Washington (CNN) – The retired general who took charge in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina said Thursday the U.S. military should have arrived in earthquake-devastated Haiti 24 hours earlier.
"The good Samaritans who moved early on the first day are to be applauded. They made a difference," Lt. Gen. Russel Honore told CNN.
"What we've got to do now is get the heavy equipment in. I thought the U.S. military could have been there a day earlier. They're on the ground now, and they have a brigade en route and that's going to make a big difference," he said.
Honore, best known for his management of the recovery efforts following the hurricane that killed about 2,000 people on the Gulf Coast, said "time is of the essence" in helping quake survivors.
Repairing the port at Port-au-Prince, Haiti's airport, and keeping the airport open 24 hours a day are key to bringing in equipment, food, water and medicine, Honore said.
Referring to the airport, he said, "You need to put the right commander there who's going to be a battle captain and keep those aircraft flowing. You come in, you drop off what you have, you put the sick and wounded on and then move out. No one is standing any time on the airfield. You can be in and out in a half hour."
At the White House news conference, a reporter asked spokesman Robert Gibbs if President Barack Obama was pleased with the pace of the U.S. response in Haiti.
"I think the president is pleased, but took the beginning of the meeting last night to remind all of us that precious lives were at stake; that time was of the essence; that he expected the team to continue to work around the clock as they - honestly - as they've done literally since we first got word of this many hours ago," Gibbs said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley defended the pace of the rescue.
"We are 40 hours into the crisis. In that time we have reopened the airport and brought it up to 24/7 operations. We continue to look at the port facility, which will be critical to be able to bring in substantial amounts of aid, and we're trying to figure out a strategy for how to function," he said in a briefing.
"We now have multiple search and rescue units on the ground. They're already at work," Crowley added.
"Logistics matters. You have an airport with a single runway. So we have things that are queued up. You're going to see a significant increase in the flow but there is a capacity issue," he said.
In the afternoon, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that Haiti had suspended flights into the Port-au-Prince airport because ramp space - where aircraft are parked, unloaded, loaded, refueled or boarded - was too crowded. There also was no fuel, said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.
Several military units planned to leave during the day, but it was unclear whether all were able to.
Among those apparently delayed was a battalion of more than 100 soldiers from the XVIII Airborne Corps based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
They had planned to fly out Thursday afternoon.
Paratroopers from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, also based at Fort Bragg, were on their way to Haiti, said Rajiv Shah, coordinator for U.S. assistance to the stricken area. He also is administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The 82nd was deployed to New Orleans, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Katrina.
The first of about 3,500 paratroopers were to board C-17 aircraft from Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina and were expected to arrive in Haiti before nightfall. On Friday, another 800 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne are to deploy.
A liaison team of Airborne personnel arrived at the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Miami Wednesday night to help with the planning effort. The Southern Command is leading the Department of Defense's quake response.
More soldiers from Fort Bragg are prepared to leave if called upon, according to a news release from the base.
"Our units are highly trained and ready to respond to crises such as this tragic event in Haiti and fully prepared to support the mission as long as required to do so," the release said.
The U.S. government confirmed Thursday the first American fatality. Crowley refused to identify the victim. He told reporters the victim's family was being notified. Another person believed to have died in the quake was identified by his school in Iowa, but there was no official confirmation.
Obama promised $100 million in immediate American relief aid to Haiti - an amount the president said will grow in the year ahead.
"This is one of those moments that calls out for American leadership," he said at the White House. "One of the largest relief efforts in our recent history" is now en route to Haiti.
Obama said he had "made it clear" to his national security team that Haitian relief efforts must be "a top priority for their departments and agencies right now."
Earlier Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the coming 24 hours "critical to save those lives that can be saved" and said on CNN's "American Morning" that "we're moving as quickly as possible."
"Once we can get communications up so we can tell people where to go, what kind of help they can expect, we'll be able to better manage the crisis," Clinton said. The United States is providing a communications network to shore up the battered Haitian infrastructure, she added.
The powerful 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck late Tuesday afternoon was centered about 10 miles (15 km) southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, which bore the brunt of the destruction.
In addition to the uncounted thousands of dead, thousands are feared trapped under collapsed buildings, and many thousands more survived but were injured, overwhelming doctors.
Clinton said Port-au-Prince hospitals collapsed in the quake and the few facilities still open can't handle all the needs.
The aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson was en route to Haiti with helicopters that can move aid containers and construction equipment to places where they are needed.
The United Nations and a growing list of countries and nonprofit groups were dispatching medical supplies, facilities, and personnel, and Clinton said the logistics of the effort are a challenge.
"This is a large area involving many, many, many millions of people who have been cut off from access. Just getting to people to provide the medical assistance they need is proving to be very difficult," she said.
The port was demolished by the quake, which left behind huge chunks of concrete that blocked the road to truck and other traffic, CNN's Chris Lawrence reported from the site. A major hurdle will face those trying to transfer supplies from the ships to the people who need them, he said.
Clinton said the United States is providing security help to the the United Nations, which was "equally devastated by the collapse of its headquarters" for its peacekeeping force in Haiti. As many as 150 of its personnel are missing.
She said a contingent of 2,000 Marines, under the Southern Command, will help the international peacekeepers who have served as police in Haiti, which doesn't have an army.
One of the team's first jobs has been to get the Port-au-Prince airport working at a level to handle all the flights coming in filled with people and supplies. The control tower was damaged, but Clinton said a military team reopened the airport so it can handle heavy planes.
Obama said Thursday the Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, was being deployed. The vessel is expected to be ready to go by Monday at the latest. It will take five days to sail to Haiti. The ship is staffed by a crew of 64 and 560 hospital personnel.
Shah said the Haitian government has designated search-and-rescue efforts, medical services and communications as immediate priorities.
"Our team, which includes members from every agency in the federal government that has the capacity to help, is working to develop plans and put resources in place so that we can effectively respond to some of the requests that have come from the Haitian leadership and from our teams on the ground," Shah said.
State Department Counselor Cheryl Mills told reporters that because the U.S. Embassy is one of the few structures that remains intact, it has become a point of support, providing medical assistance for Americans and Haitians who are able to reach it.
Mills said the United States has been trying to contact the approximately 45,000 U.S. citizens in Haiti to see what they need. It has ordered the departure of embassy families and nonessential personnel.