Press Briefing By Maria Echaveste, Deputy Chief Of Staff;
Eric Schwartz, Senior Director Of Multilateral Affairs,
Nsc; J. Brian Atwood, Administrator, Usaid; Brigadier
General Robert Wagner, Director For Operations, Jcs;
And Jim Schroede...
1:00 P.M. EST
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release November 5, 1998
Press Briefing By
Maria Echaveste, Deputy Chief Of Staff;
Eric Schwartz, Senior Director Of Multilateral Affairs, Nsc;
J. Brian Atwood, Administrator, Usaid;
Brigadier General Robert Wagner, Director For Operations, Jcs; And
Jim Schroeder, Deputy Under Secretary, Usda,
On The Administration's Response To Hurricane Mitch
1:00 P.M. EST
MR. LEAVY: Good afternoon, welcome to the White House
and a briefing on the administration's response to Hurricane Mitch.
We have a couple of people from different agencies joining us today.
Let me just introduce who is going to be speaking to you.
First is Maria Echaveste, the Deputy Chief of Staff.
The President has asked Maria to head an interagency task force in
response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch. Consistent
with Maria's portfolio, which includes overseeing Latin America
affairs, generally, she has been working with the NSC, AID, and the
State Department and other government agencies, coordinating our
long-term and medium-term response.
Also we have Eric Schwartz, who is the Senior Director
for Multilateral Affairs at the NSC, who has been coordinating our
efforts there. Third, the Agency for International Development
Administrator Brian Atwood, who is also the President's Special
Coordinator for Foreign Disasters, who will detail our humanitarian
response. Fourth, to talk about the military's contribution to the
effort is Brigadier General Robert Wagner, the Deputy Director for
the Joint Chiefs. And finally, from the Agriculture Department,
Deputy Under Secretary Jim Schroeder will talk about the Agriculture
Department's contributions to this effort. Then we will take your
MS. ECHAVESTE: Thank you, David. I think we've all
been really struck by the tremendous human tragedy in terms of what
Hurricane Mitch has done to the Central American countries, and in
particular, Honduras and Nicaragua. But the administration has since
Mitch hit land, has been pulling together resources, trying to be as
helpful as possible in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
We have long and close ties with the people in
governments of Central America, and we have many Americans who have
family and cultural ties. Frankly, we've been inundated with calls
from people from Los Angeles, from Louisiana, from different parts,
asking the federal government to please respond to this tragedy.
In light of this devastation,the President has asked
Mrs. Gore to lead a presidential mission to Honduras and Nicaragua.
She will travel on November 10th and 11th to demonstrate our
commitment to assisting the people of Central America. Mrs. Gore
will deliver supplies and participate in disaster relief efforts.
She will be joined by Brian Atwood -- you're going to hear from him
in a moment -- from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
We will also be inviting a small delegation from Congress to join the
mission. We think it's important for members of Congress to see
firsthand the destruction and the need for American aid.
To continue our efforts, the First Lady, who had
previously been scheduled to travel in the region, is changing her
plans and will make brief stops in Nicaragua and Honduras on November
16th. She will then go on and visit El Salvador, Guatemala, in
addition to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which you may recall is
also recovering from the impact of Hurricane Georges.
Mrs. Gore is committed to helping disaster-affected
people throughout the world. Her 1994 trip to Central Africa,
following the tragic genocide in Rwanda that resulted in over 800,000
deaths helped draw attention to the crisis and lead to increase
private contributions to relief organizations. She hopes to expand
awareness throughout the U.S. and the world on the devastation faced
by the people of Central America in order to encourage a global
relief effort. And we are going to continue to coordinate with
various agencies and organizations to ensure that this devastation is
responded to in the most expeditious manner, both in the short-term
and the long-term.
So I will leave you in the very capable hands of Brian
MR. SCHWARTZ: I'm not Brian Atwood. I'm Eric Schwartz,
Special Assistant to the President for Multilateral and Humanitarian
Affairs, here at the National Security Council. Hurricane Mitch left
in its wake a catastrophe of tragic proportions. Thousands have
died. Nearly 2 million people have been displaced. Water systems
have been damaged and destroyed. The disaster calls for a major
humanitarian response from the United States. And President Clinton
has directed us all to do everything possible to alleviate suffering
in the region, to address immediate relief needs, and to begin
planning for reconstruction.
