On-the-Record Briefing on U.S. Assistance to the Caribbean with Western Hemisphere Affairs Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ambassador Ken Merten and Disaster Assistance Response Team Leader Tim Callaghan

For Immediate Release

Thursday, September 21, 2017
Office of Press Relations
Telephone: +1.202.712.4320 | Email: press@usaid.gov

MS. BLOOM:  Thank you very much and thank you to everyone from the U.S. Department of State.  I would like to welcome our callers who have dialed in from across the region.  This is an on-the-record conference call with the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development officials on the U.S. response to Hurricane Maria.  I would like to begin by introducing our speakers.  From Washington, DC may I please introduce the Ambassador Kenneth Merten, our acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs and who also is Haiti Special Coordinator.  And joining us from the Caribbean is USAID Disaster Assistance Response, also known as DART Team Leader Tim Callaghan.  He is calling in to us from St. Maarten, from satellite phone so his connection, may not be perfect and we thank you for your patience.

Again, this call is on the record.  For those of you on this call, as the operator said, please press *1 on your phone to join the question queue and if you are using a speakerphone you might need to pick up the handset before entering *1 and the speaker will be able to take questions in English.  With that I would like to turn this over to Ambassador Kenneth Merten.  Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR MERTEN:  Hi.  Good afternoon everybody.  Thanks for your interest and for joining the call.  First of all, on behalf of the U.S. I’d like to extend our deepest sympathies to our neighbors and the people of the Caribbean region who have been really, really deeply affected by the devastating impact of this series of hurricanes.  I also want to note that we really also stand in solidarity with the people of Mexico as they continue to search for friends and loved ones in the aftermath of – of the terrible earthquake on Tuesday.

Less than two weeks after the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Jose, we, as you all know, in the region faced a third Category 5 hurricane in – in Maria.  The Department of State Task Force, which began with Irma quickly turned into – turned to monitor Hurricane Jose, Katia and now is working – and now is focusing its efforts on Hurricane Maria, continuing to support U.S. Embassies and continue to coordinate U.S. government assistance with our international partners.

U.S. government officials from several agencies have expressed condolences and I’ve spoken with a number of locally Washington-based Ambassadors from Antigua, Barbuda, Dominica and a couple others, and with our Caribbean ambassadors to discuss the critical needs and – and offer our continued support.

As you know, Hurricane Maria has caused significant damage in Dominica.  We’ve received reports of downed power lines and impassable roads, impaired communication and many, many damaged buildings.  Our embassy in Bridgetown, Barbados is working closely with government officials in Dominica to arrange for planes to land so we can assess the damage.  In fact, our Department of Defense colleagues planned to conduct an airfield assessment in Dominica today.

Across the Caribbean, the Department of State continues to coordinate with Caribbean governments, our international partners and our interagency colleagues, especially our colleagues at USAID who have provided more than one million dollars to hurricane response efforts underway from Barbuda and St. Maarten to the British Virgin Islands.

The USAID’s disaster assistance response team or DART team, including disaster experts in Dominica are working with emergency response officials and are expected to begin conducting damage assessments today.  My colleague from USAID’s Office for Support Assistance, Tim Callaghan, will have more to share on their response.

In addition, in support of our humanitarian response, the U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, has provided airlift technical support, a significant amount of fuel and water treatment services in St. Maarten that have so far produced over 21,000 gallons of potable water for our Caribbean neighbors.  The coordination that has resulted due to the hurricanes underscores our (inaudible) with a need for continued close cooperation and partnership in this region.

As you know, in June we completed a conference on strategy to increase engagement in the Caribbean, a strategy called Caribbean 2020.  The disaster assistance that we are providing follows in line with that commitment.  We understand there’s a lot left to be done to determine the extent of the damage and to provide emergency relief commodity – commodities.  Once we complete the rescue efforts in areas of current need we will immediately shift to recovery efforts, including robust humanitarian support.

Finally, I just want to express our sincere appreciation to those who have donated, volunteered generously, given their time and resources to our neighbors in the Caribbean.  As we move forward in our relief efforts, we will continue to rely on members of the press, our interagency partners and friends in the Caribbean Americans in diaspora to chart a path even more – and even more robust relations between the U.S. and the Caribbean.

