On-the-Record Briefing: U.S. Government Actions and Assistance for Countries Affected by Hurricane Matthew

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Consular Affairs' Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizens Services Karen Christensen;
USAID Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance R. David Harden;
and Haiti Special Coordinator and Western Hemisphere Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary Kenneth Merten 

 Via Teleconference

MS TRUDEAU:  Thank you so much, and thank you for all of us - to all of you for joining us today.  This call is on the record.  We're pleased to have three principals be able to join us today regarding U.S. Government actions and assistance for countries affected by Hurricane Matthew.  Our three speakers today will be Haiti Special Coordinator and Western Hemisphere DAS Deputy Assistant Secretary Kenneth Merten; speaking next will be the Consular Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizen Services Karen Christensen; and then speaking third will be the USAID Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian R. David Harden.  And with that, I'd like to turn the call over to the Haiti Special Coordinator and DAS Merten.  Sir.

MR MERTEN:  Thanks very much, and thank you all for your interest.  First of all, I'd just like to thank the press, including particularly those correspondents in Haiti who were at great personal risk have been covering the countries prepared in this efforts for Hurricane Matthews in addition to the aftermath.  I think we know that flooding and mudslides are still potential dangers in Haiti, so thanks to all the reporters who are out there covering this.

Jonnathan fetches clean water for his mother cleaning his home flooded by the overflowing of the La Rouyonne river
AFP / Hector Retamal

When disasters occur anywhere, Americans generously offer assistance to those people who are in desperate need.  And decades of experience in disaster relief and recovery showed - have shown that the best way to help people affected by disaster is to make cash donations to reputable relief and charitable organizations on the ground.  These groups work closely with affected communities and know what people need and how to strengthen recovery efforts.  Cash involves no transportation costs, shipping delays, or customs fees, and it also enables relief organizations to spend more time providing aid by spending less time managing goods.  More information on how the public can help is available at www.CIDI.org, or contact the Center for the International Disaster Information at 202-821-1999

The U.S. continues to work in partnership with the Government of Haiti to assess the extent of damage in Haiti and to prioritize humanitarian cleanup needs.  The goal of the U.S. as a friend of Haiti and a partner looks beyond the day to day now, as we have for decades.  We are here at the Department of State continuing to monitor Hurricane Matthew, which is still a dangerous hurricane.  For us, the priority remains the safety and security of U.S. citizens.  We have issued Travel Warnings for Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and a Travel Alert for Cuba apprising U.S. citizens of imminent and dangerous storm conditions.  Some airports in these regions have already closed, and others are likely to close as conditions possibly deteriorate.  We've advised U.S. citizens in affected areas who have not already made travel arrangements to make preparations immediately to shelter in place in a secure location.

Contrary to some stories you may have heard, we have not evacuated embassy personnel at any of our embassies.  What we have done, though, is authorized what we call "authorized departure," which allows people to leave - employees and family members to leave via commercial airlines, and that has been offered for employees at Kingston, Nassau, and Port-au-Prince.  Some folks have departed, but the chiefs of mission remain in each country. 

We'd like to remind everybody that it's important to be aware and to read our Travel Warnings and Travel Alert which provide our embassies' emergency contact and other information, and it allows people to get the most recent information that we have available in their hands.  We also encourage U.S. citizens to follow and to monitor local media for up-to-date local information.  I want to emphasize that we're continuing to coordinate with local authorities in each of these countries.  We strongly encourage U.S. citizens to follow emergency instructions provided by local authorities as well.  And we, again, finally encourage U.S. citizens to - those who are abroad to enroll their travel plans on our website, travel.state.gov, using the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.  And you can also read country-specific information on that site.

As of today, the hurricane appears to have cleared Haiti and largely Cuba and it's now making its way to the Bahamas.  We - it looks like it will come very, very close, if not pass directly over Nassau before making up - making its way up towards the U.S. - U.S. coastline in the southeastern U.S.  And at that point, I will turn it over to my colleagues.

MS TRUDEAU:  That's great.  Thank you very much, sir.  Next, we'll turn this over to our Consular Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary Christensen.

