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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release November 5, 1998
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY 

The Briefing Room

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 questions.


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 Atwood.

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 themes.

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 over time.

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 longstanding disaster.

Thank you.

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 operation.

So I would say that, as terrible as the disaster is, we could not 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. Thank you.

DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY SCHROEDER: Good afternoon. I'm Jim Schroeder, Deputy Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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 necessary.

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

Thank you.

Q Is there a concern about political stability in the region as a result of this disaster? Does that figure in some of the U.S. response?

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 a very 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 to the problem?

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. I 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 DOD 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 rescue effort?

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 was 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.

END 1:31 P.M. EST