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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs > Releases > Public Statements on South and Central Asian Policy > 2005

Special Briefing: U.S. Relief Efforts for Tsunami-Affected Countries

Andrew Natsios, USAID Administrator
Special Briefing
Washington, DC
January 10, 2005

video: high speed connectionvideo: dial-up speed connectionaudio

(12:45 p.m. EST)

MR. ERELI: Hello, everyone. We are very glad you are here for today's briefing on the upcoming Geneva donors’ conference for the tsunami victims. We are even more glad that USAID Director Andrew Natsios is here. You should know that he is here by a feat of strength and will, having arrived this morning at 2:30 a.m. with the Secretary, back from a whirlwind trip to the tsunami-affected countries of Indonesia and Sri Lanka and Thailand; then on to Sudan* and they came back this morning, early. They have met with the President and received the President at USAID headquarters. Andrew will be jetting off later today for the conference in Geneva.

So we really are lucky to have him, lucky that he is still standing, and look forward to his usual articulate self.

So, without further ado, I'll give you to Andrew Natsios, who will talk a little bit about what's coming up in Geneva, and then be available to answer your questions. Thank you.

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Thank you very much. AID is currently conducting one of the largest relief efforts in our agency's history in order to save people's lives who have been affected by the tsunami, to mitigated suffering and to reduce the economic effect of the disaster.

We did mobilize our resources on the 26th of December. A Response Management Team was set up, and we just had an event with President Bush at AID, where the people behind him at the event were the people from the RMT. And then we began sending out the Disaster Response Team.

*Note: Secretary Powell’s party traveled to Nairobi, Kenya for the signing ceremony of the Sudan comprehensive peace agreement.

There are currently about 150 AID officers working on this in the four countries that have been affected. We are the lead U.S. agency coordinating the operations of the disaster response,
working with the Department of State, particularly our embassies, and I want to comment that our Ambassadors are showing great leadership in coordinating with other donors, with UN agencies and international organizations in the NGO community, and working with us in our relationships with the governments.

These are all sovereign governments in functional democratic states with multiparty democracies. We need to understand that. This is not a post-conflict situation. These are not failed states. They were all functional states with bureaucracies that work. Secretary Powell and I were astonished at how far the Sri Lankans, the smallest of the countries that's been really severely affected, has made. They are already in the rehabilitation state even though they've lost, I think, 30,000 people in the disaster.

I think one of the things that struck us is the fact that in Aceh that there were two disasters on top of each other. First was the earthquake, and then was the tsunami that wiped clean what the earthquake hadn't destroyed.

Many of the interior roads and bridges in the province were destroyed by the earthquake. There was no tsunami -- this is a mountainous area, and so the interior of the island was unaffected by the tsunami, but 70 or 80 percent of the bridges are down in the areas that we have surveyed. There are teams going out now, combined AID/U.S. military assessment teams, and they were surprised at the level of destruction of the interior infrastructure from the earthquake. That's going to affect our ability to permanently get things in.

The Indonesians are beginning to send military units in to clear away the debris on the roads and we are going to have to start thinking through the repair of the bridges so we can use land to get a lot of the commodities in for the reconstruction of the region.

The Disaster Assistance Response Teams are now working very closely and coordinating and conducting assessments with the NGOs, with host nations who are in charge of -- as the first responders in this relief response, with United Nations agencies like the World Food Program and UNICEF, and with international organizations like the International Organization for Migration, which is one of our principal partner organizations in Banda Aceh.

I know that UNICEF has begun an immunization campaign in a couple of these countries, particularly Banda Aceh, where the immunization rates are very low, to prevent the potential spread of disease later on.

This is just the beginning. Of course, we are having a conference now on Tuesday of donors and countries affected by the tsunami over the question of rehabilitation and long-term reconstruction to be undertaken in the region. We will play a major role in this, along with a number of other countries, and I will be leading the U.S. delegation to that conference.

This morning, Secretary Powell and Governor -- I'm sorry, Secretary Powell and myself briefed President Bush on our trip and on the assessments we had done. The President asked us in detail exactly how we were going to coordinate all this to make sure it was organized properly; to make sure that there were high levels of accountability; that all of the assistance that was raised, particularly privately, was going to appropriately be spent. And he asked me what we were doing, and I told him I had asked the Inspector General to send -- to prepare a team to make sure that all of this is done to protect the integrity of the process and of the response.

Following that, the President came to AID and we met with the CEOs and -- or senior leaders -- because some of the CEO executives are out in the region now -- senior executives or the CEOs of 23 major NGOs that are doing response, and we had a 45-minute discussion about the details of what is happening in the field, what their observations are, what their problems are and how they are responding.

