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U.S. Pledges ‘Full Support’ to Earthquake Victims in Haiti

January 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Margaret Warner explores how international groups are mobilizing emergency help for Haiti, and then Jim Lehrer speaks with Dr. Rajiv Shah of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
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MARGARET WARNER: Within hours, governments and aid organizations around the globe scrambled to mobilize a massive disaster relief effort for Haiti.

In Washington, President Obama promised all-out humanitarian and rescue operations for America’s Caribbean neighbor.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The people of Haiti will have the full support of the United States in the urgent effort to rescue those trapped beneath the rubble and to deliver the humanitarian relief, the food, water and medicine that Haitians will need in the coming days.

MARGARET WARNER: With the chaos on the ground in Haiti, and the U.N. peacekeeping operation there out of commission for now, the job of coordinating the massive international response to the tragedy has fallen to Washington. The U.S. isn’t functioning as a gatekeeper, but definitely as a clearinghouse.

The U.S. is mounting the biggest effort so far, headed by Rajiv Shah, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Shah told reporters today that the immediate focus is on saving lives and preparing for longer-term relief.

DR. RAJIV SHAH, administrator, United States Agency for International Development: 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.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. military is heavily involved as well.

General Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. Southern Command, said its push is to get assessment teams on the ground and to bolster Haiti’s battered infrastructure.

GENERAL DOUGLAS FRASER, commander, U.S. Southern Command: We’re focused on getting command-and-control and communications there, so that we can really get a better understanding of what’s going on. The bottom line to it is, we don’t have a clear assessment right now of what the situation on the ground is, what the needs within Port-au-Prince are, how extensive the situation is.

We also finally have a team that’s headed in to the airport. From my understanding, because my deputy commander just happened to be in Haiti when this situation happened on a previously scheduled visit, he has been to the airport. He says the runway is functional, but the tower doesn’t have communications capability. The passenger terminal is — has structural damage to it, so we don’t know what the status of it is.

MARGARET WARNER: Also headed Haiti’s way are U.S. Coast Guard vessels and an aircraft carrier, and being readied to deploy, 2,000 Marines to provide security or assist relief efforts.

Local search-and-rescue teams from Fairfax County, Virginia, and Los Angeles County will be among the first on the ground. The Fairfax County unit took about 70,000 pounds of equipment with them.

David Rohr is assistant chief of operations.

DAVID ROHR: Our role, once we arrive in country, is to go out. We will send a recon team out that has people from those different specialties. And they will survey the buildings. And they will look to see if we can do any surface rescues. They will evaluate buildings that have a higher probability of having live victims in them. And then — and we will set up search teams.

MARGARET WARNER: Dozens of other countries are also eager to help. Rescue squads and trained search dogs were being sent to Haiti from China, Britain, and Germany, which also pledged financial assistance.

GUIDO WESTERWELLE, foreign minister, Germany: We have already decided this morning to make aid in amount of one million euros available on humanitarian grounds, so that help can be administered quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: But all countries and agencies agree, it won’t be easy to operate. France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, spoke with reporters this morning.

BERNARD KOUCHNER: Let’s not have too many illusions. We have to act as quickly as possible. There is always some kind of difficulty accessing the damaged buildings.

MARGARET WARNER: Also mobilizing are the major international relief agencies and smaller ones. The International Red Cross said it would send a plane tomorrow loaded with body bags. And, online, agencies and individuals mobilized to gather donations and coordinate volunteer efforts.

JIM LEHRER: We get a further update now from Dr. Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the USAID agency.

I talked with him earlier this evening from the State Department, before I spoke with U.N. official John Holmes.

Dr. Shah, welcome.

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Doctor, how would you describe the extent of the U.S. assistance efforts this evening?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, first, let me just say that, especially with respect to this earthquake in Haiti, this has been — this has been the worst national disaster and the worst earthquake Haiti has had in centuries.

And, so, this is a tragic time and a tragic moment for the Haitian people and for the many American citizens that live and work and contribute to Haitian society. And our thoughts and prayers go out to them.

The president has ordered a swift, aggressive, and coordinated response. And we are working aggressively across the federal government to put together all the assets and capabilities we have to help embark on a search-and-rescue mission, to help evacuate key members of the U.S. personnel base that are there, and to help work with the Haitian government to first get through this immediate tragedy, and then lay the groundwork for an effort to rebuild and sustain the effort.