As my colleagues from the Agency for International
Development, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Department of
Agriculture will indicate we are, indeed, moving at full speed to
meet the need. Our actions reflect both our values and our interests
as we have close and longstanding ties with the people of Central
America. Many Americans, as Maria said, have close family and
cultural connections. And this disaster strikes just as these
countries were turning the corner to a new era of stronger
democracies, economic development, and modern institutions.
Over the last several years, as these countries have
labored intensively to rebuild their societies from the long period
of civil war and civil conflict and to strengthen their young
democracies, the U.S. has invested significant resources to assist
them. The President, in fact, met with Central American leaders just
last year in Costa Rica to deepen our partnership around these
Before the storm hit these countries were making great
progress toward strengthening their democracies, expanding and
integrating their economies, opening markets and improving the lives
of their people. Now they face massive needs that will take years to
address. And we have an obligation to help them get back on their
feet. With that in mind, the President is directing that in addition
to the current effort and everything you will hear about later, the
President is directing that up to $30 million in Department of
Defense articles and services be provided for disaster relief in
Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The assistance, the
nature of which General Wagner can address in greater detail, will be
available for provision and transport of emergency supplies, and
search and rescue personnel, engineering support to address the
devastation of infrastructure, and other items.
This initiative, combined with other activities about
which my colleagues will brief you, reflect our commitment to do all
that we can to alleviate the effects of this disaster.
ADMINISTRATOR ATWOOD: Thank you very much. I'm Brian
Atwood of USAID, and not Eric Schwartz. This, obviously, is a
tragedy to these countries. We estimate that some 25 years of
investment and infrastructure has been destroyed by this disaster. I
want to basically talk about how this was caused and how this evolved
This as perhaps what is becoming a typical disaster in
today's world of El Ninos and global climate change, but in effect,
we saw a hurricane that was considered to be a Category 5 hurricane
sitting off the coast of Belize on about October 23, when the first
disaster declaration was made. We pre-positioned supplies, brought
in an 18-member DOT team for each of the five countries, listened
very carefully to the projections that were being made by the Miami
Hurricane Center on the trajectory of this storm, assumed that it
would move from Belize through Mexico -- I don't know if we have a
map here, just to give you some indication.
This is where the storm was initially. It then moved
down to the coast of Honduras. It was then downgraded on about the
26th of October to a tropical storm. Its winds went from 180 miles
per hour down to about 45 miles per hour. It then very slowly moved
across Honduras and dumped about 50 inches of rain on that country.
This is what caused the devastation. It went directly
across the capital to Tegucigalpa. You know the story about the
mayor who was trying to survey the damage and was killed in an
airplane crash. During this period of time it was impossible to get
helicopters or anything into the air to provide surveillance so that
you could do an assessment of the damage.
The hurricane then moved across Nicaragua, the
northwestern part of Nicaragua, and in this red circle here is where
the volcano collapsed. Basically, the walls of the volcano
collapsed. The hurricane then had moved across parts of El Salvador
and through Guatemala and, of course, is now hitting the coast of
Florida, where it has once again picked up speed -- at least the
winds have. So this is a long evolving crisis.
We attempted to deal with this by deploying the Search
and Rescue Team of Miami Dade Rescue Center throughout this region.
Our AFDA office in Costa Rica was deployed fully. We have, to date,
expended some $3.7 million in trying to deal with the immediate
consequences of this, and we are announcing today that we will be
providing $20 million of Title II food aid that will be airlifted
into this region, starting Saturday. Our Assistant Administrator for
the Bureau of Humanitarian Relief, Hugh Palmer, who is here, will be
accompanying a 747 out of New Orleans on Saturday. We will be making
enough movements of two 747 in the region to provide 2,800 metric
tons of food. We hope that by the time that food is delivered, that
we will have a distribution line set up through shipping out of --
mostly out of New Orleans, which is the center where we purchase the
Departure of Agriculture wheat and commodities to send under our
Title II program.
We are also announcing today the provision of an
additional $16.3 million worth of fuel, transport, medicine -- all of
the things that we provide -- shelter, equipment, and the like that
we provide under the Office of Foreign and Disaster Assistance.
That's a total of $40 million. This is just to deal with the
humanitarian consequences of this. This is just to save lives. We
are at risk of seeing disease and major problems resulting from
people being stranded without food for more than five or six days now
in some parts of Honduras.
We are also, as Eric Schwartz indicated and as General
Wagner will be able to explain more fully, going to be deploying more
equipment. We've had 17 helicopters, which is an adequate number for
us to have in Honduras, which was the place that suffered the brunt
of the storm in the first phase. We're going to be deploying more
helicopters and equipment in Nicaragua, which has clearly suffered
from mudslides and various other aspects of this storm.
