Press Briefing by Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Susan Reichle on Haiti Relief Efforts

Thursday, January 21, 2010
Haiti Relief Efforts

SUSAN REICHLE: Great. First I want to thank you all of you for taking the time to hear a little bit about what we're doing in Haiti. For me personally, Haiti is a country that actually was the first that I served in as a foreign service officer, and actually lived at the Montana Hotel. They had apartments there. So the country that unfortunately I had some deep knowledge of from my time there almost 20 years ago and now coming back into it in this new position.

I guess just to start, when the disaster struck approximately 5:00 last Tuesday, those of us — we were — AID in the DCHA bureau, which contains OFDA — Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance — we immediately knew that this was a crisis — that this was a disaster beyond proportions; and frankly, because it's different from other disasters in that it struck really the heart of the country.

So while other disasters have their challenges, such as clearly the tsunami and the earthquakes the Philippines went through, terrible time this fall, but the difference is that this really struck the heart of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, which has abominable basic indicators.

So we ran down to our administrator's office. Our administrator had just been sworn in, as you know, just a few days before. He was in an Afghanistan task force meeting. Slipped him the note, he dropped everything, and then we started really that evening from 5:00, working non-stop until about 3:30 in the morning, where then we went home, took showers, and then started up again about an hour later, so it was about 5:00 in the morning.

So I just want to impress on you sort of the urgency that was felt in this building — at the Ronald Reagan Building, and how he immediately was on the phone obviously with all of the key interagency players; of course, immediately with the secretary of state, with colleagues in the NSC, with colleagues throughout the Department of Defense and others to start strategizing on our rapid disaster response. And so that evening as you know, the search and rescue teams were mobilized as well as the disaster assistance relief teams.

Let me just start with the search and rescue teams, which within 24 hours, a Fairfax team was on the ground in Haiti and starting the search and rescue operations. It was swift, as the president called for a very strong, swift and coordinated relief package, and that's what we really were able to accomplish I think in the first 24 hours by not just getting Fairfax County but also L.A. and the Miami search and rescues on the ground with our disaster response team.

The disaster response teams normally then just report back to a — report back to a response management team here in the Ronald Reagan Building, which is stood up with representatives from, for example, Fairfax, fire fighters — you have people who are dealing with the food aid. You have expertise on information; obviously, expertise on logistics. About 15 people sit in that RMT — the response management team office.

What the difference this time was — the difference this time was that we made it interagency. It was a decision of the administrator to immediately pull in the best thinkers, the best operators in the interagency to assist in this effort beyond proportion. So for example, by the next morning we have FEMA in that room. We had the Department of Defense in that room from the Joint Chiefs and Joint Staff, as well as TRANSCOM — the Transportation Command, which was absolutely fundamental.

We had HHS in that room. We had the State Department in that room. We had our colleagues in the Coast Guard; absolutely key to have as well when we were trying to get our teams in there. The DART team, as a matter of fact, got held up. They could not land initially in Port-au-Prince; got thrown back to, I think it was Santo Domingo or Turks and Caicos. And the Coasties came in and helped us get our teams in there.

So that first 24-hour/48-hour response was really just frankly remarkable to see the interagency team effort and everyone working as one team.

And of course, the president within that period named Administrator Shah as the lead — USAID lead for the effort, and we were really grateful, then, that our interagency team members came together. Because as he said, this wasn't just a mission — a humanitarian mission. This was a mission for humanity, to serve humanity, and I think that really came through.

As we saw the search and rescue operations, it was not just the United States. While the United States was in the lead and we can be very, very proud that our U.S. teams were responsible for saving the lives of 43 people — the majority of them obviously Haitians — we also, all the teams we had trained over the years, all the search and rescue teams, such as the Israelis, the Mexicans, the Colombians, the others — they were trained here in Fairfax County.

And so that is the result of that effort we've seen over these coming days. And there's so many remarkable stories, but one I just love is when they're pulling out a 50-year-old woman who had been buried under the rubble for six days, her husband and her son were there and she started singing an old Haitian song and then started into a chant of USA, USA. So the recognition of that leadership, I could talk about story after story.