The President did say privately that he didn't want his appeal for funds to be in place of their contributions to other emergencies in the world, and then he mentioned it again when he spoke to the AID staff, and I want to repeat that. It is very important that those Americans who give money to nongovernmental organizations and charities that do work in the developing world not do this in addition to what they normally do. We do not want the relief response, for example, in Darfur, to be damaged by people not giving to their favorite charities that do work in civil wars and famines in remote areas of the world.

We are very much appreciative of the leadership the President has shown, and I personally want to thank Secretary Powell for his leadership in all this. Between the two of them, it's made a huge difference to all of us in the work we're doing now.

Finally, let me just say that we're looking now in the AID staff and the AID missions, because there are permanent AID missions in all four countries that will be handling the reconstruction and rehabilitation phases, working with our central offices here in Washington, and we're looking at four or five things that are very important right now.

The first is we are dealing with a population that has been severely traumatized. Many of the people have lost most of their extended families, their neighborhoods, all their friends, schools that the children would go to, all their businesses, livelihoods, jobs are all lost. And so people are going into shock -- some of them -- psychologically. And you can't see it from a distance, but when you talk to them you realize that they're not entirely aware of what's happening to them; their psychological state is such.

And we are beginning to, through the NGOs and working with the ministries of health, to prepare counseling that will allow some of the families, particularly the children, to deal with what they've been through because they will -- most of them will never finish dealing with these memories their entire lives and we need to understand that it's not just what you see, but what is behind the tragedy in people's minds and memories that count as well.

The second thing is we want to get business working as rapidly as possible at the local level because that provides jobs, it provides commodities in the markets for people to buy, and so we will be doing a small-scale micro-finance lending program. We have a huge lending program with 56,000 local chapters, micro-finance chapters, in Indonesia. We had 14 of these chapters just in -- with offices in Banda Aceh. Thirteen of the offices were completely destroyed and all the staff were killed in those -- only one of them survives in Banda Aceh of these micro-lending institutions we had set up. This was many years ago; these had been functioning for a long time. And so we may have to begin re-looking at the question of the infrastructure to do this micro-lending.

The third thing we're looking at is shelter. Secretary Powell has announced two programs on the trip: a $10 million jobs program to put people back to work with small amounts of money to get people to start working to do the cleanup; also as a form of occupational therapy where they will be working on something constructively in a physical way. And that will help them deal with the state of shock that many of them are in. But it also puts money in people's pockets because many of them have no money at all because it was destroyed in the catastrophe. And we want to do that to begin to bring local markets back, because you have to have demand in order to make sure the supply is there in a marketplace.

And the final thing is that the Secretary also announced is an additional $10 million shelter program, because in Sri Lanka, for example, many of the displaced people and homeless people are in 290 schools. Well, the Government of Sri Lanka properly wants the kids to go back to schools; it's the best thing that could happen to them. But there are displaced people in them. So we're working with the European Union now and UNHCR and ECHO, which is the Emergency Office of the European Union, with the British Government, a couple other governments, on a comprehensive shelter program for displaced and homeless people in Sri Lanka, to get them out of the schools into housing that will last for a few years before the reconstruction effort over the long term can be conducted.

Thank you very much. If any of you have questions, I'd be glad to answer them.


QUESTION: Could you tell us more about the conference starting tomorrow? Is it a pledging conference? Will it focus mostly on relief, rehabilitation or both -- short-term, medium-term, long-term? What can you say about it?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: I think it's all of those things, George. But let me just say, this is a little unusual. Usually what happens, even in a fast-onset disaster of this kind, is for there to be rapid assessments that take a few days, then a plan is put together, and then we ask for pledges.

We did it the opposite, and Secretary Powell has repeatedly said we're going to try to fix the system because we did it backwards. We did the pledging first, then we did the assessments, and then we did the plan. And we were doing pledges without a plan. And what Secretary Powell has said, and he's absolutely right from my experience over the last 15 years in disasters is, we need to make this need-driven rather than contribution-driven. And that's the focus.

The system needs to be that the field tells us what they need and we pull the resources from the donor governments and the central governments of these countries to the field, based on what they have done in assessing the requirements, as opposed to us pushing resources to the field without any demand for them. The demand is what should drive this, not contribution levels.

QUESTION: Is that field-driven stuff coming from the people that you have sent out there and other --

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: No, it's all -- the entire international community and the officials of the government. I want to repeat this again. These are all democratically elected governments. They have competent ministries. They can do this. They have their own disaster management agencies in existence in three of the four countries. And so our job is to support them. We need to make sure we are sensitive to the fact these are sovereign governments. We are not going in there to take anything over, we're simply helping them in doing the work they're doing.