MS CHRISTENSEN:  Hi, a pleasure to be able to speak to you.  As was already noted, the primary responsibility and concern that we have here in the Bureau of Consular Affairs is the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas.  We have already issued Travel Warnings for Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and a Travel Alert for Cuba.  And what - the main message that we would like to get out, of course, to U.S. citizens is to continue to monitor the information that we are putting out.  Our Travel Warnings obviously are posted ontravel.state.gov

And also, as was already mentioned, we encourage citizens to register through the STEP program - the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.  You can do that as well through travel.state.gov.  That will ensure that as we put out individual localized messages, you will get that most up-to-date information in real time.  Also, follow us on social media.  That will assist in making sure that you get the most up-to-date information as we put it out.  And (inaudible).

MS TRUDEAU:  That's great.  Thank you very much, ma'am.  And now, we turn it over to USAID Assistant Administrator Harden.

MR HARDEN:  Thank you, and thanks again to the press for being a part of this.  We do appreciate this.  As DAS Merten noted, the hurricane - Hurricane Matthew landed in Haiti on Tuesday morning.  We actually had prepositioned our elite disaster response teams before the hurricane hit, so we had our teams in place on Monday.  We had over two dozen people in Haiti, Jamaica, and the Bahamas.  We had also prepositioned food and hygiene materials and water supply systems and shelter materials all in advance in preparation for this kind of event. 

And so we were there on the ground.  We rode out the storm in Haiti.  Our teams are just making initial assessments right now.  Most of the area has been hit pretty hard.  Communications are down in most of the affected areas.  The airport is not open.  We're going to do air assessments in the hardest hit areas later this afternoon.  And then once the storm has kind of fully passed, we're able - we'll be able to do a better assessment on mudslides, road conditions, and the state of vulnerable people. 

And so we have announced $1.5 million for the region; $1 million of food aid is just being announced right now.  And as of a day or so ago, we had announced $500,000 for the non-food items such as shelter, blankets, hygiene kits, household items, and water purification equipment.

So I think that's - I mean, that's it in terms of our general response right now.  If there's - if there are further needs, we're prepared to deploy more commodities and more relief supplies from Florida and potentially from Italy if required.  And so right now, we're just in the initial assessment and response phase.  Thank you.

MS TRUDEAU:  Thank you so much, sir.  David, if you can remind people how to ask questions and then we can move to questions.

OPERATOR:  Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1. 

MS TRUDEAU:  I think we have one in queue.  You can go ahead and move to that one.

OPERATOR:  And our question does come from the line of Rosiland Jordan with Al Jazeera.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for doing the call.  Regarding the situation in Haiti, I know that you said that people are just starting to get an assessment of the storm's impact.  There's a story, I believe, in The New York Times about the ongoing recovery efforts from the earthquake a few years ago, and the story pointed out the problem with trying to deal with cholera.

Once the U.S. and other aid groups have had a chance to take a look at the situation, one, what can be done specifically to prevent the spread of cholera as people try to rebuild their communities?  And two, is there any long-term planning or agreements that the U.S. is working out with the Haitian Government on improving sanitation in that country?  Thank you.

MR HARDEN:  Thanks.  It's Dave Harden from USAID.  So let me just reiterate that we're in the very early stages of this.  We had somewhere between 15 to 25 inches of rain in Haiti; isolated amounts are up to 40 inches.  So we have worked since the earthquake to work with the Haitian Government and disaster organizations and first responders over the past five years so that they're able to help respond to these kinds of disasters that are happening now and that will happen in the future.  And these are disaster risk mitigation efforts that we take.  So we try to work with local partners to reduce the risks of events like cholera. 

And in this particular instance, a lot of our assistance is going to focus on water and sanitation, which is probably the primary means of inhibiting the spread of cholera.  We will also get plastic sheeting and shelter kits out there available as needed to the most vulnerable people, and this too will help create a hygienic environment.  And then lastly, we do have hygiene kits which we're able to deploy very, very rapidly to the most affected people.

MS TRUDEAU:  DAS Merten, would you like to add anything?

