Below is the full transcript of a State Department briefing on Haiti held this afternoon, Friday, February 12th, in Washington, DC. The briefing is opened by Assistant Secretary P.J. Crowley and follows with a question and answer session with U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Ken Merten.
MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Department of State. For those of you out there in our viewing area wondering where the heck have you guys been for the past week, obviously, we in Washington, D.C., have been experiencing an unusual amount of snow. So rather than doing briefings here from the podium, all of us have been home shoveling and doing other things just to survive Snowmageddon here in Washington, D.C. But we have had intrepid members of the State Department press corps with us during the course of the week and we’ve been able to try to continue business under arduous circumstances relative to Washington, D.C. I know there are some people out in the Midwest when I say you guys don’t get anything out there. But anyway, so we’re back in business and obviously pleased to see many familiar faces here back in the briefing room.
We are at one month beyond the Haiti earthquake, and we thought it was a wonderful opportunity having Ambassador Ken Merten here in Washington this week to bring him down just to kind of really give you a sense from the ground view of what is happening in Haiti, how Haiti has been able to cope and begin to recover from the devastating earthquake of a moment ago – of a month ago.
Haiti is now experiencing a three-day period of national mourning. Obviously, we stand with Haiti as it goes through this difficult timeframe. But I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to have our intrepid ambassador, who’s been leading an extraordinary effort on the ground in Haiti, begin the briefing and just kind of give you a sense of where we are here 30 days on.
Ken, thanks for joining us.
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: My pleasure. Thanks, P.J. Some of you I’ve seen down in Haiti. It’s nice to see you back all in one piece. I thought it might be useful for you all if I could give you a little picture of sort of where I see our efforts one month after the quake and give you, obviously, a chance to ask some questions on things that are of interest to you.
I’d like to start out, however, by giving a brief plug to my colleagues at the Embassy. I think those of us here from the United States can be really proud of our American diplomats, aid professionals, and soldiers on the ground who have helped deliver an immense amount of aid and relief to very, very needy people. I would ask you to keep in mind that in many cases the people providing this assistance, certainly amongst the Embassy and some of the AID staff, these are people who in many cases lost everything they owned that’s down in Haiti. They had their houses completely flattened. They’ve lost clothes, momentos, pictures. We’ve lost some colleagues down there. We have one of our Foreign Service colleagues died in the crash – in the earthquake. We have others that are still hospitalized. So it’s been a difficult period for us as well, but I’ve been very, very proud of everybody in the U.S. Government who’s down there doing, I think, fantastic work in terms of getting aid and relief to the needy Haitians.
One month on, where are we? I think we are in a very good place in terms of food distribution and water distribution and getting medicines out to needy hospitals. We, working with our international partners, particularly the World Food Program, we’ve been able to almost routinize the distribution of food in the greater Port-au-Prince area to the 16 sites where it is delivered on a daily basis. We’re giving people two-week rations of food. We’ve giving people things they like to eat, things like rice, things like bulgur wheat, beans, that sort of thing. That’s an improvement, at least in terms of the Haitian perception of our effort.
Obviously, we face ongoing challenges. I think our next issues we’re most concerned about are sanitation issues and shelter issues, particularly regarding short-term shelter. As I’m sure you probably all heard people talk about, we’re coming up in the coming weeks onto the rainy season. We want to do the best we can to make sure we’ve reached and touched as many people as possible, as many families as possible, with plastic sheeting, which is what we are distributing, so that they can take that sheeting and either put it where they are currently staying or take that to where they ultimately plan on moving permanently, and they can use that as a construction material.
Sanitation issues, as you obviously know, there are many people who are not in their houses who are in these temporary camps at various open spaces around Port-au-Prince, whether it’s the soccer stadium or the park in front of the national palace or many other places. We’re working to provide those people with sanitation latrine facilities or portable toilets, where appropriate. We’re not where we want to be with that yet, but it’s an ongoing effort and we are working day and night to get those facilities as good as they possibly can be for the Haitians who have been displaced from their houses.
