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Diplomacy in Action

Haiti: Situation Brief and Relief Efforts

FPC Briefing
Roberta Jacobson
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
January 13, 2010


Date: 01/13/2010 Location: Washington, DC Description: Roberta Jacobson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Briefing at the Washington FPC on Relief Efforts in Haiti. © State Dept Image

Video

DAS Jacobson: Thank you, Patty. Good afternoon. I’m delighted to be here. Thank you all for coming.

I’m not going to speak for too long. I think a lot of the information you probably have already seen. I think it’s probably more interesting for all of us if you get to ask the questions.

Let me just start with a few things. Obviously we heard from President Obama earlier today that he has ordered, and in fact the U.S. response to the tragedy in Haiti to be aggressive and to be comprehensive. So there is an extremely robust interagency effort underway. All elements of the U.S. government are being mobilized to help and support both U.S. citizens in Haiti and the Haitian people. We’ve been in touch with the Haitian government, both in Port-au-Prince and here in Washington to talk with them a little bit about their priorities and what they see as the needs. We are in regular communication with our embassy in Port-au-Prince which is finalizing accounting for all official Americans in Haiti, as well as attempting to reach out to and receiving information from American citizens in Haiti so that we can do a good accounting.

We have, as you’ve probably heard, evacuated a small number of seriously injured U.S. government personnel from Haiti to Guantanamo Bay, to medical facilities in Guantanamo Bay. We expect that there will be some additional personnel, probably private U.S. citizens, who will be evacuated as well.

You’ve also probably heard about search and rescue teams, which is one of the highest priorities of the Haitian government. As we all know, the first 48 to 72 hours are really the only window that you have for search and rescue, so that is an extremely high priority. There will be four U.S. teams going in to do search and rescue. They are from Fairfax, Virginia; Los Angeles, California; and two from Florida. The Fairfax team is on the ground in Port-au-Prince now. The others will arrive over the next 24 hours. They come with large teams and equipment. The Fairfax team, for example, is 72 people plus equipment. The Los Angeles team is as large, and they have worked in many many situations such as this.

We are in close communication with the United Nations. We are obviously aware that the UN facilities, the MINUSTAH facility in Port-au-Prince was very badly damaged and there are reports of a lot of members of the UN Mission who are still unaccounted for. So we are coordinating with the UN on those efforts.

We are also mobilizing Coast Guard and military resources in support of the effort in Haiti. The first U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the Fulward, has arrived in Haiti. That’s a relatively small cutter but it was the closest so it has gone to Haiti. Additional ships will be going to Haiti, including the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vincennes which will probably take about 48 hours to get to Haiti; as well as the U.S. naval ship Comfort, which you may know has recently made a journey through the area providing support on a regular basis, sort of a non-emergency basis, but will now depart from Baltimore for Haiti as soon as possible. But of course it will not be able to reach Haiti for about a week. So other facilities will be provided in the interim and there may be additional ships that are mobilized to arrive in Port-au-Prince.

So we are doing everything possible to provide what we can to the Haitian government and to U.S. citizens and the Haitian people. We also –- Sorry, I should finally mention that we also have what’s called a DART team, a Disaster Assistance Response Team. As you heard the President say, the USAID administrator Rajiv Shah is in overall control and coordination of our effort. The DART team is a USAID mobilized team that is made up of experts from all areas and does our preliminary assessment of needs and priorities, and that’s really most important to have on the ground. They will be on the ground probably by now in Port-au-Prince and begin to give us a much better assessment of what the needs are, the priorities are, working with the search and rescue teams, et cetera.

So I think I’ll stop there, if I could, and go ahead and take your questions.

Question: There was a report of, I think it was three U.S. fatalities. Do you have any information?

DAS Jacobson: We have heard a lot of reports of U.S. citizens either wounded or killed. At this time we do not have confirmation of U.S. citizen fatalities. The embassy may be starting to get those, but most of what we have is second-hand information. As our people get out and around the city, or people are able to come to the embassy, we will be able to confirm U.S. citizen fatalities.

I should mention that unfortunately given the destruction in Port-au-Prince and the number of American citizens who live and work in Port-au-Prince the possibility of fatalities of U.S. citizens is frankly, quite likely, but we do not yet have confirmation of that. We will be obviously working very hard to try and reach out to the community.