So — so, we are doing absolutely everything we can right now, and we are following the president’s very strong involvement in order to make sure that we are swift, we are aggressive, and we are coordinated in doing this work.

JIM LEHRER: Now, when you say everything, is step number one, priority number one to find victims, dead or alive, and get that situation taken care of first?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Yes, our number-one goal in the first 72 hours after a disaster like this is to save lives. And, so, we have stood up and are deploying multiple urban search-and-rescue teams. These are teams that are trained and have technical capability, equipment, and experience in going into these types of situations in urban areas, digging through rubble, searching for survivors, and doing everything we can to help the Haitian people and to help American citizens…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DR. RAJIV SHAH: … and so many others have from the international community survive, to the extent that that is possible, in the first 72 hours.

JIM LEHRER: How many teams are going, and have any of them arrived yet, and what’s the plan for their arrival?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, we do have a number of teams stood up. We are working effectively with the Department of Defense and our military capabilities to use military transport to make sure we get these teams on the ground in Haiti.

We have one team on the ground, and we will expand that number significantly over the next few hours and through the night. These teams, when they get on the ground, will work all night. They will deploy. And they will begin the work as soon as they get there.

So, each — each team is about 72 people. They have technical training, and they have equipment and capabilities. We’re also working across the international community, working with partners like the United Kingdom, the Dominican Republic, and others that are providing different resources that will be part of this effort and that will be important logistic support and additional personnel to help this be as successful as is possible in this short time frame.

JIM LEHRER: So, some Americans who were there when the earthquake hit, you’re trying to bring some of those out, but you’re bringing other Americans in to help in the rescue effort; is that correct?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: That is correct.

Of course, the Americans we’re bringing in are technical — technically-trained professionals in disaster assistance and response. They will be doing the surveillance. They will be coordinating with the United Nations and their capabilities to make sure that we identify the most important targets and begin working in those buildings.

And they will be, again, laying the plans and the groundwork for what we hope is a significant rebuild effort and — and disaster recovery effort. So, we’re — we’re sending in technicals and professionals to do a very difficult job in a very difficult context.

As you know, they’re still experiencing tremors and other aftershocks from the earthquake. And, so, it is a difficult environment. A number of our partners have lost many, many of their team members. And it’s a difficult environment, but we’re going to work aggressively, and we’re going to work across the federal government, so the State Department and the Department of Defense will provide significant support for the efforts, and as are others.

We’re working with the Department of Health to stand up the medical units that we’re working with, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to make sure we expand our search-and-rescue effort as quickly as possible.

JIM LEHRER: From your perspective, from people that you have on the ground and any other contacts, can you add any light to the — what the disaster in human terms is right now, in other words, what the death toll and the possible injury toll is at that stage?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, this is — this is a tremendous disaster of significant scale. I don’t think it is helpful to try to guess numbers at this point.

Our sole focus, per the president’s strong guidance, is to focus on saving lives in the first 72 hours.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DR. RAJIV SHAH: And that’s exactly what we will do. So, we will look for opportunities to do good in that way. And that’s on behalf of the American people. And — and we have skilled, trained professionals that can do that. They’re getting there. And they’re going to start getting to work.

JIM LEHRER: As you look at the situation now — I realize we’re only 24 hours into this — what are the priorities in terms of needs? Is the priority to send professionals like you’re sending, technical people, as you said? Is it money? Is it food? Is it medical supplies? What exactly do the — is the — what are the critical needs right now, and how would you characterize them?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, we’re — first, I will say we’re trying to do a number of things to meet some needs. One of the needs is here in the United States, is making sure that people have the ability to access information about their loved ones and their family members that may be in Haiti.

We have set up a State Department hot line at 888-407-4747, so Americans can call into that number and enquire about family members in Haiti.

But, in terms of needs in Haiti, they are perhaps what you would expect. In the first 72 hours, it is urban search-and-rescue. It will be heavy equipment to clear debris and to try and identify individuals that we think we can save and lives we can save.

Of course, beyond that, there will be significant health and medical needs. There will be significant water, sanitation needs. And we’re working on making plans to make sure that food is available and accessible in safe and secure environments.

We’re also keeping our eye on the security situation and a number of other sectors where we will be very focused as this unfolds over the coming days and weeks.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Dr. Shah, thank you very much.

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Thank you, Jim.