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On-the-Record Briefing on the U.S. Government's Response to the Earthquake in Haiti, August 17, 2021

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Tuesday, August 17, 2021
USAID Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs Assistant Administrator Sarah Charles, USAID DART Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team Public Information Officer John Morrison, and State Department Western Hemisphere Affairs Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Laura Lochman
Via Teleconference

MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by and welcome to the briefing call on the Haiti earthquake response. At this time, all participants are in the listen-only mode. Later, we will conduct a question-and-answer session and instructions will be given at that time. If you should require assistance during the call, please press star then zero. As a reminder, this call is being recorded. I would now like to turn the call over to our host, Rebecca Chalif. Please go ahead.

MS. CHALIF: Thanks, Roxanne. Good morning, everyone, this is Rebecca. Thank you guys for joining us. On the call today, we have USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Affairs, Assistant Administrator Sarah Charles. Our DART leader, Dave Taylor, was actually just pulled into some work on the ground, so joining us today will be John Morrison, Public Information Officer for Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue on the USAID DART, and State Department Western Hemisphere Affairs Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Laura Lochman, who will discuss the U.S. government's response to the earthquake that struck Haiti over the weekend. I'm going to let each of our speakers share some remarks at the top and then we'll be happy to take your questions and Roxanne will provide some instructions on how to queue up for questions. So, with that, I will turn it over to Sarah Charles.

MS. CHARLES: Hi, and I just want to echo Rebecca's thanks for joining today. At the direction of President Biden, the United States Government rapidly mobilized to assist the government of Haiti and the Haitian people after Saturday's devastating earthquake. Hours after the earthquake struck, the President authorized an immediate U.S. response. The same day, USAID Administrator, Samantha Power, the President's designated senior U.S. official coordinating the response effort, announced the deployment of a USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team or DART. U.S. Government is coordinating efforts across departments and agencies to respond quickly to needs in Haiti. The DART is now on the ground, working to urgently assess needs and deliver lifesaving assistance, and our partners are distributing life-saving food and relief supplies in affected areas already.

In a moment, I will turn you over to my colleague, John Morrison, with our DART on the ground in Haiti to provide the latest on the team's efforts, but I'd like to first briefly provide some additional information on the U.S. response, led by USAID. The DART is comprised of 38 disaster experts from USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, including 10 regularly based Haitian surge staff whom we activated immediately after the earthquake to conduct rapid assessments and coordinate with local authorities. These critical members of the team are working in their own local communities to assess damage and needs, coordinate with local emergency operation centers, and support the DART Search and Rescue operations. The DART also includes 65 Search and Rescue members and four canines from the Fairfax County Fire Department, Urban Search and Rescue, or the USAR team, who arrived in Haiti on Sunday.

We're also coordinating with interagency partners to get aid to people as quickly as possible. The U.S. Coast Guard Medevac Operation has so far evacuated, as of last night, 41 critical patients over the course of 15 [inaudible]. They've also transported 22 local medical staff and 1,000 pounds of medical supplies into the area, as well as three local engineers, a four-person Department of Defense Runway Assessment Team, and yesterday, the Coast Guard transported 18 DART members to affected areas to begin search and rescue operations and conduct assessments. Because of the extensive damage to roads and bridges that have made ground transportation challenging, they've also requested additional support from the Department of Defense for Air Defense Transport to affected areas, and the U.S. military helicopters are on their way to Haiti.

With USAID support, the UN World Food Program, or WFP, is also using its barge service, to move vehicles and other humanitarian supplies to the southern coast of Haiti. We are also supporting WFP to provide logistical assistance to help organizations and get food supplies, including rice, beans, and vegetable oil that USAID prepositioned at Port-au-Prince to deliver hot meals to more than 3,000 people in hospitals in Les Cayes and Jeremie this week. USAID supports WFP year-round, maintaining sufficient prepositioned food in Haiti to meet the needs of approximately 300,000 people for one month. Today, USAID partnered with the International Organization for Migration, will also distribute 2,000 hygiene kits, 2,000 jerry cans, and 600 shelter repair kits in Les Cayes and Nippes. These supplies, which are enough to help approximately 10,000 people, were prepositioned in Les Cayes and USAID-supported warehouses to be ready to quickly respond to disasters.