We keep, as you probably know, U.S. citizens can and are encouraged to register with our embassies around the world. The registration for the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince was about 45,000 Americans in Haiti. But we anticipate that that number is actually low. There are many Haitian-American dual nationals. There are other people who do not register. So we can’t be sure that that’s actually an accurate figure.

Question: Thank you, Sonia Schott, Radio Valera and Globovision Venezuela.

You mentioned that the U.S. embassy has been badly damaged. Is it still working, the embassy? What is the condition on that? And if you have an update on the UN Mission, the people of the UN Mission --

DAS Jacobson: Let me clarify. The U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince is actually, the building itself is in very very good shape. It has not been damaged. The embassy in Port-au-Prince is quite a new building and withstood the earthquake very well, and we have many of our mission personnel at the embassy working. They have also been able to continue –- Communication is a bit spotty, but they have had generation for power, water and so forth.

What we have heard is severely damaged is the MINUSTAH Headquarters, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti. For those of you who may have been there, MINUSTAH is located up a little bit on the side of the hills in Port-au-Prince either down a block or just next to the Hotel Montina, which is where many of the MINUSTAH people stay. The hotel and the MINUSTAH headquarters were both very badly damaged. Because of the time of day, even if folks had left work, they may have returned to the hotel where they stay and live. So unfortunately, there are a pretty significant number of UN personnel who are not accounted for and the damage was very severe there. So that’s of great concern to us.

Question: Christoph von Marschall, from the German Daily, der Tagersspiel.

I have two questions. One, when you say – In what state is the infrastructure like, the airport. When you say you want to get people there and equipment, do they land in the normal airport? Or do they have to go to a military facility? That is one question.

A second, do you have any number, how many Haitians are living in the United States or with personal family relationships here, because the President mentioned that so many people from Haiti are living or working in the United States, but I have no idea how many that might be.

DAS Jacobson: Thank you.

In terms of the airport facility, I should start off by saying that the preliminary information that we have from overflight, not as much information on the ground yet because our folks haven’t been able to get out and about. But preliminary information suggests, as we are all hearing I think from people on the ground, that the damage is really worst in Port-au-Prince. Outside of Port-au-Prince the damage was significantly less.

So Port-au-Prince really is, as it was obviously the epicenter of the earthquake, it is also the epicenter of the damage, and obviously the most densely populated area.

The airport in Port-au-Prince, the condition of that airport as far as we know is as follows. The airport has been open for operations today to accept emergency aircraft only. There have been flights that were able to come in with search and rescue teams, with personnel to do assessments or evaluations, with emergency personnel. We know, for example, of one company that flew a plane in, I believe it was an airline, with supplies for its personnel so that it could begin to get its operations back again. Those sorts of things.

What we are helping to do at this –- So what we understand, there were conflicting reports on whether the tower was destroyed at the airport. I’m not sure we have an actual structural answer on whether the tower was destroyed, but we do know that the air traffic control system was not operational.

We will be sending in equipment to assist in setting up air traffic control, and that will be happening almost immediately.

As far as we know, especially with these flights that were able to go in today, neither the runway nor runway lights, for example, were damaged. There was some damage, we understand, to the terminal building, and of course like many others, not all other buildings in Port-au-Prince, there was no electricity, et cetera.

We have a consular team at the airport to assist any Americans who come to the airport and need assistance to try and get out if flights begin going out or evacuations are necessary.

What we are hoping is that there may be a possibility of increasing operational tempo at the airport. More flights either coming in or going out with people who may want to leave in the next 24 to 48 hours, but we’ll know more about that early tomorrow morning. Whether or not the airport will be able to function even for emergency flights in the night time is not clear yet.

Your second question was on the Haitian Diaspora in the United States, and I’m very sorry, I actually don’t have a number, which I should. I don’t know whether Jenny has anything on that. About two million Haitians in the United States. That’s entirely possible.

The President did mention, and I think that one of the things we know is that the Haitian Diaspora, like obviously many other Americans, but with particular connections, is responding immediately. There have been many calls from Haitian-Americans, both organizationally and individually, for people to give, to support non-governmental organizations, whether it’s the American Red Cross or Mercy Corps or other organizations that will be operating in Haiti to help in reconstruction.

So we have done a good deal of outreach to the Haitian community and the United States. Both the White House and the State Department held a conversation with community leaders earlier today to coordinate with them, to work with them on trying to get aid to organizations and individuals in Haiti.