QUESTION: Could you address more specifically the conference tomorrow?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: The conference will be focused on all three phases, George: the relief phase; the reconstruction -- the rehabilitation phase; and the reconstruction phase.

We've put it here -- this is how this works within the U.S. system -- we have the crisis event, whether it's a famine or civil war or an earthquake or a flood or a tsunami. The ambassador declares a disaster based on an appeal from the government of the country in which we're working. We mobilize the Disaster Assistance Response Team, the DART teams, and the RMT, which I mentioned earlier mobilized on Sunday. Then we do an emergency needs assessment, which is very rapid. This doesn't take months. It takes a couple of days, a few days. Then we begin the relief effort and then we move to rehabilitation and reconstruction, then long-term development. That's the sequencing of this.

QUESTION: How many countries will be there?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: I was told there are 80 countries, George, but that was three days ago and I bet more people have accepted. So I can't tell you for sure. That's an old figure.

QUESTION: So I have actually two questions. If you could just follow up on George's question --

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Ask one at a time because my memory is slowing down right now.

QUESTION: That's fine. Just to follow up with what George said --


QUESTION: -- you're going to be -- are you coming to this conference with a plan and with a need assessment of what needs to be done, or are you kind of heavy into this "we did it the wrong way" and we're just going to --

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: We actually didn't do it the wrong way.


ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: I mean, from an emergency management standpoint, we've done a very, very good job.

QUESTION: No, what I mean is, you said that Powell -- you said that the Secretary said we need to make it "need-driven."


QUESTION: Do you have your list of needs yet or not really?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Oh yes, we've had them for a week now.


ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: And we are doing that. Let me tell you how the system works. The U.S. military has a base of operations for the region in Thailand at the base. We organized AID officers to be there to do what's called validation on each tasking. We're using the Disaster Response System of the U.S. Forest Service, interestingly enough, which is a system FEMA uses and AID uses to respond to disasters, and we validate each of the missions that's being requested by the NGOs, international organizations and the UN before they're done to make sure that they're in an ordered set of priorities based on need. Because the military doesn't know how to do that. They don't know which NGO or which UN agency should be treated -- should be responded to first. We have an order based on our own technical understanding of how this stuff works, and it's working very well.

Lynn Pascoe, who is the Ambassador to Indonesia, told me a wonderful story of how these things are being integrated. There is a huge problem with clean water, particularly in Banda Aceh, from the sewage water being mixed with salt water being mixed with drinkable water. As a result of that, there's a serious sanitary problem, which could cause disease outbreaks. So the military said we can produce 90,000 tons of clean water on one of our ships, but we have no -- how are we going to get it to the half a million displaced people in the city? So one of our officers in the AID mission in Indonesia went out and bought 6,000 10-liter collapsible plastic water containers. We put them on a C-130 in four hours, shipped them out to Banda Aceh, the military picked them up, filled them all up, brought them back, and the NGOs now are distributing them to the displaced people in the shelter areas of the city.

So that's an integration of the US military response system, with the NGO response system, with the AID staff, the technical officers. We're doing this with the World Food Program, with UNICEF now, with IOM, which is doing a wonderful job, and that's how the system works.

QUESTION: So -- but just to kind of encapsulate, you're coming to this -- everyone's coming to this conference with a specific list of needs, and these pledges are in addition to what's already been pledged for the relief --

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: I don't think there are going to be further pledges. We have a billion -- we have a $950 million UN appeal, and $4 billion have been pledged. So we're four times over what the UN has requested for the earlier stages of this. I don't think there are going to be many more pledges. There could be; I don't know.

I'm hoping that -- and you never know what people are going to say -- they go to a conference and they can give whatever talk they want to. We need to focus our efforts on coordination, on the logistical systems, and on rapidly moving into the rehabilitation and reconstruction phases, working with the governments of the countries that were hosted by.

QUESTION: Just one more. You've been, as you said, doing this for 15 years and have covered a lot of disasters. Can you just talk, you know, give us a little bit of an impression about what you saw, and when you look at the enormous challenge ahead, how you feel that the region is poised to deal with this over the long-term?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Well, we saw very different levels of devastation and of need. Clearly, the most affected is Banda Aceh, in the province of Aceh, because it was right next to the epicenter of the quake, and the earthquake affected only Banda Aceh, or Aceh. It did not affect the other countries. What affected the other countries, plus Aceh, was the tsunami that followed.

