By MATTHEW LEE and JULIE PACE Associated Press Writers
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. Later, spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters the president had no plans to go to Haiti. 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," he said, with Vice President Joe Biden at his side.
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.
At dawn Wednesday, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter evacuated four critically injured U.S. Embassy staff to the hospital on the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the military has been detaining terror suspects for the last seven years.
Elements of the U.S. Air Force 1st Special Operations Wing are expected to arrive Wednesday afternoon in Haiti to help with air traffic control and airfield operations at the international airport at Port au Prince.
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, is under way and expected to arrive off the coast of Haiti Thursday. Additional U.S. Navy ships are under way to Haiti, a statement from Southern Command said without more specifics.
"SOUTHCOLM is well versed at providing humanitarian assistance in the region," the statement said. Since 2005, the command has led U.S. military support to 14 major relief missions, including assistance to Haiti in September 2008 after major storms.
The 7.0-magnitude earthquake caused thousands of buildings to collapse in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, trapping untold numbers.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "We worked throughout the night to figure out" how to help and said that "an awful lot of people are working in that direction right now."
Associated Press reporter Pauline Jelinek at the Pentagon contributed to this story. (Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)