The other thing that obviously we do, and this is for U.S. citizens, but obviously as I indicated, there are a great number of dual nationals, is we have our call center that is set up. That’s the 1-888 number that you may have seen that the President announced to respond to people who have American citizen family members or people they’re trying to find out about in Haiti.

Question: Alexei Betezin,Infox News Service, Russian TV.

I have a question about coordination with Russia. Earlier today Russian officials told that they are also sending some search and rescue assets to Haiti. Do they have any kind of coordination with Russia on the matter?

DAS Jacobson: Thank you. I actually appreciate that question because I will be able to answer it both I think vis-à-vis Russia and many other countries.

Offers of assistance and coordination have actually been extremely robust from around the world and the majority of those offers of assistance at this point are being coordinated through our Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, OFDA, which is part of USAID.

As far as I know, we are keeping track of and have done a pretty good job, we hope, of reaching out via our embassies in other countries and here in Washington with embassies, of reaching out to see what may be offered, whether there is assistance needed, and whether there is assistance that can be able to be provided to other countries that are desirous of providing support but may not have lift or logistics capabilities, et cetera. So most of that is being coordinated through our Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, and I would tell you that during the day today there has been a great deal of coordination with other donors because that’s a key part of the response.

I think one of the first things that you do, we’re now at just over 24 hours since the earthquake, but the most important thing, quite honestly, is the assessment to try and get good information about what is really needed, where it’s needed, and how soon. And that will be taking place, frankly, over the next 24 hours. So coordination with other donors will probably pick up dramatically after we all have better assessments from the UN, from our DART team, our Disaster Assistance Team, and there are a couple of other countries that are sending in evaluation teams as well.

Question: Thank you, Ms. Secretary. __ Shanshan Wang with China Radio International.

I’ve got two questions. The first one is a follow-up. Could you give more details about the collaboration that U.S. is having with the UN and other countries in terms of who does what? I know China is also sending teams to Haiti, and who is in charge of the whole rescue and search work there?

The second one is, as far as you know, do the people in the earthquake stricken areas have food and shelter, water supply, electricity? And what kind of human care and medical aid will the U.S. offer? Thank you.

DAS Jacobson: Thank you. A couple of things.

We are attempting to coordinate as aggressively as possible with all of the other countries that are making offers of assistance. We do that by frankly taking in the greatest number of information that we can from all of the embassies and consulates around the world, making sure that we have a task force that is set up, we put all of that into our task force and make sure that the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance knows all of the offers of assistance, what kinds of things have been offered, how soon, whether they have lift capability or need assistance in transport, et cetera.

So the first thing that we do is try and, frankly, keep an inventory of what has been offered and coordinate that most directly with the UN and with the Haitian government.

I should mention that when I met this morning with Ambassador Josef from Haiti, and subsequently spoke with our Ambassador in Haiti, they indicated that the Haitian Minister of Interior, Minister Vien Ami, will be their coordinator for response. But frankly, it had been very difficult, at least up until now to get a coordinated sense from the Haitian government of their own needs, partly because they were unable to do evaluations yet, and partly because of the very severe difficulty in communications in country.

So when I spoke with Ambassador Josef this morning, and this was confirmed subsequently in Port-au-Prince, there were five areas that the Ambassador confirmed that the Haitian government considers priority at this point. They are, and I’ll try and get them all right. I may have to count again. They are communications equipment, search and rescue, medical assistance -– I’m not going to remember all of them so I’ll go back and actually look. Medical assistance, communication support, search and rescue, and emergency power generation. There were four.

So those were the areas that they felt were most urgent in the first days. And we will see from our assessment team, to be quite honest, whether that is something with which they concur, although it seems quite logical that those are the things that are needed. However I should say that it is very clear that housing in Port-au-Prince, a good deal of the housing has been severely damaged. No one may know yet whether a house is structurally sound, but from visual inspection, there is a good deal of damage to housing, so housing may be a very real need.

There are reports in the press this afternoon from Port-au-Prince that water is needed fairly urgently. Those are the kinds of things that are fairly common as part of early disaster relief supply and so we will be coordinating with the other donors, the UN and the Haitian government to ensure that we have enough of those kinds of supplies coming in to support the population. But those are likely to be areas of concern as well.

