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Military personnel prepare to load a Griffin helicopter on a CC-177 Globemaster on the tarmac at CFB Trenton for a Disaster Assistance Response Team, DART, humanitarian mission to earthquake ravaged Haiti.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The first wave of a massive Canadian disaster-relief effort will touch down in Haiti Thursday, as the federal government dispatches planes loaded with helicopters, supplies and equipment to Port-au-Prince, while two navy ships and 500 Canadian troops set sail from Halifax.

Even before Prime Minister Stephen Harper was able to get a call through devastated phone lines to Haitian leaders, the government set in motion a major aid mission, replete with equipment, experts, manpower, and supplies.

"It's an enormous disaster in a country that can't afford such a disaster, that already has terrible problems," Mr. Harper said. "Our hearts are with all of them. I can assure you that we are acting as quickly and as comprehensively as we can."

And Canadians rushed to open their wallets as pictures of the devastation began to appear on their television sets. By 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Canadian Red Cross had received donations of more than $1-million.

Foreign Affairs Department had received more than 11,500 calls from people seeking information or assistance by Wednesday evening. One forwarded text message came from a Canadian woman trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building. Officials reported later that she had been rescued and was safe, though they refused to release further details.

The scale and speed of the relief mission being prepared is remarkable for a country that has been criticized for being slow off the mark in reacting to past disasters. An advance reconnaissance team of 20 doctors and soldiers with the Canadian Forces' Disaster Assistance Response Team, or DART, landed in Haiti Wednesday afternoon aboard a C-130 Hercules cargo plane loaded with supplies.

The first main elements of the DART, the Forces' 200-strong rapid-response team, will land this morning in Port-au-Prince in a massive C-17 Globemaster cargo plane that will carry medical supplies and personnel, search-and-rescue technicians and equipment, and engineers to help re-establish power and phone service.

It will also carry two CH-146 Griffon helicopters, part of batch of at least four helicopters being sent to help transport needed items through a country in rubble: another Griffon is to leave later Thursday on a cargo plane, and a Sea King will sail with the navy ships.

The frigate HMCS Halifax and destroyer HMCS Athabaskan are to set sail Thursday, loaded with medical equipment, engineering supplies, along with such tools as chainsaws, plus with 500 sailors, soldiers, and airmen.

Warships always carry a wide range of capabilities such as engineers and tradespeople: "That will enable us to adapt as a more detailed appreciation of the situation on the ground is delivered," Captain Art McDonald of the Halifax said.

This response is in marked contrast to other recent relief efforts.

When a tsunami hit Sri Lanka on Dec, 26, 2004, the government waited a week before deploying the DART; the decision to send four aid ships to New Orleans after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina took five days.

As well as learning from past mistakes, Ottawa was responding to a distressed nation with close ties to Canada. Montreal is a centre of expatriate Haitian culture and home to a large Haitian-Canadian community. Canada, along with the United States and France, has targeted this poorest of nations in the Western Hemisphere for special assistance. Haiti is Canada's second-largest aid recipient after Afghanistan.

Canadian officials in Haiti and Ottawa worked through the day and night Wednesday trying to track down Canadians on the island nation through phone calls and tips. There are 6,000 Canadians in Haiti, 707 of whom are registered with the embassy; By Wednesday morning, more than 100 Canadians were being housed in tents of the embassy compound; the building itself had been evacuated.

The Canadian government has set aside an "initial response" of $5-million from its humanitarian assistance fund to help aid agencies such as the Red Cross send people and supplies to the disaster zone.

In addition, Canada is working with Norway and the Red Cross to set up a field hospital, while needs for other aid will be assessed over the next few days.

Canada has a stockpile of emergency materials including shelters, mosquito nets, water purifications systems, sanitation services that can be dispatched, Ms. Oda said, but donors have to co-ordinate what is needed to avoid sending a deluge of items that cannot be distributed.

<iframe src="" scrolling="no" height="650px" width="600px" frameBorder ="0" allowTransparency="true" ><a href="" >Haiti earthquake, day 2 coverage</a></iframe>

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