Briefing by State Department Counselor Cheryl Mills, USAID Administrator Dr. Raj Shah, and U.S. SOUTHCOM Commander General Douglas Fraser on the Situation in Haiti

Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Subject 
Situation in Haiti

MR. CROWLEY: Good morning and welcome to the Department of State. As the President said earlier, we are committed to helping the people of Haiti, as well as looking after the welfare of the roughly 40,000 Americans who live and work in Haiti, including those who are part of our U.S. Embassy family in Port-au-Prince.

This is a whole-of-government effort, as you’ll see by the speakers who will be at the – who will give you kind of a status report on the way forward, representatives from the Department of State, Defense, and Agency for International Development. We are obviously supported by other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, as we go forward. And as you will hear, we’re responding as rapidly and effectively as we can to the difficult situation in Haiti.

We’ll begin this morning’s briefing with Cheryl Mills, Counselor to the Secretary of State and a driving force behind Haiti policy formulation here at the State Department, followed by Raj Shah, the Administrator of USAID. And we’re thrilled to have General Doug Fraser, the Commander of U.S. Southern Command, who will be coordinating the considerable military response to this disaster. But we’ll begin with Cheryl Mills.

MS. MILLS: Good morning. Let me just first start out by saying, and echoing the sentiments of the President, that our thoughts and prayers are with the Haitian people and the vast international community that is present in Haiti as we are going through what is going to undoubtedly be a very challenging and difficult time. And we are looking forward to being able to provide all the support that we can bring to bear to try and ameliorate the impact of this terrible situation.

As you all know, shortly before 5 o’clock yesterday, an earthquake struck outside of Port-au-Prince and outside of the island of Haiti, and then there were multiple aftershocks that had an impact on the island as well. According to our initial overflights that have gone on this morning, it appears that most of the damage has been within Port-au-Prince, and that the outlying areas have sustained less damage or very limited damage.

The situation on the ground is very fluid. We have very limited telecommunications, and certainly within the Haitian community there’s limited telecommunications. We have been fortunate our U.S. ambassador has been able to reach President Preval, who is safe and who is grateful to the outpouring of assistance that he has been receiving from the international community. And they have had a couple of occasions to have a conversation.

As many of the people have already seen, there are numerous structures that have sustained substantial damage, and we also know that there have been not insignificant numbers of casualties. We do not have any estimates yet of the numbers of those, nor for the number of individuals who are – who have been injured, but the situation is very severe.

In addition to the numerous facilities that have sustained damage, we also note that the UN peacekeeping force headquarters also sustained considerable damage, and so we will be lending our assistance to see how we can provide the appropriate support to be able to provide search-and-rescue support in that area.

I’m going to speak a little bit about our American citizens who are there, and Raj will be speaking about disaster assistance – Administrator Shah. And we will then have General Fraser, who will also be speaking about our military response.

So in that vein, there are approximately 45,000 U.S. citizens who are in Haiti. The Embassy Port-au-Prince has activated its Early Warning System to connect with those citizens and establish, one, how they are doing and, two, what support they might need. We have received a number of reports of injured U.S. citizens, so we are working through those to be able to make sure that we are getting everybody the assistance that they need.

There have been a number of calls that have come into our Consular Affairs here at the Department seeking information about loved ones who are in Haiti. For those people who are seeking information, the President gave out this number. I just want to give it one more time, and that is 1-888-407-4747. And that’s a number that you can call into if you are seeking information or seeking to make a request with respect to someone who is – that you are trying to connect with that’s in Haiti.

In terms of Embassy personnel on the ground there, we have about 172 personnel who are there under chief-of-mission authority. As of 8:00 a.m., we had accounted for just about all of them. There were eight personnel who were wounded, four who had been seriously wounded. We have already had U.S. Coast Guard heels on the ground to be able to medevac them to get appropriate care. And so we are beginning to see that happen as well.

We have ordered the departure of approximately 80 Embassy spouses, children, and non-essential personnel. Those will begin happening later today so that we can ensure that the infrastructure and resources that are there can be properly concentrated on those who are in need. The Coast Guard will have planes actually arriving, I believe, this afternoon. And I’m sure General Fraser will be able to speak to that to help and assist in that evacuation process.

The Embassy structure has remained intact and so it has become a point of support. And it has been providing medical support and other support for Haitians and Americans and others who have been able to reach the Embassy.