But that's the phenomenal story, and obviously just seeing the children — more than a dozen children were rescued; the story of the baby the day before in Jacmel, three weeks old, who was pulled from the rubble, surviving on his own as a result of the link-up — the partnership between the Colombia search and rescue that was trained by us, as well as by the Fairfax County. And as a mother, thinking about a baby surviving three weeks on their own is just phenomenal.

And Jacmel, many of you know, is about a two hour drive outside of Port-au-Prince. And so while we're talking about Port-au-Prince in the heart, we can't forget the outlying areas that have been — that have been really affected by this, and Jacmel is a great example of that.

Just moving on to the humanitarian assistance effort, obviously we have to do everything simultaneously. So as we're doing search and rescue, we have to quickly get in water. The highest priority every day as we stood up this interagency team here in the Ronald Reagan Building, the pace was essentially having an early morning interagency call after reading everything from the night before, talking about what are the priorities for the day.

And then within that, about 60 people gather every day and then we lay out the six sectoral areas we need to focus on: food, health, water, sanitation, transportation, logistics, security — and everything flowing in from the field.

When I talked about the DART — the disaster assistance relief team — they are the eyes and the ears. They are the experts who they feed the information up to the interagency, and then we decide each morning, based upon their information, what are the priorities, how do we get the tasks done as an interagency team, and then, again, supporting the folks in the field.

So as you imagine, the first days, the priorities were always security, water and food. That was — it was getting those things in-country. I don't need to repeat the challenges. You know them well — having one airstrip as access and with an air tower that was demolished, so we depending upon Miami for air traffic control, as well as a port that was devastated. There were no other sources — links into the country.

So we very quickly developed a logistics plan, focusing on using Santo Domingo as well as San Isidro, a military base in Santo Domingo, to start shipping goods in there. We started to use the ports in the Dominican Republic in order to offload and then bring things overland.

We started the process of having several vessels — several ships coming south. The Loomis (ph) arrives tomorrow, which is a huge, huge vessel about the size of three football fields, carrying an enormous amount of commodities, fuel, whatnot.

We've had different ships coming in. The Comfort, as you saw, arrived yesterday morning in record time. Nobody expected the USNS Comfort to arrive so quickly. And I was fortunate enough to — just came out of Colombia for four years and saw over a month period the impact that the Comfort can have in providing medical assistance.

So all of these things were set up very quickly in order to respond to the needs. The challenges, of course, are enormous. Again, going back to the infrastructure, it was already weak to begin with. But then having it literally destroyed, we had to focus on how do we get things into country quickly. So as I mentioned, all these different routes.

But then, once the things are in-country, meaning the commodities, the water, the health, the water systems — I do want to focus on — we're not just talking about MREs and water bottles, which I think has been reported a lot. But we're talking about laying the foundation for a new Haiti, which essentially the task that is before us: to build a better Haiti.

And what that means is as we're trying to get water in country, we're actually setting up water systems.

For example, prior to the earthquake only 40 percent of Port-au-Prince received water through the public water system. The secretary of state, before the earthquake even occurred — and as you know, starting from the time she took office as the secretary of state — made Haiti a priority, developed a new strategy for Haiti. And so we were able then to take this strategic vision of 100 percent water coverage and start building that strategy right from the start after this disaster.

And with her point person, Cheryl Mills, who is the chief of staff and counselor, really driving this strategy — because she has been deeply involved in this for the last year on a daily basis. So actually using her knowledge, her strategic vision in order to really build the foundation as we're responding to the disaster.

The same for health care. Haiti's health care is one of the weakest in the world, definitely the weakest in the hemisphere. So it's not just about sending 1,000 doctors down there — and we're deeply appreciative of the medical professionals who stepped up, who jumped into horrendous conditions and started performing surgeries — but actually marrying them with — matching them with Haitian professionals and building the foundation for a new health system in Haiti.

So as we're responding to the disaster we are also building the structure, the framework, the foundations for the future of Haiti.

And with the disaster medical assistance teams we have approximately 230 professionals through HHS — the Health and Human Services division — as well as an international medical surgical team with 50 personnel who've been able to respond and do surgeries and they've seen well over 6,000 patients now and have performed surgery.

So again, while the challenges are, frankly, overwhelming and daunting, the response has been dramatic.

So that — I'll just stop there and maybe take questions or however you all do this.

OPERATOR: Yes. At this time I'd like to remind everyone in order to ask a question please press * then the number 1 on your telephone keypad. We'll pause just for a moment to compile the Q&A roster.