USAID is also supporting IOM to distribute washable masks and COVID awareness and prevention messaging through flyers, sound trucks, community outreach, and social media. IOM psychologists will also provide specialized psychosocial support in affected communities. We also continue to support long-standing humanitarian partners in areas affected by the earthquake that are providing life-saving shelter, protection, and water, sanitation and hygiene assistance for the local population. Our partners are rapidly pivoting efforts to respond to urgent needs resulting from the earthquake by conducting assessments and preparing to distribute additional relief supplies in the hardest hit areas. We continue to closely monitor the impact of Tropical Storm Grace which passed over the area last night and continues to lash areas impacted by the earthquake with heavy rains and strong winds. With that, I would now like to turn over to John Morrison, who can provide additional efforts on urban search and rescue efforts to date.

MR. MORRISON: Thank you, Sarah, and thank you to everyone for joining today. As Sarah mentioned, the USAID DART, Urban Search and Rescue Team, arrived in Haiti on Sunday and began operations in affected areas yesterday. The USAR team deployed with 52,000 pounds of specialized tools and equipment, including hydrologic concrete breaking equipment, saws, torches, and drills, along with advanced medical equipment to assist with search and rescue operations. The team began those search and rescue operations yesterday. Yesterday, the DART travelled to Dessalines, Marceline, Merci, La Borde, Camp-Perrin, and Maniche on two U.S. Coast Guard helicopters.

While on the ground, the team visited affected communities, conducted damage assessments of homes and buildings, including a hospital, and provided medical attention to an injured person. The team reports that food, health care services, safe drinking water, hygiene, and sanitation, and shelter, are all priority needs. Today, assessment teams will be returning to Les Cayes to complete further assessments as well as other locations on the peninsula that have been significantly impacted. Thank you again for joining us today. Before we turn it over for questions, I would like to go to the State Department's Bureau for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Laura Lochman.

MS. LOCHMAN: Okay, thank you very much, John, and thank you all for joining the call this morning to discuss the U.S. response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti. I'd like to start by reiterating the United States' deepest condolences to those who suffered the loss of loved ones or saw their homes or businesses destroyed. My USAID colleagues just covered our response efforts on the ground, and I would like to highlight that, of course, the United States remains a close partner and friend of Haiti, and we continue to provide what has been long-standing assistance in areas including security, development, governance, and health. And the goal is to support Haiti in its efforts to chart a path toward long-lasting peace, stability, and prosperity for all Haitians.

In the wake of the tragic assassination of President Moïse, we continue to work closely with Haiti's interim government to assist with the investigation into the assassination, support efforts to strengthen security and democratic institutions, and encourage dialogue with civil society actors. Our focus remains on supporting Haitian-led solutions to the many pressing challenges the country is now facing, and that principle will continue to guide our current system efforts. In this profoundly challenging time, it's crucial that Haiti's interim government, the private sector, and civil society work together in the interest of the Haitian people to recover and rebuild. The United States stands ready to offer all appropriate assistance and will continue to work closely with our Haitian partners to determine how we conduct support recovery efforts. Thank you.

MS. CHALIF: Thanks Laura. Roxanne, we're ready to take some questions.

MODERATOR: Certainly. Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press one then zero on your telephone keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the command of one then zero. Again, if you have any questions or comments, please press one then zero at this time.

Our first question then is from the line of Teresa Welsh. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks so much. Can you hear me?

MODERATOR: I can hear you, Teresa.

Teresa, I could hear you, but if you’re talking right now I cannot hear you.

QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me? Okay. Now we’re good? Hello?

