Charleston has been designated a return "hub" for Americans leaving the Haiti earthquake aftermath, and the first flight is expected to arrive as soon as this morning.

C-17 military planes and other aircraft have been cleared to touch down at the Charleston International Airport delivering U.S. citizens through the airport's civilian entrances.

"These are American citizens coming home," said Joe Farmer, public information officer for the S.C. Emergency Management Division.

No one is sure how many returnees will re-enter through Charleston in the coming days and weeks, but South Carolina joins Florida and New Jersey as primary "repatriation sites" authorized in the federal response.

"It could be 100, it could be 10,000," said Ben Fox, spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford. The plan has been in the works for at least two weeks and was announced Wednesday.

There's also a chance that Haitian medical cases could be flown into Charleston eventually, as a first step to receiving treatment in hospitals locally or in other parts of the state. The move isn't a certainty, but it is being prepared for.

A collection of state, local and federal agencies will be involved in receiving the returnees, with work ranging from monitoring health needs of the returnees to providing security. Linda Pranger, a local district spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, said the department's role will be providing medical screening and triage, as well as coordinating health services such as tetanus shots.

Officials also will be using a questionnaire to assess illnesses after returnees clear customs and immigration. "People who need minor medical care such as wound care and treatment for infection may be treated on site at the airport as necessary," Pranger said.

Local hospitals are providing a team of a doctor, two nurses and four technicians to provide minor medical care at the airport, she said. For the first three days, Trident Health Systems, the Medical University of South Carolina and Roper-St. Francis will supply the teams. After that, staffing for the medical-care area will be supplied by a combination of hospital staff, DHEC staff and volunteers from the Medical Reserve Corps.

Officials were still preparing their receiving plan late Wednesday. It is expected that refugees will first be processed through U.S. Customs at the airport, then enter a more in-depth screening zone near the airport's baggage claim.

There also is a chance some of the returnees will be given debit cards and directed to local hotels blocked out for them until their flights elsewhere can be secured.

Meanwhile, federal authorities have activated the National Disaster Medical System to deal with Haitian patients needing advanced medical care in the United States. The status means that some NDMS hospitals in South Carolina, Florida and elsewhere in the Southeast could accept a limited number of patients over the coming weeks, though nothing is certain.

This wouldn't be the first time Charleston accepted Haitian refugees. In 1793, Charleston used its new City Market to provide temporary housing for survivors of the island's bloody slave revolt. Charleston received about 400 to 500 in the first wave, including white planters, merchants and others fleeing the violence.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or