Your first question comes from the line of Adam Levine (sp). Your line is now open.

Q: Hi. I understand that the U.S. — that the ministry of health in Haiti is determining who goes — patients who get onto the Comfort or the Vinson. Can you talk a little about how that's working? How are they setting those priorities for patients and what it takes for a patient to get moved?

MS. REICHLE: Yeah. Yeah. No. Thanks for the question. Because one of the things I didn't have a chance I think to emphasize enough is how critical it is that the government of Haiti is always in the lead of this effort. We are supporting the government of Haiti.

And so, as the Comfort — and just from my personal experience dealing with the Comfort in Colombia in June, basically what you have to do is go through essentially a prioritization process of determining who are the highest priority patients for the medical facilities on those ships.

Because one of the fortunate things about having so many different doctors and field hospitals now being set up in Haiti, that the Comfort can do — it can do amazing things. It has the ability to perform surgeries that, frankly, would be high-risk on Haitian soil. And so you do want to use the Comfort and the logistics capability to serve those highest priority patients, while maybe those that could be dealt with perhaps at the field hospitals in Port-au-Prince could be directed that way.

We'll go to our next question, please.

Q: I'm sorry. How are they making that decision? Because it seems like there isn't even a good read on what patients are at what hospitals, given the lack of infrastructure and really the — a lot of these hospitals are very ad hoc and sitting in different places. How are they communicating what patients pass?

MS. REICHLE: Yes. I honestly — I haven't been on the ground so I haven't seen the structure of how they set it up. But normally what they do is they gather the patients within a certain area and they try and prioritize within that area which ones would receive immediate assistance and then which ones could be — could go to another facility.

Often, for example, the Comfort will set up facilities at port. It's not just on the ship. And so they'll provide dental care on the port. They'll provide initial health assessments at port. They won't send them out to the ship because the logistics resources in order to do that.

We know that they have seen already more than 200 patients just today — since yesterday. Within the first hour they were they were seeing patients that were sent out to them. So there is a whole system and structure that is put in place.

And given — again, the Comfort is generally — I don't think it's ever been used in a disaster situation, to be honest with you. The experience I've had personally with the Comfort is humanitarian missions. And as I noted, the reach of the Comfort is really beyond what gets on the ship because the personnel come the ship and they set up centers or — not field hospitals, but basically centers — treatment centers — so that they can start caring for patients on land as well.

Q: But that doesn't sound like —

MS. REICHLE: Can we move on to our next question, please?

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Cynthia Philips (sp). Your line is now open.

Q: Oh, hello. This is Cynthia Philips. I was very interested to hear you talking about laying a new — laying a foundation for a new Haiti with, you know, new water systems and health-care systems and that sort of thing. That led me to a couple of questions.

The first question is sort of how do you anticipate or when do you see this — moving from sort of the rescue and — search and rescue phase to really the recovery and reconstruction phase?

And the second question is, how do you see the private sector of the United States as sort of helping to — helping this along, moving it along as far as development is concerned and systems and telecommunication systems and transportation systems and roads and things like that?

And then the third question is about the government of Haiti itself sort of — it seems to have essentially disappeared with the parliament building and the president's palace and I was trying to figure out sort of how is money going to be flowing after we get through the rescue phase?

Is it going to be flowing through the Haitian government and will we have more stringent requirements on that government regarding anti-corruption, transparency, good governance, to make sure that this new foundation is really solid and built with the — sort of the best that we can get, as opposed to what we've had in the past?

MS. REICHLE: Great. No. Thank you very much for the questions.

First, to get to the issue about when does the transition from disaster response to reconstruction, and particularly this issue of search and rescue, the search and rescue will continue. It is continuing now as we speak. Just being able to find someone alive yesterday is another reaffirmation of those efforts. So that will continue.

As far as the efforts, everything happens parallel — in parallel. You really don't move from a disaster phase to a reconstruction phase to a development phase. I think one of the lessons, clearly, from — and you don't even have to look at the disaster; you can look at conflict in general, which is pretty much the same, is that it's — you don't have phases. You don't go from phase one, two to three to four. It's not linear.