Again, I think in terms of international cooperation, I’ve been very, very pleased at the cooperation on the ground, not only interagency amongst the United States agencies and NGOs on the ground, but with our international partners. We’re working hand in glove with MINUSTAH down in Haiti, both the civilian and the military wing.
In terms of humanitarian aid delivery, we are working very closely with many other big donors down there – thinking, first come to mind, the French, Canadians, EU, many others. I’m sure there are many others I’m not mentioning.
And I think, frankly, it’s working really well, and I believe that this will be something that people will be able to look back on in the future as a model for how we’ve been able to sort ourselves out as donors on the ground and responding to an earthquake.
Beyond that, I will stop my own remarks and let you ask whatever questions you might have. Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, I’m Bob Burns from AP. I wonder if you could give us a rundown on the communications you’ve had, contacts you’ve had with President Clinton, over the last couple of days. There was a report that he was on a Haiti conference call even while he was in the hospital yesterday. Were you part of that? Have you talked to him today?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: I was not part of that conference call. I’ve not talked with him. I read the same reports in the newspaper you have on that particular issue.
QUESTION: If he’s actually sidelined for some period of time, what do you think would be the effect on the effort to help Haiti?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: President Clinton brings a tremendous amount of personal popularity and respect to the whole international effort in Haiti. The Haitian – he’s very popular in Haiti. I’m sure all Haitians join me in wishing him a speedy, speedy recovery. Beyond that, there’s not much more I want to say on the issue. I think it’s pure speculation at this point, so –
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Ambassador, nice to see you –
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Hi, good to see you again.
QUESTION: Mary Beth Sheridan from The Washington Post.
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Yep.
QUESTION: There was a report in the Miami Herald yesterday that the U.S. had given the Haitian Government sort of a draft plan to look at that talked about some sort of reconstruction authority. Could you describe what is envisioned or, you know, what’s laid out in that draft?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Yeah. There are – President Obama has asked us to be as thoughtful as possible in getting ideas to the Haitian Government and the Haitian people. We are trying to do that. Other donors are trying to do that. I’m sure that there are other donors that have shared thoughts with the Haitian Government. In terms of the specific, there are – specifics, there are ongoing conversations. Frankly, at this point, I’ve been out of Haiti since Monday morning; I’m not sure I want to characterize it more than that because I’m probably somewhat behind the curve in the ongoing discussions. Ultimately, it’s going to be the Haitians who decide on what they want to do in terms of their reconstruction effort and any sort of architecture, so it will be their decision at the end.
QUESTION: Hi. We had a reporter today at the airport who said a pretty key tent that the U.S. was using for agents to process people for evacuations to the U.S. is being brought down. Is that an indication of what’s happening with the evacuation effort? Is that winding down?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: What I know is that the numbers of Americans asking to be evacuated from Haiti has gone down in recent days, frankly, probably since last week sometime. I would note that up until now, as of Tuesday, I believe, we’d evacuated over 15,000 Americans from Haiti, which, as far as I know, is a record. It beats the Lebanon evacuation of 2006, so that’s a lot of people. But the numbers have gone down. I don’t know about the tent, I don’t know about the status of the tent, but our American citizens services operation in country has been able to go back to doing other – providing other services for American citizens who were there, such as providing passports and notarizing documents in cases of lost houses, property, and so forth, because that demand for evacuation has tapered off. So I don’t know the specifics on the tent, but that’s the situation on the ground.
QUESTION: Ken, nice to see you.
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Good to see you again.
QUESTION: Forgive me if you – if this was raised as I was walking into the room, but I wanted to ask you about the discussions regarding the 10 American citizens who were initially charged. Can you be crystal clear with us about the nature of the discussions that the U.S. Government had with the Haitian Government about their fate? Did the U.S. Government or U.S. officials ever make any kind of request that they be released? Was there any detailed discussion about the facts of their cases and the circumstances surrounding their arrests and so on? Just walk us through that, if you would.
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Sure. I mean, as I understand it, these people – this group of 10 citizens has – had been arrested by Haitian authorities. To the best of my knowledge, that the arrest and incarceration of these people has been done according to Haitian law. We have had an appropriate level of consular access to people. We’ve been able to determine that they’re being fed, kept safe, and that they’re getting their medicines.
