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.

Huakai arrived in Haiti on January 30; after unloading its passengers and cargo, the vessel immediately departed for Jacksonville, Florida to load additional cargo.  During the response, Huakai completed three shuttle-runs between Jacksonville and Port-au-Prince delivering much-needed aid and supplies.

U.S.-flagged commercial vessels that are participants in MARAD’s VISA Program[5] also provided crucial support.  Several of these ships delivered critically-needed supplies within days.  Among them was the Roll-on/Roll-off (Ro/Ro) warehouse barge Crimson Clover that delivered 127 containers of bagged food and cooking oil to Port-au-Prince on January 19, and the double-deck Ro/Ro barge American Trader that transported 3,150 tons of containerized corn/soy blend and 3,000 tons of vegetable oil.  A total of 10 VISA program vessels delivered food, fuel, military supplies, construction equipment, and other cargo.

SS Cornhusker State using one of its cranes to load containers aboard the barge Atlantic Trader off the coast of Haiti, February 2010. Atlantic Trader was awarded a DOD contract for the operation as part of its enrollment in the VISA program. Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.
SS Cornhusker State using one of its cranes to load containers aboard the barge Atlantic Trader off the coast of Haiti, February 2010. Atlantic Trader was awarded a DOD contract for the operation as part of its enrollment in the VISA program. Photograph by John Spears, Maritime Administration.

By mid-February operations in Haiti transitioned from emergency response to rebuilding and recovery.  Huakai continued supply runs between the U.S. and Haiti before leaving Port-au-Prince on February 28 for MARAD’s James River Reserve Fleet at Fort Eustis.  The RRF ships remained in Port-au-Prince until March; Cornhusker State sailed from Port-au-Prince on March 12 and Cape May departed on March 14.  MARAD deactivated both ships after they returned to Norfolk, officially ending MARAD’s role in Operation Unified Response.

MARAD had been working with the commercial shipping industry for several years prior to the Haiti earthquake to prepare for disaster response.  Commercial operators made over 25 U.S.-flag vessels available for Operation Unified Response and MARAD coordinated closely with the operators throughout the mission.  MARAD’s RRF vessels and the U.S.-flag commercial merchant marine played a key role by providing essential support to the international relief efforts, which helped save lives and reduce the suffering of hundreds of thousands left devastated by the earthquake.


1.According to the U.S. Geological Survey, as of January 2011, the official number from the Government of Haiti was 316,000.

2. Between January 15 and January 24, MARAD activated seven ships: SS Gopher State an auxiliary crane (T-ACS) ship and SS Petersburg, (an Offshore Petroleum Discharge System tanker) were activated on January 15; Alakai (another Title XI-owned high speed catamaran) was activated on January 19, and SS Wright (T-AVB-3) an Aviation Logistics Support Ro/Ro vessel was activated on January 24. These ships never received mission tasking and were subsequently deactivated, Petersburg before the completion of its activation period.

3. Lighterage is the loading or unloading of cargo from ships using lighters (barges). The Navy’s INLS includes a ferry and pontoons assembled to form a causeway when ports are too shallow or when dockside berths are unavailable.

4. The Federal Ship Financing Program (commonly referred to as Title XI) is a loan guarantee program that promotes the growth and modernization of U.S. shipyards and the U.S. merchant marine by guaranteeing the repayment of loans obtained in the private sector by ship owners for the construction, reconstruction, or reconditioning of vessels in U.S. shipyards. If a borrower defaults on a loan, MARAD pays the lender the outstanding balance and normally forecloses and takes title to the vessel.

5. The VISA program is a voluntary program where commercial vessels agree to transport cargo for the Department of Defense in exchange for priority consideration for military contracts.