I should note also that despite the fact that the UN does not yet know about the whereabouts of its Chief in Haiti or the Deputy Chief. I’ve seen reports that President Preval of Haiti has announced that the UN Chief was killed in the earthquake. The UN, up until the point that I left my building a few minutes ago, had not been able to confirm that yet. But the UN has decided earlier today to send in Under Secretary General Edmond Muvet who had previously been the UN Special Representative in Haiti as an Acting Coordinator for the UN on the ground. We have always worked very very well with Ambassador Muvet and will, of course, do so upon his arrival.

IN addition, the commander of MINUSTAH, the Brazilian commander of MINUSTAH itself, the military and police arm of the mission, was in the United States when the earthquake hit. He was in Florida. So our U.S. Southern Command transported him back to Haiti today so that he was able to get back into country and begin to help in that coordination.

We’ve also seen a very strong response from many of the MINUSTAH folks on the ground, some of whom were in bases not at MINUSTAH headquarters and therefore were unharmed. A Brazilian detachment, a Chilean, Argentine and other nationalities who were immediately beginning to make sure that they were ready for potential riot control or crowd control, any looting.

I should emphasize that up until now, and I haven’t been watching CNN recently so I don’t know for sure, but up until now we have not received any reports of violence or looting. But obviously that is something that everyone will be concerned about and trying to make sure that order is maintained.

Question: -- Menelik Zeleke from the PGTV News Network. We do thank you for coming and speaking with us in such a short time.

My question is a two-fold question. The first one is that it has been stated that a situation of this magnitude hasn’t happened in Haiti in many years. The question is, did they have any warning or any systems set up to notify them this was coming?

The second part, it has also stated that the jail in Haiti has been abolished or destroyed, and all of the prisoners have escaped from the jails.

Also you stated early that the United States according to the President is sending a team there which will be, act aggressively. Is this something also that would be part of working with the government of Haiti trying to, I know that keeping peace in the environment, but also round up these escaped prisoners?

DAS Jacobson: Let me start with the first one. Earthquakes, of course, are among the most difficult disasters that we all deal with because they don’t provide early warning. Hurricanes, Haiti just got through an exceedingly quiet hurricane season for once, and hurricanes do provide us with warning. We know when they’re coming. We know somewhat their track. Earthquakes, this was exceeding sudden. It was a long earthquake. It was extremely shallow, which meant that the damage was much greater. And as you note, and the press has certainly noted, it’s been a very long time since there has been a major earthquake in Haiti, and not one like this at any time that anyone remembers.

So in terms of preparing for this disaster, I’m not sure that people really could have, but I have to say I don’t think that anyone really did.

Now that said, I should note that one of the efforts that we have helped in the Caribbean with, and frankly I think some of this is post-tsunami in Indonesia and Asia, is an early warning system in the Caribbean for tsunami alert. There was a tsunami alert issued subsequent to the earthquake, even though tsunamis are exceedingly rare in the Caribbean, and thankfully in this case did not materialize.

So where we could, we have tried to help set up some early warning systems, so that was the case with the tsunami warning that went out yesterday. But unfortunately, there is not yet a really good early warning system for earthquakes, and there certainly was not warning in this case.

Obviously we all are also aware that given the situation of Haiti, the dire poverty in which Haiti is and the type of construction that you have in Haiti, whether on the hills or elsewhere, the loss of life may be much greater than it might have been somewhere else because of that, and that is obviously of very great concern, part of the reason why search and rescue is so critical in these first hours.

We have seen the reports on the damage to the jail and possible escape of prisoners. I have to tell you that as of now we do not have confirmation of that. It may well be true, we just don’t know that independently.

I guess I should try and separate out a little bit, the President’s use of the word aggressive from the notion that we’ll be providing law enforcement capabilities in Haiti right away. I think the President intended the word aggressive exactly as we are taking it, which is an aggressive response, forward leaning, offering assistance right away, getting as many assessment teams and supplies into Haiti as quickly as possible, so that none of us ought to sort of be sitting back and waiting for a request or any other kind of approach to us. We will be sort of leaning forward to try and help and find out what’s needed.

And as part of that, we are certainly prepared to support the Haitian government should there be a need for some support in the security realm. But the first responders, if you will, to the situation on the ground in terms of security will be the Haitian National Police and MINUSTAH of which we are a part.

At this point we don’t have any indication that those two entities are unable to provide what is needed. We may be able to provide some assistance, for example, at ensuring that the airport is secure once it begins to operate again, or in particular locations. We may be able to help ensure that the port can reopen, and that may include some support for security elements. But I don’t envision necessarily U.S. forces taking n any police functions at this time.

Thank you.

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