We have reached out to the government of Haiti to be able to assess what their needs are and to be able to understand what their priorities are. We have launched a multiagency effort to provide disaster assistance, which is being led by Ambassador Shah through the Office of Disaster Assistance.

And so with that as a background, I’m going to turn it over to Ambassador Shah, who can speak to those efforts.

ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Thank you. Thank you, Cheryl. Our first comment, of course, is that our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti, who have, of course, suffered a tremendous tragedy with this earthquake that started last night just before sundown. We are working aggressively and in a highly coordinated way across the federal government to bring all of the assets and capacities we have to bear to quickly and effectively provide as much assistance as possible.

The goal of the relief effort in the first 72 hours will be very focused on saving lives. That is the President’s top priority and is what the President has directed us to do. We will do that by first putting in place significant Disaster Assistance Relief Teams. We’ll have, by the end of today, 15 members of that team doing surveillance, collecting data, identifying priority sites, and guiding the efforts of the larger search-and-response units that will following their entry into the country.

We have two urban search-and-rescue units on their way, both are units with 72 individuals, people who have significant training and significant equipment and technical capacity to conduct search and rescue in urban settings, to drill through and clear as much as is possible rubble in order to try and identify individuals that can be saved and continue with the mission of saving lives. We’re working aggressively across the various agencies of the federal government, including FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, to identify additional units that will be able to deploy as rapidly as possible. And we’re working hand-in-hand with the Department of Defense and General Fraser to make sure that we have the transport and logistics to get these assets into the country and efficiently operating as quickly as possible.

The other comment I wanted to make is that as part of this we are also, of course, thinking about critical needs in the area of health and food, water, transportation, and infrastructure, and other advanced planning that needs to take place now so that we can, because we know that we will have quite a lot of work to do in the days and weeks ahead. We are committed to a significant effort, and we are committed to doing everything we can in all of those sectors. And so our team, which includes members from every agency in the federal government that has the capacity to help, is working to develop plans and put resources in place so that we can effectively respond to some of the requests that have come from the Haitian leadership and from our teams on the ground.

Finally, I’ll point out that we do already have, of course, teams on the ground, including our Ambassador, our USAID mission and mission director, and other brave men and women who work for the U.S. Government in that capacity. And they’ve been providing guidance and support and data and information, and are very much a part of the effort despite having themselves gone through a very significant and challenging experience. So we want to thank them for that effort.

So we will be pushing forward with an aggressive and coordinated effort, focused very much on saving lives through aggressive search-and-rescue in urban – in the urban environment for the next 72 hours. And that’ll be the primary focus of our engagement.

I’ll hand it to General Fraser, who can talk about the logistics support that we are getting and that we need to continue to get and will continue to get from our armed forces in order to make sure that we’re using every capacity we have in the government to be effective. Thank you.

GEN FRASER: Thank you, Raj. From the United States Southern Command and from the Department of Defense, our prayers and our condolences go out to the citizens of Haiti also. In coordination with USAID and with the entire U.S. Government, we have a significant effort undergoing to support this. From the time we found out about the earthquake, we started into motion.

There are still concerns about the airport and the access to the airport in Port-au-Prince. The word we are getting is that the airport is functional but the tower and the capability to operate there are limited, and so we’re pushing capability there now to be able to operate and secure that airport.

We’re also pushing command-and-control capability and communications. As you all know, communications has been very difficult in Haiti. And so we’re pushing that to not only support U.S. forces who are there, but because of a lot of the communications from MINUSTAH was in their headquarters, that has been lost, and so we’re looking to support the MINUSTAH effort as we go forward also.

We also have various ships within the region, U.S. Coast Guard ships, as well as some Department of Defense ships that are moving in that direction. They have limited humanitarian assistance supplies on them, but they have some vertical lift capability, some helicopters with them.

In addition, we’re moving the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson from Norfolk to the vicinity. It will take on a complement of helicopters as it proceeds, and we’re hoping to have that in the vicinity of Haiti tomorrow afternoon.

So we continue to robustly move capability and support into the area to provide that lifesaving assistance as well as do assessments of what the follow-on needs will be. And we’re already looking beyond the immediate needs to understand, as we get those assessments in, to provide the capability as quickly as we can to Haiti. So a significant effort across the board, onboard. So thank you very much.

