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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Haiti Update

FPC Briefing
Charles Luoma-Overstreet
Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
January 14, 2010

Date: 01/14/2010 Location: Washington, DC Description: Charles Luome-Overstreet, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Briefing at the Washington Foreign Press Center on Haiti. © State Dept Image

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: Thank you very much.

As we started out I just wanted to make a few remarks before we take your questions.

Initially I would like to reiterate what both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said, that the U.S. government is dedicated to a very robust and forward-leaning response to this disaster, to this terrible crisis in Haiti, that our thoughts and our prayers do go out to the Haitian people, and that we are dedicated to working very closely, in close collaboration with the government of Haiti as well as the United Nations, our international partners, representatives of the international organizations, the people in Haiti, and elsewhere as we try to address this crisis.

I’d like to say that in general we’ve already brought considerable resources to bear into Haiti and there are many more resources arriving in the days to come. Infrastructure is our main challenge at this time, and we’re working to enable the workers and materials to get to the points of greatest need as we respond to the disaster.

We’ve brought in air traffic control capability and other resources that allow the airport in Port-au-Prince to operate 24x7. There remain many challenges to the operation of that airport which we’re working with, but that’s a major achievement at this point.

Our priorities now are, of course, the immediate search and rescue operations and supporting communication infrastructure so we can assure that effective flow of relief resources and the distribution to the points where those resources are needed.

With that, I’d just like to take your questions now.

Question: [Florida]. My question to you is what’s being done right now in terms of removing the bodies from the streets because of possible diseases? And also, what’s happening right now in terms of the survivors that are under the debris being helped right now?

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: Thank you very much. Obviously working with the deceased here is a high priority. We are attempting to coordinate with the government of Haiti, and I understand that there have been interim morgues set up in a variety of places, but that is a challenge. That’s something that our folks on the scene are working to address and it is a challenging one.

As far as the search and rescue operations, that is something where we are moving very quickly, as quickly as possible. Clearly given the scope of this disaster it’s still very daunting. The United States itself has brought in so far three 72-person search and rescue teams, heavy resourced search and rescue teams, supplemented by these other resources from Fairfax County; from Miami, Dade, Florida; from Los Angeles. There are at least six other teams that are in the process that we’re trying to bring in, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. International partners around the world, of course, are also contributing. I know of, just off the top of my head, at least eight other countries that have sent in search and rescue resources that are already on the ground in Haiti, and I know there are many more promised and in the pipeline. But obviously we all know that it’s the first hours after the disaster that are the most critical. That’s why that’s been receiving the highest priority for us.

Question: [Florida]. I would like to on behalf of the Haitian people thank the White House for doing a good job.

The last question is, in terms of infrastructure and roads, how do you guys intend to get from one point to another? Because the whole country is devastated.

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: Clearly very true. Thought thankfully, I would point out, though the devastation is far-reaching, much of the destruction has been centered in Port-au-Prince and there are other areas of the country that were not as hard hit. But be that as it may, the city itself, as you’ve said, is very hard hit and we’re working with local authorities, local individuals, and other teams to see about clearing the roads to try to get things where they need to get, and that is a high priority right now.

Question: My name is Martin Klings from the German weekly Die Tseitenel.

I have a question concerning the organization. Is USAID in charge of everything? How does it work together with the military? And what is the Pentagon doing? And how are those forces going to cooperate once they are there?

A second question about the heavy material. You know you need heavy material to lift all the concrete parts. How do you get that in? You can’t just rescue the people with your hands.

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: Clearly. Thank you, Martin.

Cooperation is a big issue. That’s the theme that we are working on. It’s challenging, both cooperation within the various agencies of our U.S. government, but more importantly collaboration with the government of Haiti and those international partners who are bringing their resources to bear.

I think you know that President Obama announced and designated our Director of USAID as the coordinator of our overall relief efforts. As such, Rajiv Shah is facilitating those efforts which involve a dozen, easily, U.S. government agencies. The State Department at my home is doing our share. We have a task force set up that is working to facilitate that coordination as well. But this really is all hands on deck coming out.

As you mentioned, the U.S. military through the U.S. Southern Command has brought considerable resources to bear. We have an aircraft carrier which is even now, the USS Carl Vincennes, which is coming into Haiti to bring those resources. We have a number of other ships on the way as well as aircraft.