Beyond that, we have had – told the Haitian Government that if they want to have any conversations with us about these people and their situation, we are open to that. But beyond that, they’ve engaged legal counsel and the process is working its way through the Haitian courts. Beyond that, I’m not sure there’s really much else to tell, quite frankly.
QUESTION: Did the Haitians ever – did the Haitian Government ever express a desire to talk to the U.S. Government about the – their cases or not?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: A desire to talk about it? I wouldn’t characterize it as a desire. We told them that we are – if they find themselves at a point where they want to have a discussion with us about that, we’re happy to talk with them.
QUESTION: But there has been no such discussion?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Not that I can recall. Not with me, in any case.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, can we just follow up? Charley Keyes, CNN.
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Yeah.
QUESTION: From where you stand, has the case of the 10 Americans become a distraction to the overwhelming needs – emergency assistance needs of the Haitian people?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: I’m not sure it would cause a distraction. I’m sure to the families – to those 10 individuals and their families and loved ones, it’s not a distraction. I’m sure it’s an issue of high importance to them, which is as it should be. I would just ask people to remember the fact that there are up to a million and a half Haitians in the Port-au-Prince area who are out of their houses and who are homeless and who are desperate for humanitarian aid and medical care. So I think I certainly would not categorize this as a distraction, but I think we also have to realize there is a large, large humanitarian issue that’s out there as well.
QUESTION: On that same issue, can you just update us on the status of the 10 Americans right now? And what’s your understanding – if and when they are released, will they – do you have any idea if they’re going to face any kind of repercussions or legal action in the U.S., anything?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: I don’t know on that last question. As to where they are right now, to the best of my knowledge – and keep in mind that I’ve been out of Haiti since Monday midday – my understanding is they’re still in the jail where they’ve been kept safe and getting their food and so forth. So –
QUESTION: And if they are, in fact, released, or when they are released, U.S. Embassy personnel – your staff – will take custody of them, essentially, and help them get out of the country? Is that correct?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Yeah. I’m not a consular specialist, but typically, I believe – I know that we monitor cases of Americans who were incarcerated. And presumably, if they need assistance in getting out of the country, we would probably do our best to provide them with that assistance. Beyond that, I would ask you maybe to go check with our Consular Affairs Bureau to make sure what exactly we are permitted to do according to the law. I just don’t want to mislead you on that and give you some incorrect story that – just because of my own ignorance, so – yeah.
QUESTION: It’s my understanding that about 49,000 tents were delivered of about 200,000 expected, and those deliveries have now stopped. Why not focus on tents instead of plastic sheeting?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: I’m not going to agree or disagree with your numbers. I’m not sure that they’re right. We are mostly delivering plastic sheeting, and the reasons for that are several. First of all, as I understand it, the plastic sheeting is actually more effective in protecting people from rain, number one.
Secondly, tents, especially small pup tents, are good for one thing, and that’s sleeping. The plastic sheeting can be used effectively as a building material. For example, when people are – as they currently are, at a temporary location, they can either use blocks or sticks to put up the tent. We’re giving them out, in most cases, with a kit which explains to people the various ways they can use them. This plastic sheeting can be used in their temporary location to provide shelter against the rain. When they move to construct new houses – in many cases, these folks are going to have to do – they can take the sheeting. And as they build their house, before they actually put a roof on a room or two – they can use the sheeting as part of the new house, as a temporary part. So it serves in sort of two phases.
Secondly, if you’re talking about larger tents where you’re having sort of six people inside or larger, I think most people would agree that you don’t have the sort of privacy and dignity that you might have in your own sort of self-constructed shelter. And I think that’s another advantage, because we’re giving these out to families so that people can be amongst themselves in a family.
Under these things, under the plastic sheeting, you can sit, you can stand, you can cook. It’s a much more flexible tool than the tent. And again, it’s – as from my understanding, is better in terms of protecting from rain, given the thickness of the plastic.