QUESTION: Yeah. General, can I ask, all of the –

MR. CROWLEY: Why don’t you identify yourself for the –

QUESTION: I’m Matt Lee with the Associated Press. I’m wondering, considering the situation there right now and the fact that the UN appears to be not completely functional, the – you know, a hundred people trapped and their command – their communications out, and the fact that this humanitarian response is – can’t really function unless there is – unless there is law and order there, I’m wondering if there’s been any thought given to sending troops to complement the UN forces who may or may not be able to secure the area.

GEN FRASER: We’re really looking at that capacity. And as you heard, from my standpoint, the destruction is very focused, at least it appears right now, in Port-au-Prince. MINUSTAH has forces all around the island of Haiti. So we’re working with them right now to get an assessment.

As a matter of circumstance, my deputy commander happened to be in Haiti during the earthquake, so he’s working with MINUSTAH to coordinate those efforts. So that is a significant concern that we have with security, so we’re working with MINUSTAH and then doing the assessment to understand what kind of follow-on capability we’re going to need.

QUESTION: So it is possible that American troops might be sent to – at least temporarily to help the UN and secure –

GEN FRASER: We’re very seriously looking at that. We’re looking at the possibility of sending a large-deck amphibious ship that will have a Marine expeditionary unit embarked on that, and so that will be in support of MINUSTAH and the Embassy and USAID as we continue this effort.

MS. MILLS: I would just – also just stress that the commander of MINUSTAH happened to be out of Haiti at the time, and so the Coast Guard is providing him with transportation back, so he will be able to also establish command-and-control. And so in that regard, we have a fortuity of events and –

GEN FRASER: Right. He should get in early this afternoon.

QUESTION: Elise Labott with CNN. Thank you for doing this. I have a couple, and maybe a few, if you can just take each one.

MS. MILLS: You have a multi-part question.

QUESTION: Multi-part. We’re famous for them.

Cheryl, in terms of the Americans, we understand that you’ve only heard from a couple dozen out of 40- to 45,000 Americans. Is that – do you think that’s a factor of the lack of communications and the ability to get around, or are you bracing yourselves for serious American casualties? And what’s being done about that?

Then on the – just if you could talk a little bit about the communications with the government to this point. It seems as if the government itself – because you have your own kind of U.S. communications that are working well – but the rest of the government doesn’t necessarily have communications. So how are you working with them not just on kind of talking, but given the state of Haiti even before the earthquake, they had a lack of capacity, a lack of infrastructure, you know, the government, while stable, certainly needed a lot of help to begin with.

So, I mean, how are you dealing with this delicate balance of dealing with the Haitian Government that was – needed help to begin with and now not trying to be seen as taking over, but seriously know that you can provide a lot of capability right now?

MS. MILLS: Let me try to address both of your questions. In terms of U.S. casualties, we are a – we’ve activated our warden system there, which is in communication with our folks that are on the ground there and American citizens there. We have not yet had reports of major U.S. casualties. We are obviously going to continue to monitor the situation. We do have – we have relatively good communication in terms of being able to start doing some assessments of where folks are, and so that’s what we’re going to continue to do, and we’re going to continue to be hopeful that this – it works out for everybody on the ground there, Haitian or American.

With respect to government communications, Ambassador Joseph from Haiti has indicated a request for communication support, and that’s something that we are going to be providing. USAID and DOD are providing support that will actually arrive there today and be able to provide that kind of support, because I do believe that one of the challenges is being able to communicate among themselves as a government and to their people, and we’re going to do the very best that we can to provide that kind of support to them so they can do so.

QUESTION: Administrator Shah, could you just pick up on the point of the kind of – even before the earthquake, the lack of development and infrastructure in the country puts Haiti – this seems to be a country that can afford it the least right now. So how do you, you know, not be seen as taking over, but know that certainly the government doesn't have the resources to provide?

ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, it’s without question that Haiti has had less capacity than we have here, of course, to administer these types of efforts and to run these types of emergency operations. We’re working in close coordination with the Haitian Government. We are – the principle of our assistance, whether humanitarian or development and its orientation, is around deep partnership with those whom we work with and serve. And so we are being responsive to their stated request for health and medical services, for example, by deploying specific assets to meet the needs that they have there and exploring a range of other things we can do by standing up emergency medical services and emergency medical facilities in Port-au-Prince.

We will continue to stay connected and communicate with them. That’s why we’re sending the communications package to allow the leadership there to have regular access to effective communications. And we made that a priority and put that on the first plane down. So we will continue to work with them to stand this up, but you’re right, it’s going to be a challenging operation for everyone involved. But we have the resources and the capacities to be effective, and so we’re going to work that way.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Michele.

