On-The-Record Briefing by State Department Counselor Cheryl Mills and USAID Administrator Raj Shah - The Situation in Haiti, 13 Jan 2010

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On-The-Record Briefing by State Department Counselor Cheryl Mills
USAID Administrator Raj Shah
And U.S. SOUTHCOM Commander General Douglas Fraser

U.S. Department of State
Washington, D.C.

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.