The Department of Homeland Security through the U.S. Coast Guard has brought a lot of resources to bear. In fact they had some of the first vessels on hand that have been facilitating aircraft, air traffic control. They’ve also been able to bring in rotary wing aircraft as well as fixed wing aircraft, some C-130s, to facilitate both evacuations and the movement of material and resources around the islands.

There’s a lot longer list that I could go into. I wouldn’t want to go into all the details or we’ll be here all afternoon, but we’re talking about bringing in both people. We have what we call DART teams, Disaster Assistance Response Teams that have come in. People with a lot of experience to help coordinate that, because a lot of times something like this, the danger is that you're chasing your tail if you don’t know what’s going on. But we have a lot of experts that have been brought in to facilitate that. We have the search and rescue teams. We have specialized capabilities as with the air traffic control that we’ve talked about. We have medical supplies that are on their way both by aircraft. The USS Comfort, a military ship, is preparing to come down and we hope to have that arriving in Haiti in the next days as well as field hospitals.

Our Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance has been behind a lot of these specialized teams coming in, providing the expertise, as well as resources that have been pre-staged.

I think I’d better stop there on some of the list, but if you wanted some more information I’d be glad to help you out afterwards.

Question: [Inaudible].

Assistant Secretary of the OAS said today that it’s not possible to talk about a functioning Haitian government. He said a lot of Ministers are still unaccounted and that the government there is at least not fully operational right now. So again, who is in charge of the situation in Haiti? From what we’ve heard, the U.S. Air Force has taken over the airport. As you said, you brought in operational material to reopen the airport because the tower control was collapsed.

In terms of cooperation, how is it going on? The President himself didn’t know where he was going to sleep last night. The Presidential Palace is in problem. Who are you cooperating with?

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: First off, let me say there is little question that President Preval is in charge. He is the President of Haiti. He is in charge of those activities that happen on Haitian soil.

Secondly though, let me say there is also no doubt that the Haitian government has been hard-hit by this disaster. There are over three million individuals who are being affected by this earthquake and the aftermath, and I think the Haitian government would be the first to say that they have been hit as well as their citizens and they are struggling to respond to this. Those are challenges that need to be overcome, and our folks on the ground are working to assure that cooperation, but it is challenging.

I can tell you, though, the Minister of Health just earlier today was meeting with the donors to discuss collaboration and cooperation for assistance in the area of health. Whereas field hospitals, medical supplies and the like.

But we are looking to bring in communications equipment that we can provide to the Haitian government to try to help them communicate within themselves as well as with us and facilitate communication with donors. But it’s challenging.

Question: Sonya Schott from Radio Valera, Venezuela.

You mentioned the interagency cooperation in the U.S. side, but who is in charge of the international cooperation or how it works? The U.S. a part and for example the other countries of the region, from the Latin American region I mean? It’s in cooperation with the U.S. or the U.S. have part in every single country providing aid to the Haitian government?

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: I think I need to restate what I mentioned just before. This is Haiti. The government of Haiti is in charge. Those activities going on in Haiti are under the auspices of the Haitian government.

At the same time, this is a huge undertaking. The logistics are massive. This is very complicated. It’s a response effort that would tax any government even under ideal circumstances and these are far less than ideal.

With that said, there is a multilateral effort at cooperation, collaboration, and discuss. We’re reaching out to our partners in the EU, in the region. The Dominican Republic has certainly been very forth coming with lots of help. Obviously they’re an important staging point for both evacuation and relief efforts. Other partners throughout the hemisphere who are working. We are speaking bilaterally with them to try to relieve as much of the burden on the government of Haiti as possible for that, so that they know that if we are bringing in medical equipment to this area, that’s not something perhaps that another government has to do. If another government is bringing in particularly water desalinization program or sanitation here, that that might be something we don’t have to focus on in a particular area. But we’re talking amongst ourselves to try to coordinate that effort.

Question: Where is the OSCE in these efforts? I mean to coordinate with other countries.

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: This is a multilateral effort. We’re all coordinating. Obviously the government of Haiti has the final say on what goes on. We certainly are bringing all the resources to bear that we can to coordinate with our partners in the relief efforts.

Question: Christopher Marshall from the German daily, Der Spiegel.

Somehow it seems as though this is First World meeting Third World. Even without all the destruction. There is no electricity, there is no water. But once American TV crews are flying in or U.S. military or however, everything is there. Generators. Your recon from the air is better than the recon on the ground to make destruction assessment as far as I understood yesterday’s briefing of your colleague.