QUESTION: Michele Kelemen with National Public Radio. You talk about saving lives is the priority, but I wonder if you have any sense of where these teams of – rescue teams are going to head first. I mean, do they go first to the UN Headquarters or their hospitals? Talk about – a little bit about the priorities.

ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Sure, and I may ask my colleagues to help address that. That’s why we send the Disaster Assistance Response Team in to do the assessment. We’re also getting information, of course, from our partner countries around the world from the UN system, and of course, some of the challenging situations they are facing right now, and from our various partners in Haiti. But we will have a team on the ground that can actually survey firsthand. We have overflight data right now that’s getting better by the moment that’s allowing us to get a sense of where the destruction is and what the priorities ought to be. And our goals will be to save as many lives as possible in the first 72 hours, because that is the window in which that is a possible outcome. So we’ll stay very focused on that while meeting the obvious priorities of supporting our American personnel there and the personnel of our partners.

MS. MILLS: Can I just – I’ll only add one thing. The UN is also sending in a disaster team that is going to help coordinate all the different efforts that are coming in from multiple countries, and so we anticipate being in close partnership with them as they go about making those assessments as well and providing whatever support that we can.

MR. CROWLEY: Charles.

QUESTION: Charlie Wolfson with CBS. First of all, General Fraser, can you tell us how many Marines are on that ship, the Vinson? I believe it is called the Vinson.

GEN FRASER: Well, on the first ship going down there, there are no Marines down there. On the aircraft carrier that’s going in, it’s really going to be to provide the support lift. That ship just happened to be out of port. It was training and it has a limited capacity onboard, and so that’s why as it goes south we’re going to put a complement of helicopters on it. So we’re providing and provisioning the carrier as it steams south, so there is not a complement of Marines on there right now.

The ship that I was talking about where there may be is a large-deck amphibious ship. That’s another day or two away, and so it will have a standard Marine expeditionary unit. Don’t tie me to the precise numbers – roughly, 2,000 Marines potentially on there. But we’re still determining that right now.

MR. CROWLEY: Margaret.

QUESTION: Margaret Warner, the PBS NewsHour. General Fraser, under what circumstances would you feel it is necessary to deploy the Marines there? In other words, is it a question of keeping civil order, or is it just facilitating the disbursement of supplies? And what is the situation on the ground in terms of the degree of order or disorder?

GEN FRASER: From what I’ve been told by General Keen, who is my deputy commander who is on the ground, is the situation is calm right now. And so we’re anticipating going in being able to provide that humanitarian assistance, that lifesaving effort, and that’s going to be the focus primarily getting out there. So it’s going to be our assessments that are going to determine, in conjunction with MINUSTAH and the other international partners who are there, how best to deal with any security situations that come up.

QUESTION: So are you saying the Marines are being sent there as – for a security situation or simply that they may be actually needed to help facilitate the delivery of aid?

GEN FRASER: What I’m saying is we don’t know precisely what the situation is on the ground, so we’re leaning forward to provide as much capability as quickly as we can to respond to whatever the need is when we get there.

ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Could I also address that? This is about having options. And the President has asked us to make sure we look across the entire government, all of our capabilities, and make sure we generate as many options as possible. We’re doing that on the health side, where we’re standing up two or three different types of emergency medical service provision strategies. And as we get real information on the ground about what is the best way to pursue the President’s goal of saving lives in this critical timeframe, we’ll be able to narrow those options and make strategic decisions. But we are in the process of trying to generate as many potential options and put as many assets as we have into where they could potentially be used quickly and efficiently to achieve that goal.

QUESTION: Yes, for General Fraser. This is Luis Martinez with ABC News. You mentioned the Marines, but the Army also has the Global Response Force with the 82nd Airborne and the brigade out there. Have you given any consideration to them possibly assisting in this effort?

GEN FRASER: We have given consideration to that, so we have put various forces around the Armed Forces on alert so that as we get the assessments in we are postured to move those forces in an expeditious manner. So we have put a brigade on alert just in the circumstance. So we’ll determine that as we get the assessments.

QUESTION: In the flow of air resources flying in, do you anticipate tomorrow C-17s coming on a regular pattern or –

GEN FRASER: I think it’s going to be an international effort that we go – we’re working with USAID. We’re trying to understand what the other partners are doing there. I think it’s also important to understand that there’s really one airfield, one runway, limited ramp space. The terminal is not functional right now, or we’re not certain what the status of it is, so it’s a difficult environment that we’re going into. So we’re trying to understand that. We think that we’re going to – we’re working our team in there to make sure that we can operate that airfield as efficiently as we can to keep the flights moving in and out of it. We’re also taking an assessment of the port, because in likelihood, the port of Port-au-Prince will be more important in being able to move a volume of goods through. We don’t know what the status of that is, so we’re looking at all of the options to try and make sure that we have as much flexibility as possible.