QUESTION: So how many of these sheets do you expect to give out? And then after the sheets are delivered, what’s the next step as far as helping with housing and rebuilding?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Again, as I understand it, we’re in the process of delivering the sheets. We have a lot of the plastic that’s already been – that is already in country. What needs to be done now is we hope to use local labor and to continue to cut the sheets in the appropriate size so that people can use. It’s going to take a number of weeks, at least, to get this out to everybody who needs it. I would remind you that we’re not the only people on the ground doing this. There are others providing this type of assistance as well. We’re coordinating with them to make sure we’re not duplicating our efforts. But it’s something that we’re working on now.
QUESTION: Do you have an idea of a number?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: I don’t off the top of my head. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: So what’s the next step?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: After the shelter? I mean, I think the next step is a broader question of which, obviously, the Haitians are going to need to make some determinations on, in terms of where people can rebuild again, where they’re allowed to rebuild, are they allowed to rebuild. If you’ve been in Port-au-Prince, I think you will know that there are places where houses have been built before, in various steep hillsides, where if we were to have another earthquake at some point in the future, might not be the best place to build. Again, that’ll be a determination that’ll need to be made by the Haitian Government, not by us.
There are also people who, in the past, built on areas that are likely to flood. And as we know, in previous rainy seasons, hurricane season, there’s been loss of life. If I were in the Haitian Government, I would want to discourage people from rebuilding in those areas. But those will be the next steps where the Haitian Government is able to determine, okay – (a), the rubble has been cleared from this section of town and you can go back and build here. I mean, that’s how I imagine it moving forward.
QUESTION: Who is doing that kind of city planning where – I mean, is there a ministry in Haiti that did that kind of thing before? And do they have enough people who have survived and who have those skills and so on?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: There are several entities that do that kind of work. There’s the ministry of plan and economic development which would have a role in that. However, in the past, their role has been largely focused on working with international donors and trying to coordinate their efforts in the country writ large. They also have a ministry of public works. Oftentimes, you’ll see it – the anagram is TPTC. They are the ones who are most involved in terms of urban planning, in terms of building streets, widening streets, that sort of thing.
Thus far, I think the ministry of public works is going to have a role – a key role in that. President Preval has also named three individuals, one of whom is the current minister of tourism but is an architect and an urban planner by training, by background. His name is Patrick Delatour. He is involved in this, working through their ideas of reconstruction. There’s also a man named Charles Clermont who is involved in that as well, who is from the private sector. And there’s another individual whose name is not coming to me right now involved in that.
So they are gripped with these issues. They are thinking them through. We have offered our assistance to them. And I say “we” – I use that as the very broad “we”, as in we, the international community. Where appropriate, we have resources upon which they can draw, I think. We have been in discussions with them. I’m not sure how far advanced or how – I hate to use the word “concrete” – those plans are, but that’s an ongoing effort.
QUESTION: I heard you say in your opening remarks that you thought that eventually, the response to the earthquake might be seen as a model. And I realize it’s only a month since it happened, but I would be interested in your sort of lessons learned thoughts. Are there things that would have been helpful to you the first day, the first week, the second week? Are there other ways that this could have been handled, perhaps even better?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Being completely frank with you, I have not really had a chance to sort of sit back and think through my lessons learned list at this point. There are some things I’m very thankful that we did do as an embassy community. I can tell you those. Those are probably too much of a micro level for you to be interested in. But I will say, and at the risk of sounding like I’m patting myself on the back, but I will say that I think the fact that we had very good relations with all the other international players on the ground prior to the earthquake has really helped smooth the relationship on the ground with all these new actors that have come in, not only from the U.S. but from elsewhere – U.S. military, the USAID DART team and all these other people from various agencies of the U.S. Government.
Similar governments have had other interagency responses. France, for example, has had their gendarmerie come, they’ve had some soldiers come, they’ve had fire and rescue workers come. I’m sure they’ve had other people come that I don’t know of. Canada as well. Canada has had a large interagency presence.
