Road home from Haiti goes through Columbia

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Video: Evacuees pass through Columbia

About 30 Americans evacuated from earthquake-ravaged Haiti overnight got a brief bird's-eye view of the Midlands on Friday.

Most spent a few hours at Columbia Metropolitan Airport waiting for flights home after buses brought them from a Lowcountry evacuee arrival center.

Many had gone to the Caribbean nation to check on families and deliver food and water after the Jan. 12 earthquake, local Red Cross officials said. Three C-17 military cargo planes that flew into Charleston on Friday provided the first part of each of their rides home.

The catastrophe is "overwhelming" even though international relief organizations are "doing the best they can," said Marc Pean of Burlington, N.J.

"There's a great need for everything," he said. "It's total devastation."

Pean found his 86-year-old wheelchair-bound mother alive but a sister dead.

His attempt to persuade authorities to allow his mother - living in a tent with relatives - to accompany him failed.

"It's heartbreaking to see her in those conditions," Pean said.

He joined others on the overnight flight on the military cargo airplane after concluding it was easier to do that than return to the Dominican Republic to seek a flight home.

A few of the evacuees lived through the earthquake but declined to be interviewed, Red Cross officials said. And some don't speak English well.

Some evacuees who weren't flying out were picked up by relatives. Others rented cars to drive home or went to local hotels to rest.

Red Cross volunteers and staff members brought meals, drinks and minor medical care for those who waited at the airport for flights.

It's uncertain if more evacuees will be funneled to the airport, said Joe Farmer, spokesman for the State Emergency Management Division.

Those decisions are made on the spot as groups arrive at the re-entry hub in Charleston, he said.

"We don't know if this is a one-time thing or it will be a multiple-time thing," Farmer said.

The evacuees sent to the Midlands were on three flights to Charleston that came in between midnight and dawn Friday.

The first round of evacuees flew in to Charleston on Thursday, but none came to Columbia.

Red Cross officials are on alert to pitch in over the weekend, spokeswoman Susan Benesh said.

"We're on standby," she said. "We are going to be needed."