MODERATOR: Teresa, your line is open. Are you speaking?

QUESTION: Yes. Can you hear me?

MODERATOR: We can hear you now. Please go ahead with your question.

QUESTION: Okay, great. Could you talk a little bit more about how the storm is impacting recovery efforts and how that is perhaps making your work more difficult? And how, you know, local Haitian partners on the ground are also working as quickly as possible to be responding amidst the multiple disasters at once? Thank you.

MS. CHARLES: Thank you for that question, Teresa. We will know much more today. We have additional DART staff that are headed out to the region as we speak, to assess how the impact of the storm, which passed over last night, has compounded needs following the earthquake. So we did have to suspend operations as of late yesterday afternoon. But we’re resuming them this morning and we’ll have a better picture of needs really in the coming hours.

MODERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Christopher Sherman with Associated Press. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, good morning. Thank you. I wanted to ask about growing levels of frustration and anger. Our teams on the ground this morning in Les Cayes are talking about, you know, much more aggressive anger directed toward not only the press but the rare sighting of any sort of government official at the scenes where they’re still working to recover bodies from the rubble. Just wondering how that is affecting your operations, or how you expect [inaudible] going forward?

MS. CHARLES: The safety and security of our partners and our operations are of the utmost importance. But our top priority really is getting assistance, and assistance that’s scaled to people in need. We’re working very closely with our local partners, as well as with the support of embassy security and security specialists that are on the DART in order to scale up assistance. Basically to get that assistance to people that are in need right now.

MODERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Rick Gladstone with New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for the briefing. I have two questions, if I might. First, I would ask, how would you assess the level of humanitarian response? I mean, besides the USAID effort. Is Haiti getting enough help from the world for this disaster in your view?

And my second question, if I could just slip it in right quickly is, for the Fairfax Urban Search and Rescue Team. Have you found any sign that there are still people alive, buried in the earthquake rubble? Thank you.

MS. CHARLES: I can take that first question. And then I’ll ask my colleague John to jump in on that second question. On the first question, we certainly are working with international partners to scale up assistance. Much more will be needed in the coming days and weeks. Already there are regional responses from the Dominican Republic, from Colombia, from Jamaica. And we’re in close touch with the UK and the European Union to help influence their plans for response. And the UN has responded as well. Not just the assistance, but I noted the World Food Program and the International Organizations for Migration. But yesterday Martin Griffith, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, announced that he would be releasing eight million in additional assistance for the Haiti response.

MR. MORRISON: And from -- this is John from the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team. We have not yet found any signs of persons alive trapped in buildings. There have been rescues made in previous earthquakes up to eight to 10 days after the earthquake. In 2015, our team along with Los Angeles County pulled a teenage boy from the rubble five days after that earthquake. Time is a factor though, which is why the teams have hit the ground running to try and reach those people that have been trapped. And make sure that we work with local emergency response officials to make sure that our search and rescue is prioritized in areas that are affected the most.

MODERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Liz Stark, CNN. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there. I was wondering if you could provide more details about what conversations have the United States had with Haitian leadership regarding the amount and the pace of the aid effort? And also, if you could speak to the reporting that the Haitian Prime Minister has expressed frustration with the U.S. effort in conversations with the Ambassador. Thank you.

MS. CHARLES: I think that’s a question for our State Department colleague.

MS. LOCHMAN: Hi, this is Laura. Maybe, for my USAID colleagues, do you want to start by talking about USAID contact with the Haitian government and I’ll move to other contacts?

MS. CHARLES: Yes. And I can just speak to -- I know that Administrator Power has been in close touch with the Prime Minister. As has the Ambassador. Our understanding is that he actually has been pleased with the U.S. government response to the earthquake. We’re obviously in close touch with both the Prime Minister, but also the Haitian officials that are in charge of the emergency response to identify and respond to new needs as they emerge. And, of course, to scale up our ongoing response.