This is the worst disaster that we've seen in this
hemisphere. I hope it is not portent of things to come. But we -- I
want to make it very, very clear that the disaster was made much
worse as a result of the El Nino effect of last year that had this
whole region in drought. Much of the vegetation that normally would
have protected against mudslides was not there. And now you have the
La Nina, the opposite effect, of this current in the Pacific that
causes this problem.
So you had barren lands that were not simply able to
withstand the 50 inches of rain that hit these countries in just a
period of about five days. This has a caused a disaster -- it was
unimaginable at the outset. We anticipated wind damage from a storm
of 180 miles per hour. We never did anticipate that it would take
the trajectory it took or that we would see the kind of mudslides.
But this, in retrospect, which is perfect vision, came as a result of
the droughts that hit last year. This is, therefore, a very
GENERAL WAGNER: Good afternoon. I would like to
quickly tell you about the military support in response to this
disaster. First of all, I'll tell you that it was both rapid and
robust. The original commander, General Wilhelm, in anticipation of
the disaster, had pre-identified and moved both people and equipment,
so he was well-prepared to support once the disaster did hit. This
was without response to taskings. Anticipating what would be needed,
he provided those resources. They have a solid basis of what
might be needed from an ongoing exercise program, working with the
countries in Central America -- an interagency effort, international
effort, where they exercise disaster relief. And we've all worked
together in these exercises. So they had a structure to work from
and their good fortune of having Sotochio (phonetic) and Honduras,
where we have an extensive presence and assets, the best support base
you could possibly have to support a disaster of this nature in the
region, tied to the close proximity of Panama, which has allowed us
to provide an extensive network of both aircraft and people to
respond to the crisis.
So within hours of the weather allowing the aircraft to
fly, the aircraft were immediately in the air, first of all,
providing assessment of what was needed and determining where the
priority would have to go to provide immediate life rescue. Our
helicopters have rescued nearly 700 people, direct evacuation of
people. That's in addition to the thousands of people that have been
assisted through the delivery of the materials that the agencies have
provided. So we've touched thousands of people throughout the
countries, providing assistance through the helicopters, through the
relationships that are established.
So the first effort was really the life-saving and
assessment; and now sustaining that through the distribution of
supplies, to assist in keeping the people going under the terrible
conditions that they face. Our effort at this point then will be to
continue those assessments, to assist in the prioritization of the
effort that is required, establishing the distribution network for
food, fuel and water. Fortunately, the roads are beginning to open
and fuel will be able to get in, but there are some very serious
situations out there related to distribution of fuel -- and
continuing, of course, search and rescue to some of the areas which
have yet to be fully assessed throughout the entire area. And then
working together to identify the engineering, medical, and
longer-term efforts that we can contribute to, again relying on a
program that is long established in terms of the engineering
projects, the construction projects, roads, schools, other areas
where we have a longstanding basis to do that -- building on that.
At this point, we have over 600 military people in the
direct area directly supporting it -- over 40 helicopters under
General Wilhelm's control supporting the operation. And they will be
diverting additional engineering, medical and aviation assets in to
support the distribution of supplies needed to continue the
So I would say that, as terrible as the disaster is, we
could no have been better postured to support it by our positioning
and by the planning that was done before the disaster. And now we
look forward to our part in contributing to help resolve the crisis.
DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY SCHROEDER: Good afternoon. I'm
Jim Schroeder, Deputy Under Secretary, U.S. Department of
First, USDA will be procuring the commodities to be
donated under the food program earlier announced by USAID
Administrator Atwood. And we'll be positioning those commodities in
New Orleans for the airlift to Central America. In addition, USDA is
pleased to offer Nicaragua and Honduras each 10,000 metric tons of
wheat to help feed those in need.
In Nicaragua, the wheat will be donated and distributed
by the government. In Honduras, the wheat will be donated to and
distributed by Catholic Relief Services, a private voluntary
organization which carries out food assistance programs on behalf of
the United States government. This wheat is part of the 2.5 million
ton food aid initiative announced earlier this year by President
Clinton, and it's being donated under the authority of Section 416 B
of the 1949 Agriculture Act.