So can you a little bit comment on that? That also leads to a certain dependency. Of course officially we all understand that officially Haiti is a sovereign government and so on, but reality talking, it’s a little bit different, isn’t it?

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: Our effort in Haiti, right now we’re focused on disaster response and relief efforts. That’s something that goes beyond First World, Second World, Third World. The U.S. knows very well from our recent history that we have disaster issues where we needed help from others.

This is an issue that is really not talking about, in those terms. We have been collaborating with the government of Haiti and other partners and the Friends of Haiti Group to work for development with Haiti and overcoming the issues that that country has faced in recent years, for some time. As we’re working n this effort, we are also thinking about long term development. Weeks and even months ahead, what we can best do so that we are well situated to move Haiti forward in the development front further out.

But right now we, the government of Haiti and our other partners are really focused on the immediate needs of the country as we try to recover. Search and rescue, on getting the infrastructure up to try to minimize any further loss of life, and to help ameliorate the situation on the ground right now.

Question: Jordie Zamora Agence France Press.

Talking again about coordination, just a logistical question. Where is the Haitian government actually working from? Where is the President? Do you know what are the facilities they are using right now? Do you know by any idea from a practical point of view?

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: Jordie, as you would expect in a country that’s been hit with a disaster of this magnitude, there is no single facility where the entire Haitian government is together. They’re working and improvising much as our own teams on the ground are dealing with the facilities that they have. They’re in a variety of locations.

Our Ambassador has been able to speak to President Preval, but telecommunications are difficult, which is why that’s one of our priorities, to get that in there to facilitate communications and move these relief efforts along.

Question: May I ask an additional question? When you talk about the long term efforts, you know the earthquake hit Haiti in a very difficult moment. Or you could say also in a good moment because Haiti was getting better. So when you talk about long term efforts, what do the mistakes from the past teach you, and what has to change?

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: That’s a challenging question. I think we continually in our development strategy are looking at various relief efforts that we’ve lived in the past, and trying to draw lessons from those and looking as we move forward. Part of I think the Obama administration’s overall policy has been one of collaboration. We want to work with our partners. This is not a U.S. effort at relief, this is a multinational effort. We’re working with countries that are neighbors as close as the Dominican Republic or as far away as the countries of the European Union and China. We’re all working together and working to emphasize collaboration so that this is in fact a team effort. And try to make sure that the help that we bring is help that doesn’t exacerbate the problem down the road.

Question: Thank you. My name is Luciano Clerico, Italian News Agency ANSA.

In this issue, is it possible that the collaboration with some Cuban rescuers? I read today that from Cuba are sending a lot of people. So is it possible to imagine a common collaboration between U.S. American workers and the Cuban workers?

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: Absolutely. This is an effort that, as I said before, goes beyond politics. We’re interested in addressing the dire humanitarian needs on the spot right now. I can’t speak to precisely the level of resources that the Cuban government is bringing into Haiti, but to the extent they are there, we are certainly going to talk and collaborate and work to see that people are helped there.

I know the Cubans have given us specifically authorization already to be using Guantanamo as a staging point coming into Haiti. That’s a sign of the close cooperation we’re doing to put politics aside and address the humanitarian needs here.

Question: Once again Christoff Marshall from Germany.

Can you tell us something about public order? There were all these rumors about detainees which have escaped and so on, some journalists who have heard gunshots in the night, but you mentioned already the experience in the American disaster four or five years ago. At the time we had also a lot of so-called information which turned out to be wrong from mass shootings, mass rapings in the Super Dome, helicopters shot at, and it all rather turned out to be non-reliable rumor and not really information.

So do you have any reliable information, how the situation with public order is at the moment in Haiti? Lootings or shootings or whatever.

Mr. Luoma-Overstreet: Obviously it’s a situation that’s difficult to have the exact pulse of what exactly happens. We all know that Haiti has struggled with issues of security and crime over the years so this is nothing new. When a crisis like this happens this is foremost in our minds. I know it’s a high priority for President Preval, it’s a high priority for our people on the ground as well with a mind to that. We are working closely with the United Nations, the MINUSTAH forces who themselves have been hard hit. As we know, their headquarters building collapsed. But I can tell you despite that, there were MINUSTAH forces out hours after the earthquake working to ensure public safety and crowd control.

It is a priority. We’ve heard a few anecdotal stories of some problems, but by and large I think the Haitian people are rallying to try to enforce order themselves. And we, along with our partners, are there to help enforce and support that effort as much as possible.

Thank you.