MS. LOCHMAN: Okay, and then from the State Department side, just to reiterate, our Ambassador is in constant contact with high-level Haitian authorities across the board dealing with this disaster. And she is speaking to the Prime Minister several times a day. And she did convey to us that the Prime Minister has expressed his sincere and very heartfelt thanks for the United States response. And then in addition, our Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, spoke with the Prime Minister in a call on August 15 to transmit our sincerest condolences. And to pledge all the assistance that we can provide. Over.

MODERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Anthony Faiola with Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you again for doing this. Do you have any assessments on how many communities still have not been reached by any first responders? And if so, where are those? Are they located very close to the epicenter? And are you getting any sense now of how high the death toll may go? There have been some indications that the quake was very strong. But perhaps the damage may not have been as severe as initially anticipated and not as catastrophic as 2010, partly because it was centered further from Port-au-Prince. But what are your assessments on all of that?

MS. CHARLES: So again, we do not anticipate that the death toll related to this earthquake will be anywhere near the 2010 earthquake where more than 200,000 people were killed. We can follow up with those specific numbers, but I believe the death toll as of last night was something in the range of 1,200. And we believe that every one of those deaths is a tragedy and we can anticipate that that number will climb in the coming days. But we do not anticipate that the scale with this disaster is comparable to the 2010 earthquake. That’s not what we’re seeing on the ground right now. There are, though, significant humanitarian needs and we’re doing everything we can to respond and respond in scale to those needs.

MS. LOCHMAN: And this is Laura Lochman. If I can add that the Civil Protection Agency put out some numbers late yesterday that the death toll had risen to 1,419 with 6,900 injured. Over.

MODERATOR: Our next question is from Michael Wilner with McClatchy. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for the call. I appreciate it. Does the U.S. claim the engineers as part of the disaster response? And also in 2010 my understanding is the U.S. declined to provide tents because they wanted to encourage rebuilding. What's the position on that at this point? Is there a plan to provide tents, if you could be specific on that? Thanks.

MS. CHARLES: Michael, I'm happy to follow up on that specific question of planning around tents. I don't have that detail right now. And could you repeat the first part of your question, please?

QUESTION: Sure. Of course. Does the U.S. claim engineers as part of the disaster response team?

MS. CHARLES: John, do you want to take that question, if engineers were part of the crew that the U.S. Coast Guard carried out yesterday?

MR. MORRISON: Absolutely, the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team deployed as part of the DART with three engineers. They’re structural engineers that have been around the world for many disasters. So they are part of our team and are part of the DART out there assessing these buildings to make sure that we are safe when we're operating in them and whether they are structurally sound.

MODERATOR: And our last question comes from the line of Cassandra Garrison, Reuters, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Good morning. I'm wondering if you can outline some of the lessons learned after the 2010 response and how the U.S. is adjusting its response this time. And also, if there's a budget that you can share a budget number for the U.S.'s current response. Thank you.

MS. CHARLES: Hi. No budget number yet. We're still very much in the early days of the response, and we'll have a better picture of the budget numbers moving forward. In terms of lessons learned, first and foremost, the lessons have been around preparation, where we've worked closely with partners in Haiti for several years now to make sure that we have local response capabilities on the ground before disaster strikes. And so you're seeing right now that barge that WFP is moving into the region, the prepositioned stock and that our partners are drawing a plan to provide food, shelter or non-food assistance and as well as our locally employed search staff that's mobilized in the hours after the earthquake that already lived in the area to help make sure that our understanding of the disaster and our responses are really shaped by what we're hearing from people on the ground and informed by their specific needs.

MS. CHALIF: Great, thank you all for joining us. And thanks so much to our speakers for taking the time today. Of course, if there's any follow up questions further down the line, feel free to reach out to the press teams at AID or at State anytime. We're happy to help you out. We'll keep everyone posted as it progresses. But thanks again for joining.

MODERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our conference for today. Thank you for your participation and for using AT&T conferencing services. You may now disconnect.