Secretary Glickman is deeply concerned about this
disastrous situation. He's instructed our Ag attaches stationed in
Central America to assess and report back to him as quickly as
possible on any additional food aid needs, and the U.S. Department of
Agriculture will move quickly to provide additional assistance if
In addition, we're working with Honduran and Nicaraguan
officials to assemble a team of experts from within USDA to assess
the damage to the agriculture infrastructure caused by these terrible
storms, and clearly, it will take a great deal of effort for the
people to rebuild their food production and distribution systems.
And we certainly want to stand ready to provide on-site technical
Q Is there a concern about political stability in
region as a result of this disaster? Does that figure in some of the
MR. SCHWARTZ: I think that in circumstances like this
kind of crisis, there are situations of great need, and there are
situations, by definition, of desperation. And that is why we all
have -- that is one of the reasons we have a paramount obligation to
meet the need as quickly and as effectively as possible. But these
are countries, as I said before, that were well on the road towards
stable societies, democracies. And we are confident that the social
cohesion and stability that comes with those sorts of transitions
will be maintained.
Q Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Atwood, I'm Jacobo Goldstein.
I'm from Honduras, so I wanted to ask you some specific questions.
First of all, you said $30 million from the Department of Defense,
military assistance, transport, all those things. I think you said
$20 million of Title II aid. Is that the wheat and those
agricultural things? You also said $16.3 million of humanitarian, I
think to save lives. What is the sum total that you're announcing
today between the different problems, approximately?
ADMINISTRATOR ATWOOD: Well, if you include the $3.7
million that's already been expended, that, I believe, adds up to $80
million -- $70 million, excuse me, $70 million.
Q Is this for starters? I know it sounds like
large sum, but the destruction there is massive. So did I hear you
right, that you will be assessing if more food is needed, you'll be
assessing what other needs there are?
ADMINISTRATOR ATWOOD: Let me just say that this is just
the initial response. It is clear that what we're doing now is
making sure that the pipeline has been filled to respond to this
situation. It's clear that we will need to go into a second phase,
but the first response is pure humanitarian relief, trying to save
lives and to avoid disease from coming into this area, and to provide
some emergency shelter.
The second phase will be to assess the reconstruction
needs. And this is not as if we're going into neat phases here.
Some of this is undertaken simultaneously. Part of the resources
that will be provided in the $16.3 I mentioned is $2 million, for
example, to make the first repairs in the Tegucigalpa water system,
for example, so the people will have access to water. This is going
to be a serious problem, in particular, in Honduras.
MR. SCHWARTZ: If I can just add to Brian's point -- and
I think General Wagner will reiterate this -- I can say definitively
that no identifiable need that has been recognized by our Office of
Foreign Disaster Assistance has gone unmet, either through civilian
agencies or through the military -- and in most cases through the
military. And -- let me just finish the point -- and that is our
watchword. The President has made clear that our objective here is
to meet need. And we are not looking at the issue of resources. In
fact, the $30 million drawdown request is from a special authority
and should provide us ample resources in the near- and medium-term.
If the needs are greater, we can look at those issues. But we are
not, at that point, resource constrained in terms of meeting need.
Q What other governments are making contributions
ADMINISTRATOR ATWOOD: I'm meeting later this afternoon
with the InterAmerican Development Bank and Enrique Iglesias, the
President of that bank, and he's prepared to make some emergency
funds and then long-term reconstruction funds available. We want to
discuss and collaborate with them what will be done. The government
of Mexico has been involved here -- the government of Argentina,
Canada. This is really a hemisphere-wide effort to try to help the
Central American countries.
Q Do you have any estimates of the level of support
that they're willing to commit to us?
ADMINISTRATOR ATWOOD: No, I'm sorry, I don't right now.
But we're continuing discussions with them.
Q -- match our own?
ADMINISTRATOR ATWOOD: I think, as usual, the richest
country in this hemisphere will be the number one donor, but we
really want to see a coordinated effort here.
Q Anything outside of this hemisphere, sir?
ADMINISTRATOR ATWOOD: The ECHO operation, the Emergency
Operation of the European Union, is involved -- and did you say
someone else? -- a lot of European bilateral donors. We have on the
fact sheets some information to give you on all of that. You see
quite a few fact sheets that will help clarify this for you when you
start writing your stories.
Q The President mentioned the World Bank also.
think Mr. Wolfensohn, the President of the World Bank, has also had
already conversations. So what you're saying today is this is the
initial, rapid aid to try to save lives and stabilize. And then
everybody will join together and try to study the next set of needs
-- reconstruction and getting these countries back on their feet.
