Washington (CNN) — Stung by criticism that aid hasn’t been getting into earthquake-ravaged Haiti quickly enough, U.S. officials say they are taking steps to right both the problem and the perception.
A senior administration official involved in the aid operation said the speed of aid delivery is improving, with as many as 100 flights a day coming in now, compared to 25 flights per day just after the earthquake hit last week.
The official acknowledged that not all aid, particularly medical supplies, was getting through fast enough, but said that in recent days, at least half of the flights entering Haiti are carrying humanitarian supplies, and most of the other flights, including those of the U.S. military and foreign governments, are still carrying some kind of aid.
The official attributed the slight delay in getting aid through to two factors.
Dozens of planes were flying into the Port-au-Prince airport in Haiti, carrying a variety of food, water, medicine and search-and-rescue gear.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said military personnel on the ground were sometimes confused about what the planes were carrying.
The military will now station aid officials in the airport control tower to assess the contents of each flight to ease the flow of aid.
Also, a Web-based system has been created so that aid groups, donor countries and others can track when each flight is scheduled to land and the supplies it has aboard.
The official also said the operating procedure of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) says it can work without security only during daylight. The arrival of U.S. troops means they can take over a large share of security and speed up the processing of aid.
“Realistically, I am aware of the difficulties that this terrible natural disaster has posed,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier Wednesday.
The senior administration official said that more than 300 aid distribution sites are up and running, in which more than 400,000 meals and humanitarian rations and more than 600,000 bottles of water have been delivered.
Clinton said she was impressed by how much had gotten done, considering “so many challenges that had to be addressed all at once.”
“But when the principle instruments of authority and assistance dealing with the Haitian government, the United Nations, MINUSTAH themselves, were so impacted, we really had to start at the very beginning,” she said.
At least 72,000 people — including dozens of U.N. staff members — have been confirmed dead in the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, according to the country’s prime minister.
International aid contributions have totaled hundreds of millions of dollars since, but relief agencies on the ground say transportation bottlenecks and poor communications have slowed the delivery of food, water and medicine to survivors.
On Wednesday, U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah ordered more medicine and other supplies to be sent within the next 24 hours, the administration official said.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders has blamed five deaths on delays, saying that several flights carrying medical supplies have been diverted from the Port-au-Prince airport to the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Lt. Gen. P.K. Keen, the head of the U.S. military task force in Haiti, said any aircraft identified as carrying medical supplies have priority for landing. They are turned away only “if there’s no parking space on the ramp and they don’t have sufficient fuel to hold in their holding pattern,” he said.
“If the air traffic controller knows what’s on the plane and what the tail number is and he has three planes stacked up and he knows one of them has got medical supplies on it and that’s the top priority identified by the government of Haiti, then that plane is going to come in,” Keen said.
Another senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that the priorities for aid flights are set “by the government of Haiti first and then by the U.N. second.” But the number of flights that can land at Port-au-Prince is “a sheer issue of physics and geometry; you just can’t get them all in there.”
“There are great people on the ground, working very, very hard to try and get as much in as they can as fast as they can, and try and keep everybody impressed that we are there to support them. But there are some people that are just not going to be happy, because we can’t get it all,” the official said.
The U.S. military, which has been assisting with air traffic into Port-au-Prince, says the single-runway airport has been handling up to 180 flights a day. But to improve flow, the U.S. military said Wednesday that it had obtained landing rights at the Dominican Republic’s air base at San Isidro, 150 miles (about 220 km) east of Port-au-Prince.
The U.S. military has the ability to build dirt runways that rugged cargo planes such as the C-130 Hercules can use, but the equipment needed to build those is “always at a premium,” the official said. He said the U.S. military has nearly 50 helicopters in the field that can move supplies around the country.
CNN’s Elise Labott and Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.