PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Six Haitian children cling to Lt. Ben Stollerman’s hands, sleeves and fatigue pants as the U.S. Navy engineer negotiates one of Haiti’s biggest camps for earthquake refugees.
“I feel like the Pied Piper,” he says, grinning as he takes a break from pointing out projects he’s directed to help reduce flooding in a sea of makeshift shelters that 47,000 people call home.
Stollerman says he’s tried to explain to the children — though he’s not sure they grasp it — that he won’t be around forever. Next week, he ships out.
From a high of 22,000 troops spearheaded by the now-departed 82nd Airborne two weeks after the devastating Jan. 12 quake, the U.S. military operation here is now down to 1,300 troops.
As of June 1, the Louisiana National Guard will be in charge of a 500-person contingent, based in Gonaives, a flood-prone city north of the capital where 800 people died two years ago in three hurricanes and a tropical storm.
Other National Guard units will rotate in every two weeks from Nevada, Montana, Arizona, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, said Maj. Gen. Simeon Trombitas, who heads U.S. Army-South and is in command of Joint Task Force-Haiti for its last month.
But the thousands of troops of Operation Unified Response, who helped keep the peace, distribute food and provide an overall feeling of safety for quake-stricken Haitians, will be a thing of the past.
They will be missed at the old military airport, where Stollerman works.
“The Americans’ leaving is kind of sad because they get things done,” Marie Ange Joseph, a 36-year-old street vendor who lives in the airport camp, said as Navy engineers installed steel grates over open sewer holes nearby. “If things were left up to the Haitians, they wouldn’t get done.”
Children scurried and slipped about near one of the holes, the stench of human waste strong even a few shacks away where a bare-chested young man sold moonshine and cigarettes and people played cards at a tarp-covered tavern.
An eight-person Southern Command contingent will remain in the capital, Port-au-Prince, with a handful of Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters.
The Navy engineers, or Seabees, also will remain in Haiti, to protect those among the 1.3 million still crowded in tent camps who are at high risk from flash flooding.
“It’s a transition, not a drawdown or a departure,” Trombitas told The Associated Press.
The Guardsmen will build and repair schools and continue to train Haitian medical workers. Large-scale U.S. military medical attention ended March 19 when the USNS Comfort hospital ship departed.
The U.S. Agency for International Development and civilian relief agencies will be taking over most of the logistical and aid work American troops performed.
Rain is apt to be the biggest challenge.
May is normally the wettest month, with an average of 8.6 inches of rainfall, said Michel Davison, coordinator of the International Desk of the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
So far, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation has been spared the kind of weather systems that typically stall for a few days, dumping several inches of rain. But Davison predicted that major downpours could begin around May 20.
Just 3 percent of Haiti is forested, and widespread erosion regularly contributes to violent flooding capable of delivering death on an alarming scale.
Last month, the Seabees took advantage of lower-than-average rainfall to build retaining walls, carve out drainage canals and sponsor cash-for-work programs that paid jobless, homeless Haitians to clear garbage from culverts in nine camps where they deemed people to be at the highest risk from flash floods.
The U.S. military also helped move 7,400 at-risk people from those camps to relocation camps.
A centerpiece of the effort has been the teeming Ancien Aeroport Militaire camp, where 26-year-old Lt. Stollerman of Park City, Utah, has become a minor celebrity.
The Seabees delivered 300 truckloads of gravel that people have used to raise the floors of their homes and rid the camp of standing water where mosquitoes could breed and spread malaria. They’ve also covered big sewer drain openings that spelled peril for the lieutenant's little friends.
“They really decreased the stress level among the people in the camp,” said Louise Ivers, Haiti clinical director for the Boston-based Partners in Health, a medical relief organization with more than two decades in Haiti. “The place was a hellhole. When it rained, water was collecting in big ponds. Children were falling into holes. It was just desperate.”
If disaster strikes again, the Seabees can be back in force in a matter of days, said Capt. Roger Motzko, 55, of Anchorage, Alaska, Stollerman’s boss and the Joint Task Force’s chief of engineering.
The first U.S. troops to arrive for the earthquake emergency bivouacked under ponchos on the western edge of a relief-choked international airport.
The soldiers have had it somewhat easier lately: Recently, they were entertained by Miami Dolphins cheerleaders who made three appearances from April 27-29 with a military-sponsored variety show.
And the Americans only opened fire once, Trombitas said: warning shots during looting in the early post-quake days.
Though the troops are universally pleased to be among friendly, appreciative people, Haiti’s capital remains a sweat-inducing, dust-choked stew of filth, despair, hunger, traffic and sporadic electricity.
“We live at the old bus station in non-air-conditioned tents,” Motzko said.
“On lucky days we get a shower a day. Lucky for you, today was one.”