Everything is actually circular and you're sort of dealing — everyone talks about the fog of war. Well, there's actually the fog of response. And whether that's disaster response or response after a conflict and post-conflict phase, it's really important to recognize that you still have to keep your — all the balls in the air and you have to be, as we talked about, the — developing the foundation as you're responding. And I think that is really one of the lessons.

There were a lot of lessons coming out of the tsunami and so I think we tried to absorb them as we developed a response with this.

The private sector has been just phenomenal as the generosity of the American people, once again, showed what this country is about. And so very quickly — within three hours of the disaster, as you know, it was set up — an ability for people to donate by text messaging and having a donation sent immediately to the Red Cross. And 725 — greater than 725 million people donated. I'm sorry. Twenty-five million people donated to that.

But also, the Web site. If you go to, you will see a whole mechanism for the private sector not just to donate money but most important at this phase is really with the infrastructure development and really getting Haiti back on its feet. And so the private sector lead in providing goods and services and infrastructure equipment.

And there's a way now through, you — there's a whole system developed so that private sector firms can match their capabilities and their expertise with the needs on the ground. That's the first time that's ever happened, so that's just truly remarkable.

All of these different agencies that we have been working with from USDA, obviously, Department of Energy, State and NFC, were key to developing this structure, this system to respond. And it was obviously under the leadership of the White House. The White House really drove the — our ability to set up these systems very rapidly so that the private sector could respond and the American people could respond.

On the issue of the government of Haiti and the appearance that the government of Haiti disappeared, that's just not the case. Our ambassador on the ground, Ambassador Merten, has been meeting with the leadership — the prime minister, the president — on a daily basis; with our coordinator on the ground, Ambassador Lou Luck, who just arrived two days ago on the ground and is coordinating the effort there. So meeting with the government on a daily basis.

It is important to note that 13 out of the 15 ministries were completely destroyed in the earthquake. So there's not a place right now for them to operate out of. And we're setting up — actually, using the old USAID mission building where I worked in the old U.S. embassy for the key ministry leadership to be able to work there since, as you noted, the palace was destroyed.

So it's hard to imagine. I guess maybe the equivalent of Washington would be taking out obviously the White House, Capitol Hill and all but two of our major departments and agencies. So we would probably appear as though we disappeared as well, even though we would all be working furiously out of our homes or whatever structures exist.

And if we could move on to our next question. Before we do that, I'd like to ask everyone to please ask one question. And also, you can e-mail to request additional information.

And one point of clarification as to what Susan was saying regarding the donations on the texting. It was $25 million, rather than 25 — (audio break).

Q: Thank you. Could you talk about plans in the short term and the longer term for sheltering all the people who are now homeless? They're living in pretty decrepit conditions — (inaudible). What are the immediate plans to put a roof of some type over their heads?

MS. REICHLE: Yes. No. Thank you for the question, because obviously, looking at the numbers of people who are on the ground right now who don't have homes to return to is one of our highest priorities, to provide them access to shelter.

And I really want to emphasize the access to shelter because the first strategic intervention that under Administrator Shah we made was that people automatically go to where they feel comfortable, where they feel safe. And that is often with family, friends and neighbors who still have strong — some structures that are still in place where they could gather together and — (audio break) -- something that we did was -- (audio break) -- obviously food and water.

We're looking now over in the medium term, how we can strengthen the host family concept so that many that are on the streets that have gathered in these central plazas and at the golf course at the -- in Petionville, at — (inaudible) — there have been different gathering areas, as you know, throughout the city. And then today, obviously going more towards the port area.

But to help pull those people back into safe areas where they also can receive the support, while simultaneously building structures for them; tens — and we've shipped in tens of thousands of tarps and tents — USAID and FEMA — in order to provide immediate shelter to those who really don't have anywhere to go; they don't have a host family to return to.

And then again, putting in the systems — and this is particularly important in a country such as Haiti where the systems were already weak and fragile — but to put in sanitation and health systems that they could access, such as latrines, such as access to immediate health care so that communicable diseases could be dealt with immediately, as well as obviously just basic shelter.

OPERATOR: Again, if you have a question please press * then the number 1 on your telephone keypad.


There are no further questions at this time. Ms. , I turn the call back over to you.

MS. REICHLE: Thank you.

OPERATOR: This concludes today's conference call. You may now disconnect.

Via Teleconference Washington, DC

Last updated: June 04, 2012

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