Updated at 7:43 p.m. EST
Up to 10,000 U.S. troops will be off Haiti's shores by Monday to help distribute aid and prevent potential rioting among desperate earthquake survivors, the top U.S. military officer said Friday, as President Obama pledged long-term reconstruction help to President Rene Preval.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said the total American presence in and around the beleaguered country could rise beyond 10,000 as U.S. military officers determine how much assistance may be needed in the days ahead.
Mullen's announcement came as U.S. military helicopters began ferrying water and other humanitarian relief supplies from an American aircraft carrier to a relief effort under way at the Port-au-Prince airport in earthquake-shattered Haiti.
It's a race against a threat that a sea of agony and despair could erupt in a volcano of violence, reports CBS National Security Correspondent David Martin.
"The key is to get the food and water in there as quickly as possible so that people don't in their desperation turn to violence," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a joint news conference at the Pentagon with Mullen.
Michael Wimbish, a spokesman at the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Florida said Friday that the critical supplies are being transported from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which arrived earlier in the day.
A rapid response unit from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division has handed out food, water and medical supplies to Haitians outside the main airport in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
The unit's commander, Capt. Mike Anderson, says: "We're here to do as much good and as little evil as we can."
A helicopter left the airport with water to distribute, and a reconnaissance helicopter is looking for dropping zones around the capital to move out more aid.
The influx of relief supplies has generally been met with bottlenecks everywhere, beginning at a main airport short on jet fuel and ramp space and without a control tower.
Gen. Douglas Fraser, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, defended the pace of U.S. relief efforts, citing the logistical challenges of mobilizing troops and supplies in a country with such limited infrastructure. The Port-au-Prince airport has just one runway and limited fueling facilities. The city's port, which is small to begin with, suffered damage during the quake.
The effort represented a "monumental challenge" that was progressing as "quickly and effectively as we can make it," Fraser said, who spoke to reporters from Florida.
The international Red Cross estimated 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed in Tuesday's cataclysmic earthquake, based on information from the Haitian Red Cross and government officials. Hard-pressed recovery teams resorted to using bulldozers to transport loads of dead.
The State Department Friday updated the toll of U.S. dead from Tuesday's 7.0 magnitude quake to six and cautioned that the casualty count is likely to rise still further.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that in addition to the previously reported death of agency employee Victoria DeLong, there have been at least five other confirmed U.S. deaths - all private U.S. citizens whose names have not been released publicly.
"And that number is going to go up," Crowley told reporters without offering a specific forecast.
DeLong, a cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy, was killed when her home collapsed in the earthquake.
Meanwhile, President Obama promised an expansive U.S. effort to help Haiti survive its disaster, not just to save lives now but also as part of a longer-term effort to help rebuild the country.
"The scale of the devastation is extraordinary, as I think all of us are seeing on television, and the losses are heartbreaking," Obama said, adding he would meet Saturday with former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to lead a drive to get the American people more broadly involved in the recovery effort.
Mr. Obama, who had been unable to contact Haitian president Rene Preval several times this week, talked for 30 minutes with the Haitian leader Friday, the White House said.
Mr. Obama told Preval the world has been devastated by the loss and suffering and pledged full U.S. support for both the immediate recovery effort and the long-term reconstruction. Preval said that the needs in his country are great, but that aid is now making its way to the Haitian people. Preval ended the call with a message to the American people, saying "from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of the Haitian people, thank you, thank you, thank you."
Gates suggested that the U.S. is aware of perceptions it could have too-high a profile in the ravaged country.
"I think that if we, particularly given the role that we will have in delivering food and water and medical help to people, my guess is the reaction will be one of relief at seeing Americans providing this kind of help," Gates told reporters.
The secretary also said "there will be a lot of other people there as well," noting Brazil also has a significant presence. He said it was vital to get food and water into the country and called the security situation "pretty good," except for some isolated cases of scavenging for food and water.
The secretary said military planners have been reluctant to drop food and water packages from the air because it could lead to lead to rioting. But bringing in supplies by sea and air have proved difficult because of Haiti's badly damaged sea port and congested airport.
Crowley, the State Department spokesman, acknowledged the limitations of the initial U.S. effort to get water, food and other emergency requirements into Haiti. He said, for example, that the main port at Port-au-Prince, the capital, was so badly damaged in the quake that it is not useable. He likened the stream of aid thus far as flowing through a "garden hose" that must be widened to a "river."
The arrival off the Haitian coast, an aircraft carrier laden with helicopters, essentially provides a "second airport" from which aid can be delivered to the stricken capital, Crowley said.
As of Friday morning, 846 of the approximately 45,000 Americans in Haiti had been evacuated from the country, Crowley said. Another 160 were at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince awaiting evacuation, he added.
Gates said the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti has primary responsibility for security in the capital.
Mullen said the hospital ship USNS Comfort, with hundreds of medical professionals and medical support, should be off the Haitian coast by the end of next week.
"While these assets tend to the immediate material and medical needs of the people of Haiti, these ships, aircraft and troops also deliver hope, although it seems that supplies and security cannot come quickly enough," Mullen said.
Meanwhile, the White House said Friday that the United States has co-ordinated with the Cuban government to speed up the evacuation of injured people. Spokesman Tommy Vietor said Havana authorized the U.S. to fly medical evacuation flights from Guantanamo Bay to Miami through Cuban air space, cutting 90 minutes off the flight time.
Friday's arrivals added to more than 300 military personnel already there as of Thursday and amounted to the first major influx of military from the United States, which has taken the lead in world efforts to assist the devastated country.
From Europe, Asia and the Americas, other governments, the U.N. and private aid groups were sending planeloads of high-energy biscuits and other food, tons of water, tents, blankets, water-purification gear, heavy equipment for removing debris, helicopters and other transport, and teams of hundreds of search-and-rescue, medical and other specialists.
But two days after much of this ramshackle city was shattered, the global helping hand was slowed by the poor roads, airport and seaport of a wretchedly poor nation - delays that have led toamong Haitian survivors desperate for aid.
Pockets of looting flared across the capital. Small bands of young men and teenagers with machetes roaming downtown streets helped themselves to whatever they could find in wrecked homes.
"They are scavenging everything. What can you do?" said Michel Legros, 53, as he waited for help to search for seven relatives buried in his collapsed house. A Russian search-and-rescue team said the general insecurity was forcing them to suspend their efforts after nightfall.
"The situation in the city is very difficult and tense," said team chief Salavat Mingaliyev, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.