printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Coast Guard Efforts to Provide Earthquake Relief for Haiti

FPC Briefing
Rear Admiral Paul. F. Zukunft, U.S. Coast Guard
Director of Response Policy
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
January 15, 2010

2:00 P.M. EST


RADM ZUKUNFT: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Zukunft and I oversee the response policy for the United States Coast Guard. And for the last three days, I’ve been in direct contact with varying elements of the Coast Guard and also whole-of-government.

Let me just lay out what the organizational structure is right now for the Coast Guard. We have Homeland Security Task Force, commanded by Coast Guard Rear Admiral Steve Branham in Miami, that is working with the interagency in south Florida to address the evacuation of American citizens, as well as coordinating the humanitarian and disaster recovery within the devastated country of Haiti.

In Portsmouth, Virginia, under the command of Vice Admiral Robert Papp, he directs all of, what I would call our main moving pieces – our cutters, our aircraft. And within one hour of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake, we already had cutters moving to Port-au-Prince, as well as C-130 aircraft from across the country, as well as eight helicopters being pushed towards the area.

That very next morning, we – the Coast Guard medivaced nine severely injured people from a United States embassy, and we had two Coast Guard cutters in Port-au-Prince harbor providing an initial assessment. The challenge was, in a very – with the very fragile infrastructure of Haiti, the main port, Port-au-Prince, was demolished, which is a significant logistics hub to move relief supplies. Our assessment of the airport – the tower was damaged and the airport was only open for daylight hours with over the first 24 to 36 hours. The Department of Defense brought in capabilities to now make that a 24x7-capable airport, but there’s only one runway and an air ramp for a country of nine million people. So the ability to move relief supplies has been hampered strictly by the non-availability of a primary port and the limitations of the airport.

As I speak today, we have the USS Carl Vinson that has now moved into place. It has 19 large helicopters and a joint task force is being led by Lieutenant General Keen, who is on the ground in Haiti, providing better situational awareness and then to coordinate the movement of forces.

In terms of responsibilities, our role as the United States Coast Guard and within the Department of Homeland Security is to support the USAID mission, and then also to support the UN special envoy in Haiti as well. So we’re all supporting that mission and that comes from DOD as well. And certainly, we’re bringing all the resources that we can bring to bear in the United States.

When I just look at the sheer number of ships that will arrive, both Navy and Coast Guard, over the next 96 to 120 hours, that adds up to over 100 – over 10,000 sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, soldiers. So it’s a significant lift on the part of the United States.

And I don’t want to dismiss the contributions of the international community as well. And this has really been not just a whole-of-U.S. Government, but certainly this has been a global response to a very catastrophic incident. Our estimate right now is that 3 million people were directly affected by this earthquake. In a country that typically does not have reliable running water, poverty – it’s one of the poorest countries, certainly in our hemisphere and in the world as well, so we are very sensitive to the timeliness of first bringing in urban search-and-rescue teams for saving lives, and that is our number one priority right now is to get those teams on the ground. We have four urban search-and-rescue teams from Miami-Dade County, Miami; from Fairfax County here in Virginia; and also from LA. And these are with K-9 teams and going into rubble to extract victims of this earthquake.

Behind that, we’re also looking at – we have over 40,000 American citizens that reside in Haiti, and certainly we are attentive to their needs. But primarily at this point is to get human relief, disaster response supplies into the country. That’s food, water, medical supplies, as well as physicians as well. The patient-to-doctor ratio in Haiti is very low. Very few physicians. They are very capable, but certainly limited, and they’ve been directly impacted, as has the main hospital in Haiti as well.

So that’s a rundown of where we are. And with that, I would like to open up what time we have to questions from you.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Julio Marenco with La Prensa Grafica, El Salvador. Do you have an idea of how many missions have you conducted so far? And by you I mean the whole force there in Port-au-Prince. And how many people you have – you may have helped?

RADM ZUKUNFT: We don’t have those precise numbers. Within the first 24 hours, we evacuated 284 U.S. citizens, some of these with severe injuries. And we also conducted 19 life-critical medical evacuations. There are teams that are out in Port-au-Prince right now distributing relief supplies. At the same time, the casualties are literally overwhelming. These are now 24-by-7 operations in terms of flights, movement of people, movement of supplies. But to actually give you an exact number – I will say, though, that the number of people providing immediate relief has gone up exponentially over the last 24 hours. The big challenge were getting people into country and then getting them out to the affected area.

QUESTION: If I can have a follow-up, I would like to know about the coordination with the Haitian military. How are you handling with them, because in the past 36 hours the Haitian Government has – seems to be like, kind of, (inaudible).

RADM ZUKUNFT: The chief of the Haitian National Police did survive. We have been informed that approximately 5,000 Haitian National Police officers survived the earthquake. I don’t know what the total number was before that. But clearly, they are dealing with tragedy within their immediate households. The UN mission called MINUSTAH to support stability in Haiti, you know, one of their key leaders was killed in a building collapse along with over a 100 to 150 others. But that team is now reconstituting, and that will be part of the long-term transition. That was the situation in Haiti before this earthquake where MINUSTAH was supporting the internal stability of Haiti, and at some point we would look to return to that. But clearly, with the devastation and just the breakdown of infrastructure, that may take some time.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. Shin Shoji, from NHK TV Japan. Given the – there are Coast Guard people in Guantanamo Bay. Can you elaborate about what are those people involved in, their role in this relief effort?

RADM ZUKUNFT: Okay. Yeah, our people in Guantanamo are there to provide port security for the detention facility in Guantanamo, so they have not been involved in this relief effort. The Coast Guard personnel, the airplanes, the Coast Guard cutters, those have come from as far away as Sacramento, California. But the preponderance of those resources came from the southeast Florida region. The Coast Guard routinely patrols these waters, primarily for counterdrug activity, but we can easily shift to a more life-threatening situation such as we have here in Haiti. So this was a shift in emphasis from one mission to now saving of human life.

QUESTION: Yeah. Speaking of Guantanamo, in the first 24 hours, I understand a lot of injured people were being airlifted to Guantanamo to get medical assistance. Is that still going on? Are you – and it was also discussed the idea of using Guantanamo as a main base for especially the most critically injured. Is that still going on?

RADM ZUKUNFT: We airlifted about five American citizens to the naval hospital at Guantanamo. We have since been taking those back – the critically injured either to the Dominican Republic or back into the United States. So at this point, we are not relying upon the naval hospital. The USS Comfort, a hospital ship that can treat up to 1,000 patients, is leaving Baltimore as I speak, and that will arrive on scene on the 20th of January with a full complement of medical treatment specialists.

QUESTION: Julio Marenco, La Prensa Grafica, El Salvador. Have you heard of any Haitians being airlifted somewhere?

RADM ZUKUNFT: We have not airlifted any Haitian injured or wounded. Now, a number of them have crossed into the Dominican Republic, and I understand that the hospitals along the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic have been overwhelmed by those that are somewhat ambulatory seeking medical care. And the treatment facilities within Haiti, certainly they are overwhelmed.

MODERATOR: Are there any other questions?

(No response.)

MODERATOR: If not, then this event is now concluded. Thank you all for coming. Thank you, sir.