MR MERTEN:  No, I just want to emphasize that the work that the - that USAID and CDC have been doing in Haiti since 2010 on cholera is ongoing and has really helped the Haitian Government and the Haitian ministry of public health do their best to identify this ongoing challenge in Haiti.

MS TRUDEAU:  Thank you.  David, could you open it up to our next question, please?

OPERATOR:  The next question comes from the line of James Rosen with McClatchy.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi, you all.  Thanks for doing this.  I know that you said that the hurricane appears to have cleared Haiti and Cuba and is making its way to the Bahamas, and you mentioned where you had prepositioned people and supplies.  Did you make any effort to preposition people and supplies in Cuba?  Does the recent re-establishment of diplomatic relations make that possible?  Can you just talk a little bit about what you did to help Cubans if - in the event that the hurricane had hit them?  And also, was there any damage to Cuba?

MS TRUDEAU:  DAS Merten, if we could have you take that one.

MR MERTEN:  Sure.  In all these cases, I believe that we - including Haiti, and I would imagine Cuba too - we need to follow the host, the country government's lead in these cases, and we need to follow their requests.  I would imagine that the Cuban Government is doing an assessment, as is the Haitian Government.  We've been communicating with officials in Cuba and also the Dominican Republic as well as Haiti and the Bahamas.  So I think beyond that, I don't really have a whole lot more to say on the subject.

MS TRUDEAU:  Thank you.  David, if you could open it to our next question.

OPERATOR:  Next we go to the line of Steve Herman with Voice of America.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi, good morning, and thanks for doing the call.  More of a big-picture question, but I think it certainly applies to Haiti in this circumstance.  I've been on the ground after a number of these natural disasters in least developed countries, and then we go back a year later, and despite pledges of millions and in some cases, such as Nepal, billions of dollars, there doesn't appear to be much that's changed.  The money doesn't seem to trickle down to the worst-hit communities, and there's all sorts of instances of corruption.  It just sort of fattens up officials at many levels rather than those who desperately need to be recipients.  In this particular case and others, how do - how is the United States Government going to ensure that the money it pledges actually gets to the people that it's intended?

Stacks of USAID blankets
Stacks of USAID blankets

MR HARDEN:  Yeah, I'll take that.  This is Dave Harden.  So right now we're talking about $1.5 million in assistance to the Caribbean.  These are our commodities and these are distributed through very, very good partners.  Right now, we've announced that we're working with Catholic Relief Services and the American Red Cross, and so we are going to work very diligently to make sure that our commodities are provided to the most vulnerable people.  And I do want you just to recognize that everything that we do is always subject to audit and oversight and monitoring, and we take that responsibility and the integrity of our funding very, very clearly and very - we take it very seriously.  So in this instance, we have a important but limited response, so this isn't the earthquake of five or six years ago; this is an immediate response to the current hurricane. 

MS TRUDEAU:  Thank you.  Does anyone have anything to add to that?  If not, David, we can go to our next question.

OPERATOR:  Next we'll go to the line of Ben Fox with Associated Press.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for the call.  A couple things - can you say how many of the 2,000 pre-positioned personnel are actually in Haiti taking part in the assessment?  And can you at least put some data out there about what you have learned so far, perhaps either from the UN or the Government of Haiti, or if you can confirm what the UN itself has reported?  And then if you could also just talk about the Haitian election - whether the U.S. has any, I guess, opinion or suggestion as to whether or not Haiti should go forward with the electionon Sunday?

MR HARDEN:  So why don't DAS Merten take care of the election, and then I'll take care of the personnel and the movement of logistics.

MR MERTEN:  Go ahead.

MR HARDEN:  So we have about two dozen people, because I thought you said 2,000.  We have about two dozen of our disaster experts in the region right now, and that number fluctuates depending on the situation.  We can surge people - more people in and we can also move people within the region to different spots.  But these are experts that handle these kinds of disasters throughout the world all the time; they are focused on logistics, supply chain, water and sanitation, food, and making sure that they're able to get to the most vulnerable.  So the number will change depending on what we find out today - later on today.  But we're going to continue to monitor this on a real-time basis and, of course, we will be working very, very closely with the government and our partners. 

And regarding the elections, I'll turn that over to DAS Merten.