ADMINISTRATOR ATWOOD: That's right. I think it's
important to emphasize -- and this perhaps goes to the first
question, and I would reiterate what Eric Schwartz said -- we're not
worried about political stability, but when you have a huge
percentage of the people of a country displaced, wondering whether or
not they're going to be able to continue to live in the country or
whether they have to look at other options, it's very important for
them to see an immediate response from the international community
and particularly from the United States, but the international
community as a whole, so that they have hope that they can rebuild
their homes, that they do not have to worry about where their next
meal is coming from or that of their children, that they have the
medicines and vaccinations necessary to avoid the kinds of diseases
that usually accompany this kind of disaster.
So this early response phase is crucial. It clearly is
being done in coordination with the governments of Honduras and
Nicaragua, both of whom are stable, democracy elected governments in
a region that has, as Eric said, really gained a great deal of
stability in recent years.
The irony is that the civil wars that affected this
region didn't do as much damage as this storm has done.
Q Mr. Atwood, you said about a generation of
investment has been lost. Any rough ballpark on the dollar value,
and whether you see U.S. engagement reconstruction efforts as being
months, years? How would you see that?
ADMINISTRATOR ATWOOD: My guess, it's going to take a
couple of years to get these countries back to the kind of economic
growth and stability that they have been experiencing recently; that
with respect to infrastructure, you're talking about millions if not
billions of infrastructure. But I would make one very important
point, and that is that not all of the development investments have
been lost, because the people of these countries have been educated.
They have received adequate health care. They are going to be the
primary vehicle for bringing these countries back to where they were
before this storm.
We can help in that regard and we can make this a
shorter process, but it's the people of Honduras, Nicaragua, El
Salvador that will really do the job.
Q General, can you tell us, is the $30 million in
equipment, that's equipment in the inventory? And can you just tick
off some of the type of stuff you're talking about?
GENERAL WAGNER: Yes. The equipment does exist within
the inventories. Of course, some of that will go to fuel to take
care of the transport aircraft that may bring supplies in, distribute
supplies within the country. Some of that will focus towards
engineering and medical assets. So it is existing material, existing
supplies, and then some of the consumables that we use to accomplish
the mission that's required.
Q Speaking of fuel, I understand fuel in Honduras,
it's already being rationed because --
GENERAL WAGNER: It was a major problem, particularly in
Tegucigalpa, because of the bridges being out and not being able to
get it in. However, tankers have made it from the north coast as far
as Sotocano (phonetic) and they're working day and night to open up
the remaining bridge. So that is an important priority and it's
being watched very closely.
Q Will the fact sheet breakdown the food allotments,
what kind and so forth? And am I right in understanding that at
present no supplemental funding legislation will be needed for this
ADMINISTRATOR ATWOOD; We're not talking about that at
this juncture. This is, again, the first phase of this response and
we have adequate resources, especially with the drawdown authority
that's been announced, but we have adequate resources to respond to
the first phase. I think I'll leave it at that.
Q Do you think President Clinton will raise this
issue at the time of the APEC meeting in Malaysia, when the leader of
the region's countries get together?
MR. SCHWARTZ: I can't predict what the President will
or will not talk about, but I do know that this issue -- the
President has described this to us as a major priority. He discussed
it at length with President Zedillo yesterday, and I think it will be
a subject of high-level discussions between U.S. and other donor
nation officials in the weeks to come.
Q Did you say he spoke with Zedillo yesterday, or
it the day before?
MR. SCHWARTZ: I'm sorry, my memory escapes me. It
would have been the day before yesterday, yes.
Q I have a question. Have you talked with the
President of Nicaragua? Are you concerned with his position
regarding these taxes that he's supplying to private organizations in
Nicaragua who are giving humanitarian aid to the people?
MR. SCHWARTZ: I'm not familiar with the issue, perhaps,
-- do we have someone from -- Brian will address it.
ADMINISTRATOR ATWOOD: Well, we've been discussing this
over a long period of time with the government of Nicaragua, would
like to sign an agreement that would avoid that problem. I don't
think that we're going to have a problem getting this kind of
emergency assistance in and expecting any taxation problems. We're
not worried about that at this junction.
Q Mr. Schwartz, does the President intend to call
President Flores and President Aleman to talk to them personally to
see -- to hear from them directly?
MR. SCHWARTZ: Let me just check on that -- let me get
back to you on that on that particular question.
MR. LEAVY: We have to go because Joe is going to come
out here. Anything else? Okay, thanks guys.
END1:31 P.M. EST