I would also ask that to the extent that messages can be passed to folks outside of the region here, for example in the United States, that donations of money are much easier for groups that are helping out to manage and to handle than donations of goods which can often provide – can often be complicated.  Anyway, thank you for your attention.

At this time, I’ll turn to my colleague Tim Callaghan, the DART team leader for USAID’s Caribbean response.  I can attest to the fact that he is really the best they have.  He was with us right from the get-go when I was Ambassador to Haiti during the earthquake and he is a guy that has a tremendous amount of experience and really knows what he’s doing so I’ll turn it over to you, Tim.

MR. CALLAGHAN:  Thank you Ambassador and good afternoon to everybody.  As the Ambassador said, I certainly have my focus on the solidarity with the people of the Caribbean who you know, are dealing with these hurricanes, loss of life and a lot of what I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks is lives turned upside down with these impacts of not only Irma, but Maria.

I’ve been doing this a long time, which the ambassador just said, 15 years, and (inaudible) disaster victims a lot of (inaudible) that I can hear and for those that I haven’t gotten to.  I expect to be on the ground tomorrow.  We leave St. Maarten (inaudible).  So – so the disaster team will continue (inaudible) and obviously I support them all.

For what we did once we had people – and again we do a lot of work with all the government throughout the regions (inaudible) so we’re working with the people of Antigua.  We’re working with the government of Barbuda, we’ve had teams in the Bahamas, uh, we’re expecting teams to Malia.  We have a person in St. Kits.  Hopefully another team will be able to take five staff to Antigua and the others that are on our search roster (inaudible) um, and we're trying to help (inaudible) and be part of our team. We are flying additional people into Dominica. In addition to that we've had teams in the Dominican Republic and Haiti having report that there are impacts from the winds force, but nothing at this point beyond (inaudible).

We've found in Haiti we have four people that are on the (inaudible) team with relations. On the worse cases we usually (inaudible) for Dominica the whole (inaudible) Barbados so we work closely with these embassies and some other embassies as well.

(inaudible) it's usually the team equivalent to what's the called the National Emergency Defense Agency. The Red Cross is a critical partner for us.

We work closely, (inaudible) in Barbuda. We have governments (inaudible) Antigua. Uh, we provide them relief supplies for the families impacted in Barbuda (inaudible) Antigua and Barbuda. But everything we do is based on requests. Everything we do is based on requests from governments. Uh, the (inaudible) nations, again there's no (inaudible). But we're working very closely with the governments throughout the region and we're working closely with workers from the Red Cross and other government organizations.

You know from what we've seen so far, St. Maarten obviously was has the most damage applied to the island. A lot of structural damage. These types of storms, you know we can have storms that cause a lot of wind and rain impact. We saw that the (inaudible) these two events that caused structural situations and so we hear in Antigua severe damage, especially to the (inaudible) which means that the damage here (inaudible).

We still have a way to go in the hurricane season. We've been in command with our (inaudible) affiliates and will call again, trying to get in materials that will help so people can repair their roof, give them water that they need to (inaudible) in Dominica.

So, at this point we have people on the ground. We will be assessing. We will be working with the government and trying to identify gaps so we can, the U.S., can provide assistance that is appropriate and timely. And I'm sure there will be a lot of other organizations that will be offering support and that's why it's important to have the coordination effort.

We will have people on the ground in Barbados because there are a lot of the international (inaudible) and we want to ensure that everything we're doing is coordinated with other factors and the implications of that. You know in this one we are moving around to where the priorities are. As I said before, (inaudible) a lot of issues and so forth that we have been supporting so they're working very close with the Department of Defense and colleagues throughout the region who have been terrific.

As the ambassador said that I also said my thoughts and prayers to the people of Mexico. We have a disaster team there as well (inaudible) search and rescue. My prayers are with them as they search for folks from the earthquake that happened two days ago.

