Press Briefing by U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten and USAID/Haiti Mission Director Carleene Dei

Friday, September 3, 2010
Haiti’s Hurricane Preparedness

AMBASSADOR MERTEN: As you’re aware, we’re now in the middle of hurricane season, and Haiti has typically in the past received its worst hurricanes in the second half of the hurricane season rather than the first. So, we thought it would be a good opportunity to invite you all to come in and explain a little bit about what the U.S. Government has done to work with the Haitian authorities here to prepare for this hurricane season. I’ll let USAID Mission Director Dr. Carleene Dei fill you in with more details after I speak, but the basic thrust of what we’re trying to do here is the same as what we’ve been trying to do here in the earthquake recovery period, which is to focus our efforts in supporting the Haitian government and the Haitian people to respond to this type of thing in the best way they can and to be a resource for them to draw on where they have weaknesses.

In terms of coordination, both U.S. civilians and military here in Haiti have participated in MINUSTAH exercises, simulations, which have been designed to test coordination and communications. We think this is important to test these types of responses in advance of an event, so that people have a vague idea of what they’re going to be doing. Obviously, every event is going to be different. There’s no way for us to predict how a hurricane, if it comes, if we have one, is going to impact Haiti, but I think that by doing these simulations and exercises, we think that this is a good way for people to exercise their muscles, if you were and their capacities.

We’ve also worked hard to enable the Haitian government to provide the type of protection that the Haitian people deserve. As you know, the earthquake destroyed the Haitian Meteorological Center’s facilities, so Haiti lost its access to real-time weather information. To restore this, we supported the shipment of two emergency weather information network systems, which are now informing Haitian authorities on current conditions. In conjunction with this, the U.S. Government partnered with the world meteorological organization to develop a preliminary flash flood guidance system. This system is now operational in Haiti.

We’ve also worked to build the capacity of Haiti’s emergency response network, including work with the Haitian Department of Civil Protection at both national and local levels. The U.S. military has funded the construction of five emergency operations centers and five disaster relief warehouses throughout the country. These projects are currently in progress.

If a hurricane approaches, we will be in touch with the Haitian government. We have been in touch with them already at several points throughout the season, and we will continue to work with them closely throughout the rest of this season.

We also have a responsibility to inform American citizens present in Haiti about impending hazards and how to prepare for them. The Embassy team must also be prepared. As we saw after the earthquake and during other crises, our ability to function in the aftermath is directly related to our own emergency preparedness.

So, if a hurricane approaches, we will maintain our connectivity with the Haitian government. We will stand ready to assist if the Haitian government decides it needs our help. And if we get a call from the Haitian government requesting help after a hurricane, one of my responsibilities as Ambassador would be to declare a disaster. That would then begin the various response mechanisms that the U.S. Government has at its disposal.

The first, of course, is our USAID Office of Disaster Assistance, OFDA. As many of you probably know from covering the earthquake, they are no strangers to Haiti. They were here in great numbers responding to the earthquake and they’ve been here before, most recently in 2008, responding to the hurricanes that struck Gonaïves.

OFDA can also request assistance from the U.S. military. In 2008, the USS Kearsarge was in the Caribbean as part of Operation Continuing Promise and responded to the destruction of Gonaïves caused by Hurricane Gustav. This year, as some of you may recall, we’ve had the USS Iwo Jima up in the north of Haiti back at the end of July, and it’s still in the Caribbean capable of responding should the need arise.

I will now let Dr. Dei perhaps give you a few more details, and look forward to taking your questions afterwards.

DR. DEI: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

As the Ambassador has said, we have been thinking about the possibility of a hurricane ever since the earthquake. It’s been something in the back of our minds – and I’m happy to say it’s not just in the back of our minds; we’ve tried to turn those thoughts into some real, tangible actions.

Haiti is incredibly vulnerable vis-à-vis hurricanes. You all know this. The country is highly mountainous, there is extreme deforestation, tremendous degradation of the environment, which means that a hurricane here, the impact of it is greatly magnified. Flooding and death by drowning is the highest risk that people run.

So, what we’ve spent the last seven months doing while addressing the earthquake issues as the Ambassador has just said, are doing some very, very specific mitigation activities. The figures: 9.3 kilometers of canals have been cleaned and over a quarter million tons of garbage removed from these canals. We have done sandbagging. We have shored up walls. Wherever we see the risk of a flood, wherever we see the risk of people drowning, we have taken very specific actions to try and make sure that this does not take place.

We are also constructing transitional shelters, and here in Haiti we’ve had to go the extra mile with the transitional shelters, meaning to make them as wind resistant as we possibly can. We’re not going to pretend that they could withstand a level 4 or level 5 hurricane, but hopefully we have at least made it possible that if you get high winds there should be some level, some ability to keep these shelters standing.

In addition to all of this, as the Ambassador has mentioned, we have worked a lot on the ground with the population. We’ve worked with schools, above all in the Artibonite and in the Gonaïves region. We’ve worked with local governments. Because ultimately, when you want people to respond, it’s the local community, it’s the people on the ground that have to know what’s coming and what to do.

Along the same lines, we have set up communication networks. I think by now everybody knows that the two best ways of getting information to anybody in Haiti is through radio or through a cell phone. The level of literacy is not as high as it could be, and the ability of people to communicate with the newspapers it’s not very helpful. But everybody has access to a cell phone – maybe not your own phone but you know somebody who has one and can get the information and give it to you – and everybody can listen to a radio. And so, we’re setting up networks so that when the disaster arrives, we can give people as much warning as is available to us so that they can take the steps necessary to move themselves to a point of greatest security, whether it be a shelter, whether it be a friend, whether it be a school or a church – whatever is available.

We’re also working in terms of – we’re looking at the long-term issue as well. I mentioned to you that this is all about deforestation, erosion, and degradation. We have, for the last decade, been working on projects which are intended to address these issues. Planting, terracing, getting watersheds back where they can function the way they are supposed to do – as breaks to flooding and as breaks to emergencies. We’re going to be doing more of that in the post-reconstruction period.

And as I said, we’ve got stockpiling. The Ambassador mentioned this, but he mentioned not only what work is being done by the Department of Defense. We’ve put aside food, clothes, blankets, clean water – enough to take care of at least 100,000 people, and we’ve also set aside over 20,000 tons of food.

We can always do more, and we will be doing more up to the very last minute. But I think that it’s important to say that the driver is our wish to conserve life and to work as closely as possible with the Haitian government, the Haitian community, and other donors to ensure that this takes place.

Thank you.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Last updated: May 30, 2012

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