I have never seen a disaster that affects 12 countries. We've never seen something like that before, of this magnitude. Apparently, one of the things that I had not fully understood is the waves, which normally move at 30 or 40 miles an hour -- you see surfers on waves, pretty high waves. These waves are comparable in size to some of the things you see on some of the surfing movies. But those waves travel at 30 miles an hour. These waves were moving at 500 miles an hour. So the velocity of the force is what did the destruction -- massive force. And it would just take a person and pound them against a wall and they would just die instantly.

There's a poignant story about members of our own staff who were vacationing in Phuket; it was Foreign Service Officer, his wife and five- and six-year-old sons. In the hotel they were in, 260 of the 280 people were killed. They had made a decision that morning -- and they told me they were kind of a little shocked by the whole things themselves -- to go kayaking on the other side of the island. So when the tsunami struck, they were protected by the island. When they went back, there was nothing left. They were in their bathing suits for three days before they got transferred back to Indonesia, where they were normally posted.

So you see that -- it's just so unusual to have it happen so rapidly in so many countries. And then the wave went all the way to Somalia -- 50,000 people have been affected in Somalia. We had to declare a disaster there.

So this has been very unusual for me. It's not the most massive loss of life. I have said that before. The North Korean famine killed two-and-a-half million people; the great typhoon of 1974 in Bangladesh killed 400,000 people; the earthquake in Yerevan, in Armenia, killed, like, 90,000 people. So we've had other disasters, but it's usually been located in one country, in one place -- not 12 countries spread over a large period.

So there are different levels of need, and the capacity of the governments to deal with this is very different. Banda Aceh is a very remote area. There's an insurgency going on. There's insecurity. There's also insecurity in the Tamil area in Sri Lanka, which is complicating this, and we're a little concerned about the security situation, particularly in Sumatra, in the Aceh area.

So it combines two disasters in 12 countries with insecurity, which is a little unusual in itself.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on this? You mentioned 12 countries, and I don't, frankly, know whether Myanmar/Burma, is one of those or not because nobody has mentioned it --


QUESTION: -- we haven't heard anything about the level of problem there if there is one. Do you have any information about it? And if so, can you tell us what it is and what the U.S. is doing, if anything?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Yes. The Myanmar fatalities have been under 100 -- have been relatively small. I assumed, in fact, Jim Kelly and I were on the trip together -- the Assistant Secretary of State for EAP, East Asia and Pacific. We looked at the map and we assumed that they were severely affected. But apparently, this is -- it's so spontaneous the way this happened; you'll see when Secretary Powell and I went along with Jim, along -- I don't think Jim went on that part of the trip -- in Sri Lanka, you'd see some areas on the coast that were completely untouched right next to an areas that was completely devastated, way in -- it's all a function of whether there was a coral reef to break the tsunami as it approached, whether -- what the height of the escarpment was as you went from the sand into the coastline itself. It's very random.

The initial reports from the Myanmar Government -- the Burmese Government was that there were minimal casualties. We did ask Secretary Powell, and you can -- I'll let you guess, but I'm not going to say -- we did ask whether there was any information from within the U.S. Government that could tell us what was happening on the ground from a distance, and our information is that there has been minimal damage in Myanmar or in Burma.

QUESTION: I have two questions. Can you talk a little bit about the security situation in Sumatra? You said you were concerned by that a little bit. And also, there's a report in today's Financial Times, which, the headline is, "Indonesia Delays U.S. Navy Aid Mission." It says that the U.S. wanted to deploy about 1,000 Marines on the west coast of Aceh and the Indonesian Government said no.

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: I can't respond to that because I don't know what conversation -- this is the first time I've heard of that. I do know that when I was there with Secretary Powell, an AID mission went in with helicopters -- I don't know whether they were Marine or Navy helicopters -- from one of the ships -- Bonhomme something or other, the name of the ship.

QUESTION: Richard.

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Richard, yes. They went up to this area here to do the first assessments anybody had done because many of these remote areas have not been touched by anybody on the coast area. And what's happened is very interesting. When people survived the tsunami in these areas, they went up into the hills and they stayed there. Many of them have broken bones and are severely physically traumatized and they're reluctant to come down now because you know there have been successive -- not just aftershocks but successive earthquakes.

This was a massive earthquake; a 9.0 on the earthquake's -- on the Richter scale, is the fourth worst in recorded history. There was an earthquake, I think, somewhere in the 6.0, which is a pretty good earthquake. These -- by the way, the Richter scale is not an arithmetic progression, it's a geometric progression, so a .8 -- or .6 scale is not a third higher than .4; it's massively more, it goes up. And so this was a huge earthquake and the tectonic plates that are connected to each other underneath the earth's surface that causes these earthquakes, when one moves it effects the other areas. And so we're going to see aftershocks or earthquakes caused by this movement for some time to come, hopefully nowhere near as disastrous as this one.