So at this point, again, a lot of structural damage to the water system, to homes and so forth and for us that will be our focus. We will continue to assess what is urgent and needs to be done and we'll get recommendations in close coordination again with government sources and agents as we assemble teams throughout the region and the international community (inaudible). I think I'll stop there.   

MS. BLOOM: Thank you very much Mr. Callaghan.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  For those who would like to ask a question, we kindly ask that you limit yourself to one question and that it be related to the topic of today’s briefing, which is the U.S. response to Hurricane Maria in the Caribbean.  Thank you very much.  We’ll turn it over to the agency operator.

OPERATOR:  Thank you ladies and gentlemen.  Once again, if you would like to ask a question please press *1 on your phone keypad.  You will a tone indicating you have been placed in queue and you may remove yourself from this queue by depressing the pound key.  Our first question is on the line.  Lesik Sebastian from I – excuse me – from JCN TV.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yes, how does the U.S. intend to assist in the direct revitalization in the midst of this crisis in Puerto Rico, potentially with more activity in the next few months.

AMBASSADOR MERTEN:  Well we intend to look at the first things that need to be done.  We need to be doing assessments with our partners in all these countries and islands to see what their initial needs are.

In terms of economic revitalization, I think we’ll need to be – once we see what is needed we’ll be working closely with them to see where they think we can be helpful and see which resources we have which we can bring to bear.  At the end of the day I think it’s also important to realize that you know these – that there will be a role for the private sector, as well as we move forward and we make sure that they are included in the planning and thinking about how we can best help.

Thank you.

MR. CALLAGHAN:  And this is Mr. Callaghan, I think at this point we continue to focus on the critical emergency that require ways for them – how they – you know will we have materials, water and things like that.

OPERATOR:  And next we will move the line of Steve Gorman, with Reuters.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yeah hi gentlemen, uh, I wanted to ask you if there’s any updates you can give us about casualties in some of the affected islands.  Particularly on Dominica and Guadalupe.  If you have any updates on the number of peop- the number of fatalities reported so far or people severely hurt or missing in any of those islands.

MR. CALLAGHAN:  Yeah this is Tim Callaghan.  Again, I haven’t been on the ground and trying to confirm, I too and looking for a report on the damages.  We’ll have to try and verify the number of fatalities was not high.  The number that I was getting on the report so far was 7.  I think at this point with what we’ve heard from the government, with what we’ve heard from people on the ground, the main issue at this point is damage to people’s homes, damaged wells and water facilities.  And again, it’s more than what we’re hearing so far from the ground in this sort of emergent issue.  We have not heard of a large number of people missing at this point, but again, there will be more information when the teams get on the ground.

QUESTION:  The British – the Virgin Islands.  Do you have any information?  There’s been almost no information about St. Croix which got hit very badly.

AMBASSADOR MERTEN:  I – that’s a U.S. domestic territory.  That’s not something that the U.S. or DART would be covering. We don’t have FEMA on the line.  I don’t particularly have any information about St. Croix.  I know it’s been pretty active there since last week’s damage.  My suspicion is that they’re very much very much scripted with the information in St. Croix, but I don’t really have very much information for you there.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR. CALLAGHAN:  Yeah this has been the same thing with Puerto Rico.  We know that they’ve been impacted but they are both FEMA territory and having that information is unlikely.  Thank you.

OPERATOR:  And next we go to the line with Connor Finnigan with ABC News. Please go ahead.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hey thank you very much for holding the call.  Forgive me if I have this mistaken, but I don’t think the man in front of me mentioned Cuba in the countries the U.S. is providing aid to.  Do you know if there is any sort of assistance or cooperation that the U.S. Is providing especially given President Trump's change in this policy and if so could you give me some of the details and if not, has the Cuban government not requested or is it because of the President's policy? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Yeah, hi this is Ken Merten. I can give you an answer there. The Cubans do not ask for assistance there typically. I'm hard pressed to remember if the Cubans have ever asked us for assistance after a hurricane or some kind of natural disaster so that – there is your answer.

OPERATOR: And we will move on to the line with Ahleen Kahn with Express News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, where is the hurricane heading next. Where should – where – the planning is not finished. What about the U.S. Virgin Islands? Is that?

AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Well I'm not a meteorologist yet I do think from what I have been able to observe that the eye of the hurricane has certainly left Puerto Rico and it is moving, the last time I checked, north – northwest. I think there are parts of the Bahamas that appear to be in danger. The Turks and Caicos Islands where we also, I must admit, we do not have an American Counsel or presence. It was also someplace in danger and beyond that I am not aware that the hurricane is due to strike the mainland of the United States. Over.

OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, for any additional questions, please press *1 at this time. We have a question on the line from Keira Gurney from the Miami Herald.

QUESTION: Hi good afternoon. I'm sorry – I apologize if Mr. Callaghan already said this. I was having trouble hearing part of his initial discussion, but I was wondering if USAID knows how long they expect to keep teams in the Caribbean with Hurricane Maria recovery.

MR. CALLAGHAN: Yeah this is Tim Callaghan. You know we don't have a time frame. We will have teams on the ground for as long as the government's needs are and working with our embassy staff, we have people who regularly work to monitor these issues.

You know, I think we'll have a team on for a while focusing our efforts on funding and monitoring that. It may be a smaller team than we currently have. But obviously we're incredibly active right now because it's been an incredibly active hurricane season.

I suspect for the next couple weeks we will have teams not only monitoring our support to Antigua, but monitoring our support to St. Kit and we'll have at least one individual in Barbuda monitoring activities there. People will follow teams for quite a while.

We have people in Bridgetown because as I mentioned, our embassy is based there. The international hub is there for the Eastern Caribbean. So the Eastern Caribbean team for FEMA is based there. The (inaudible). Other governments will there so I expect we will have a team there on the ground for a while.

I will then – you know, we're also monitoring other situations and we're using all our resources, staff and so forth for the current busy season before us. We used a lot of local people that we've trained and so forth and so we have enough folks on the ground that I think we can stay there and monitor and make sure most important that things go according to plan.

So we don't have a timetable at this point. We'll continue to make assessments and continue to take recommendations to support the government of (inaudible).

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: And we have a follow up from the line of Connor Finnegan. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi I'm so sorry this is actually Abigail Williams from NBC News who is helping to use the phone. Thank you for doing the call. I wasn't sure if you had stated the amount of aid that had been given to the island of Barbuda. Is that a number you might be able to provide?

AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Yeah I'm going to have to answer that question.

MR. CALLAGHAN: I don't have a dollar...

AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Oh sorry. Sorry I think we're saying the same thing. I don't think we have a figure off the top of my head or in front of me. We can take that question and get back to you on that.

Abigail Williams: Thank you so much.

MR. CALLAGHAN: I don't have a figure but we were provided the (inaudible) shipment of non-food items provided (inaudible) government of Barbuda.

OPERATOR: And we have no further questions. You may continue.

MS. BLOOM: Thank you. I would just like to ask if Ambassador Merten or Mr. Callaghan have any further comments before we close.

AMBASSADOR MERTEN: No just to thank you for your interest in this.

This has been a very difficult season for the region and I hate to say it, but we're very cognizant of the fact that we have several more months to go in hurricane season. I'm not predicting anything, but we are going to remain very vigilant here, at least at the State Department and I am sure I'm speaking for USAID too, but we're doing what we can to help our friends and neighbors in the region and I'm really happy that we have professionals like USAID and like Tim Callaghan out there in the field really taking care of business.

MR. CALLAGHAN: Yeah my final comment is I've been doing this for a long time and we know there are a lot of people who want to help. Cash is best is always the message from us. I've worked with Red Cross and others and we would rather find reputable supplies rather than people sending things because it's sometimes very challenging to coordinate where it will be distributed, how it will be distributed. Cash is best because we have people on the ground with established networks and we want to help as many people as we can during these times.

MS. BLOOM: Thank you very much. This concludes our call. I would like to thank Mr. Callaghan and Ambassador Merten for attending and thank you all for participating. The recording will be available foreplay for 48 hours and if you need a copy of the transcript you may email me at BLMT@state.gov to request a copy of the transcript which will be available later today. Thank you and we wish you a good day.