And I think the fact that we had a very frank and open and, I think, well working mechanism for coordinating amongst ourselves prior to the earthquake has allowed us to sort of allow that to continue at a larger level. So again, maybe that’s a bit self-serving, but that’s my one takeaway I have for you at this point. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: I’m wondering if you can update us on the cash-for-work program, if you have any updated figures. And if the people who are participating, are they still mainly engaged in removing rubble?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: At this point, to the best of my knowledge, people are – the cash-for-work is focused on removing rubble. USAID, as I recall, has two separate $50 million programs out there which will be run over the coming months, focused at (a) providing money for people to buy food and keep themselves in clothing and so forth, but also to actually help clear the rubble, which is a gargantuan task.
I mean, simply step number one is going to be keeping the streets clear or getting the streets clear. Again, I don’t know how many of you have been down there to see it, but in many cases these buildings simply collapsed into the street, and a lot of these roads are impassible. So you see a lot of these folks working out there with sledgehammers and picks and shovels and brooms, and they’re putting the stuff together and ultimately dumping it in these big dump trucks and clearing the roads.
You had one other aspect to the question which I don’t think I answered.
QUESTION: Just if you – the number of people, an update on the number of people who might be participating?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: I’m afraid I don’t have that at the top of my head. I don’t want to mislead you or give you a wrong number.
QUESTION: Can you just give us a snapshot of the operations of the Embassy now as compared to before the earthquake and what’s some of the things that are being done that weren’t being done before, and vice versa?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Well, as I mentioned, on the consular side, which is, in a case like this, where we obviously put a huge amount of effort because the primary goal is going to be to look after the well-being of American citizens who are overseas. As I said, early on, the first two weeks plus, our effort was people who wanted to get out, they wanted to get out with their families, so our effort was focused on that.
As time has passed, we’re having people come in, American citizens come in, who are either from other parts of the country or, for whatever reason, they’ve decided to stay; they feel they have a role to play in the rebuilding effort and the cleanup effort, or they feel that they’ve made their lives there and they want to stay. They may need help in replacing lost passports, which is going to be a problem for everybody there because many people lost, in some cases, all the documentation they had in the earthquake. Some people need to prove that they own property if they’re going to start rebuilding a house, so they need to get papers notarized, et cetera, that sort of thing.
Early on, most of our people were focused on aiding in any way we could. We had pushed a lot of people out of our political and economic sections into the consular section to help with that effort. Now, as those things have taken something of a step back, we’re having our officers going back to working on issues like political reporting, working with the various political actors in country, figuring out their ideas for moving forward, and reporting that back to Washington.
On the economic side, our folks are working on things like what’s it going to take to get American carriers back up and running at the airport and whatever support they may need in that regard.
The Embassy management section and public affairs section – public affairs I’ll talk about first. I mean, we’ve obviously had a huge wave of public affairs interest, lots of press people down in country. Thankfully, across the board, we’ve had a lot of help from our colleagues in Washington and other embassies in the region who volunteered to come and work there and, in many cases, dispel our colleagues who had been there basically for three weeks without a break.
And the management section down there, the administrative section, has just had a huge job keeping body and soul together, keeping the Embassy, frankly, simply running under very difficult circumstances. We had a situation where we had many hundreds of people on the Embassy compound, many more than the place was ever designed for. We had things like – we had over a hundred surgeries done in our main conference room, including four amputations. I mean, this is the kind of atmosphere we had in the Embassy.
So trying to get the place in some semblance of normalcy after that is going to be a huge task. And again, just making sure that people can go back to their houses in the fullness of time, those that still have them. I don’t want to leave out our colleagues in the security section as well at the Embassy. They have done a terrific job in terms of making sure that various neighborhoods are safe for us to go back to and, frankly, enabling a lot of the search-and-rescue workers who came down, especially in the immediate weeks after the earthquake, to go out and do their job with some semblance of security and safety. And then our USAID colleagues are going to be bearing the brunt of a lot of this work as we move forward. There’s going to be, as you can imagine, a huge effort of reconstruction and rebuilding, and they’ll be in the forefront of that.
So, anything else?
MR. CROWLEY: Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: Ken, thanks for the great work. Appreciate it.
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Oh, it’s my pleasure.