But I do not -- all I know is we sent teams in -- what's today? We were in Indonesia earlier last week and I know they went in because we're getting the response from them. So I don't know where that report came from.

QUESTION: And the security situation in Sumatra?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: There has been an insurgency going on for some time. This is the most fundamentalist area in all of Indonesia and it's been a hotbed for a long time now. The GAM, the G-A-M, which is the rebel movement, has announced sort of basically a truce to allow the relief workers to go in, but it is a difficult situation and there was a incident between the Indonesian military and the GAM on the one big road that goes along the northern coast into Banda Aceh from Medan, I think it's called, I think it was the mid part of last week. We had to stop a large relief convoy for eight hours because there was a firefight going on. So there is insecurity and we are concerned about that.

QUESTION: You mentioned immunizations.


QUESTION: And we've started to hear reports of some measle outbreaks. How bad are they and how widespread? Do you know?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: I only can talk to you about the reporting I have from our teams, from military teams and from our teams. We do not have any incidents of any disease epidemics.

One thing we did do, for example, in Banda Aceh to prevent that from happening is we were doing this -- it's a Bush Administration Presidential Initiative the President announced on clean water for the poor that predates the tsunami. It's interesting that it happened in a country that had an established distribution system.

It's a small bottle of -- it's called hydrogen -- I'm sorry, sodium hydrochloride, and it is -- you put a capful in a 10-liter water container, you mix it around, and it will purify the water. We passed out 62,000 of those in Banda Aceh to 62,000 families, and that's almost three-quarters of all the displaced people. So whenever they use their water, they're putting this in.

We have a factory in Jakarta that's been producing these for other parts of Indonesia, not related to the disaster, of 10,000 of these little bottles a day for the regular program. And thank heaven we had that in place because we just diverted some of the supplies to go to -- six days' worth to go to Banda Aceh. That's helping. And the military, you know, with the story I told earlier of the ship producing 90,000 gallons, so that's helping.

So we haven't seen much outbreak yet, but we're worried because it could start. And measles is something that, for a child that's not in particularly good health, under the age of five, there would be a 50 percent mortality rate if the child is malnourished or not in particularly good health, if they get measles. You know, here people -- kids don't die of measles, but in the developing world they do.

QUESTION: So there have been fears that the death toll could almost double because of the disease --

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Well, we need to be careful of the projections we're making. I don't think the death tolls are going to double from disease outbreak, but what we're doing now is to make sure that we don't have that happen. But I think we should be careful in making predictions under these circumstances.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Will the Geneva conference consider providing an early warning system against the tsunami for the future?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: I have no doubt that that will be discussed at the conference; however, the Japanese are sponsoring a conference and they have more experience than any country in the world, probably, with tsunami early warning systems, along with the U.S. I mean, we have our NOAA and our U.S. Geological Survey, work with UNESCO, a UN agency that has developed a number of early warning systems. OFDA, the AID Office of Disaster Response, put in place in the 1980s an early warning system for tsunamis off the coast of Chile because of a terrible disaster that killed thousands of people -- a tsunami -- in Chile. And we have early warning systems for typhoons off the coast of Vietnam, Bangladesh and all over the South Pacific.

But tsunamis are very unusual in the Indian Ocean. Only about 8 percent of recorded tsunamis are in that region, and so this is unusual.

I have been urging heads of state to consider a joint typhoon-tsunami early warning system, which would have different sensor devices. You know, we have our sensors from -- in Bangladesh connected to the weather -- U.S. weather service satellites and the system on the ground is the same system -- you can use it for any purpose. It's an alarm system in the villages. It goes on radio and TV, but it also makes a noise and people actually practice moving inland when a typhoon comes, based on this alarm system.

Well, we could do the same thing and tie the tsunami system in with the typhoon early warning system and use the same alarm and public notice system. You'll have to get the NGOs involved and local officials to make sure that there's an orderly departure from the area or there can be panic.

MR. ERELI: One or two more questions.

QUESTION: Sorry, it's a morbid question, but I wonder if you have an update among American citizens of confirmed dead and presumed --

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Adam probably knows that better than I.

MR. ERELI: We'll get that later at the briefing.


ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Thank you all very much.

MR. ERELI: Thank you all, Andrew. See you all in about a half an hour or so.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:17 p.m.)


Released on January 10, 2005

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