QUESTION: Mike Emanuel from Fox News. I know it’s early on the disaster, but I’m wondering if there’s a relevant disaster that this seems to compare to from experience so the American public maybe can get their minds around exactly what’s going on there.

ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, rather than comparing this to a previous disaster, I would just say that this does present unique challenges because so many of our partners and many of our own people are in a position where we’re still accounting for their safety and their security. And certainly, that’s the case, as was mentioned, with the UN team out there.

So of course, these are people who have gone through a lot in the last day and now are also called upon to help protect and serve others. And it will be challenging, they will need all of our support, and that’s why when the President asked us to be swift and aggressive and coordinated in doing this, we’re bringing together the entire federal government to make sure we have as many options as we possibly can to provide that support as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Ken.

QUESTION: Ken Dulaney and USA Today. Administrator Shah, you mentioned you were looking to deploy more urban search-and-rescue teams. Does the federal government have that capability or are other countries pledging to move those in? Or where are you looking for those teams?

ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, both, and in particular through our partnership with FEMA, we can expand our capacities and make sure that in addition to the teams that the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance has ready to go, we can explore using other teams and getting them ready and getting them in place quickly. So that’s what we’re doing to try to expand the search and rescue immediately.

QUESTION: But – so why was it just the two initially? Is that all that were ready to deploy sort of at a moment’s notice?

ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, two teams of 72 people each with significant equipment, training with all of their visas and international training and status ready to go is a significant capability. In addition to that, and really in parallel, it was not something where we waited before we deployed. We built – we have a partnership with FEMA and are trying – and are deploying a third team. And we will look to get other teams onboard as well. Part of the challenge will be getting information from the ground, which we will start to do in a matter of hours, understanding the priorities, and letting that guide the capabilities we have so that we can affect this work in a really coordinated way.

QUESTION: Where’s the third team coming from?

ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: The third team is currently based in Miami.

MR. CROWLEY: Goyal.

QUESTION: Raghubir Goyal, India Globe & Asia Today. Administrator Shah, if you go back 2001, January 26th, in your state where you come from, the state of Gujarat in India, thousands of people died and millions were homeless. And what – the people of Gujarat were not ready just like the people of Haiti this time – what can you learn from that? And what you have for the people of Haiti this time?

ADMIINSTRATOR SHAH: Well, that’s a broader question. We’re going to stay very focused in the short term on the search and rescue and saving lives in the first 72 hours. The question does touch on when the rebuilding commences, and it will commence, thinking in a smart and strategic way about building the right types of structures and building the right types of institutions that can be more resilient in the future.

And of course, our agencies and many of the other agencies that we are working with around the federal government have had a wealth of experience working in disaster environments, and there are ways to be prepared. But right now, our focus is entirely on the search-and-rescue effort, and the effort to save lives in the first 72 hours.

QUESTION: I mean, what sort of international help you are seeking from other countries, like let’s say, including India? Because maybe in this case, doctors and medical help and all that sort of –

ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, there are a wide range of countries that have offered to provide support, and those are coming in by the moment. So we are working through that and trying to have a coordinated approach on the ground to make sure we execute that in a way that’s most effective. For example, I believe the Dominican Republic is offering helicopter transport support and a few other capacities. Those are important partnerships that we hope to have with a range of international partners.

QUESTION: Are you specifically coordinating the international assistance, or is this done through the Haitians with your assistance, or how does that work?

ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, we’re working with the Haitian Government. We’re working with the U.S. Government in a broad way, the Department of State and others. Right now, we have an Embassy that is standing and with some communications, so we will do everything we possibly can with the capabilities we have to make sure that we’re serving the Haitian people and that we’re serving American citizens in that environment and trying to save lives. And if that means being more active and aggressive and fast about trying to secure commitments and support from other countries and trying to coordinate that effort, we’re prepared to do that.

MR. CROWLEY: One or two more.

QUESTION: He already responded to the question that was about international coordination, so we are --

MR. CROWLEY: Very good. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

GEN FRASER: Thank you.

U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC

Last updated: May 02, 2014

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