MR MERTEN:  Sure.  This is Ken Merten.  Yeah, on elections, this is a Haitian Government and a Haitian Provisional Electoral Council decision.  This is - the Haitians are running this election, as they did last year.  Sovereign country - they get to make the choices on these issues, so I'm sure they will do a thoughtful analysis, considering what happened yesterday, and see if they are or are not able to have elections on Sunday

Our interest is that they do have elections, whether they're Sunday or they're at some other point in the not too distant future, that they have them soon and that they have elections that are fair, transparent, and credible so we have a completely democratically elected government from top to bottom to deal with - just to deal with exactly this type of thing, like, to work with the Haitians on things like recovering from this hurricane, and the recovery work that still needs to be done building up the Haitian economy and making Haiti a more sustainable place where people are - feel comfortable in making their livelihoods.

MS TRUDEAU:  Thank you, sir.  David, if we could move to our next question?

OPERATOR:  Next question comes from the line of Kenji McCulley with NHK Japan.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for the - taking the call.  I just wanted to ask - I know that the assessment is in its early stages, but if you have sort of heard from the Haitian Government at all in terms of casualties and damages.  And from your end, when will the results of your assessment sort of be announced?  Thank you.

MR HARDEN:  I'd refer you to the Haitian Government in terms of actual casualty counts.  There are numbers that are floating around in the media right now, but I would refer you to them.  Our assessment is ongoing, so it's going to be a very fluid situation, and we will both continue to monitor it and report and respond kind of concurrently.

MS TRUDEAU:  Thank you.  Let's move to our next question.  Why don't we take two more, and then we can wrap the call up.

OPERATOR:  Next we'll go to the line of Rosiland Jordan with Al Jazeera.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks again.  This question is for Karen Christensen.  Do you have any sense, or does the agency have any sense, of how many Americans are in the Caribbean Basin?  And are they doing a good job, if I can use that expression, of letting the U.S. Government know where they are, what their situation is?  I mean, the repeated calls to - please register with  travel.state.gov - are people doing that?  Are they taking it seriously in order - if the worst thing were to happen, that the U.S. Government could be there to help them?

MS CHRISTENSEN:  Okay.  So as we know, people aren't, of course, required to register with us, so we don't have exact numbers of how many people are in each of these affected countries.  What I can say is that we have not been receiving a lot of inquiries from people or their family members telling us that they're in distress.  Normally after a disaster like this, we get flooded with phone calls from people saying, "I'm concerned about my loved one in this area who may have been affected by the disaster."  And we simply have not been receiving that kind of input.  We've had very, very few inquiries.  So based on that, we're not aware of a lot of Americans who have been affected by this.  The assessment, obviously, is ongoing, and it's - we'll see what happens once the storm completely moves on.

MS TRUDEAU:  Thank you, ma'am.  And this will be our last question, David, please.

OPERATOR:  Last question comes from the line of Ronald Cesar with Voice of America.

QUESTION:  Hi, good morning.  This question is for Ambassador Kenneth Merten.  If you could repeat the thought about whether or not Haiti should hold elections on Sunday?  If you could repeat it in Creole, we would appreciate that.  And also, there are reports that there is a bridge that has collapsed in the town of Petit-Goave.  And that disconnects Port-au-Prince from three regions - like, the south, southwest or Grand'Anse  and the Nippes region.  Is there anything that will be done in terms of the assistance provided?  Will they assist - would the United States assist Haiti on that as well?

MR MERTEN:  Yeah.  I mean, I think we are aware of the situation with the bridge, and obviously that's something we'll be having conversations with the Haitian Government about.  Again, they are the ones that need to be in the lead in determining what their needs are and to help prioritize them.  So we'll be - I'm sure our colleagues from AID and other agencies will be looking at that very carefully. 

If you want me to say - I can just repeat what I said in Haitian Creole if you're okay with that.

(In Haitian Creole.)

MS TRUDEAU:  Thank you very much to all of our principals for joining us today.  As a reminder, this call was on record.  We will put out the transcript as soon as we're able.  So thank you to our principals, thank you to the journalists who joined us, and with this, the call's concluded. 

Washington, DC