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Diplomacy in Action

Bureau of Consular Affairs Hurricane Preparedness Workshop

Special Briefing
Director of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management Michelle Bernier-Toth
Via Teleconference
June 2, 2010


OPERATOR: Welcome and thank you for standing by. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. To ask a question during the question and answer session, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. Today’s conference is being recorded. If you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time. Now I will turn the call over to Mr. John Echard. Sir, you may begin.

MODERATOR: Thank you and thank you all for calling in. Again, my name is John Echard. I’m with the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, serving as the press officer. With me on the phone, I have Director of American Citizen Services and Crisis Management Michelle Bernier-Toth. This briefing is going to be on the record. Everything should be attributed to Michelle Bernier-Toth, Director of American Citizen Services and Crisis Management. The spelling of Michelle’s name, first name, M-i-c-h-e-l-l-e, last name, B-e-r-n-i-e-r-hyphen-T-o-t-h.

At this time, after I introduce Ms. Bernier-Toth, she will issue a brief statement and then we will open up to questions and answers. I’m delighted to have on the phone with me Michelle Bernier-Toth who joined the State Department as a Foreign Service officer in 1987 and has served as a consular officer in Damascus, Syria; Doha, Qatar; and Abu-Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. She’s also served domestic assignments in the Bureau of Consular Affairs and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. She became director of the Consular Affairs Overseas Citizen Services, American Citizen Services in August of 2005 after serving as deputy director and Consular Affairs Overseas Citizen Services Children’s Issues. At this time, Michelle, would you like to issue your statement, please?

MS. BERNIER-TOTH: All right. Well, thank you and good afternoon to everybody. We’re very pleased you could join us.

The purpose of this call is to discuss what we’ve been doing in preparation for hurricane season. Of course, it starts today, June 1st. So it’s a day that’s certainly marked on all of our calendars. The bottom line being that some crises will occur with no warning. Maybe you saw that in the earthquake with Haiti, for example. But hurricane season happens every year and while the impact of individual storms can vary widely, we know that there will be hurricanes and that at least some of them will have a significant impact on U.S. citizens who are either living in the affected region or visiting it as tourists or business travelers and so forth. So we know it’s going to happen. We want to make sure that we are prepared for that. And our motto is always plan for the worst and hope for the best.

We want to make sure, first and foremost, that U.S. citizens have the information they need before they make travel plans so they can make better and informed decisions and preparations should they find themselves in an area affected by a hurricane. To that end, we always issue a hurricane facts sheet even before the season begins and we dedicate part of our website,, to hurricane information. That website is now up today. I hope you’ve had a chance to take a look at it. If you haven’t, please do.

We also want to make sure, though, that our embassies and consulates in the Western Hemisphere and, specifically, the Caribbean and Mexico and Central America, are as ready as they can be to assist U.S. citizens who might be affected by a hurricane should that become necessary. And for that reason, we have hosted, since 2006, an annual hurricane workshop. And this is simply a way to pull together representatives, consular officers, and others at the embassies and consulates in the region, in this case the Caribbean and Central America, and as well as officers within key positions within the Department of State who are in a position to assist those posts in the event of a hurricane. And what we basically do is to go through what steps are the posts taking to prepare for hurricane season. What have they learned from past seasons and have applied in, sort of, a lessons-learned capacity? And then to make sure that everybody knows what resources are available to them from Washington and from each other should they need help. The workshop allows us to share good ideas and good practices that ultimately will improve our ability to help U.S. citizens before, during, and after a hurricane.

This year’s workshop included our embassies in Grenada, Jamaica, Bermuda, Barbados, Belize, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. A key factor, again, in helping U.S. citizens be prepared for a hurricane and allow them to make informed decisions about their travel plans is making sure that we provide them with accurate, timely information. So one of the things we talked about at the workshop was ways to use the new and accessible communication platforms and technologies, such as blogs, social networking sites and other formats to reach out to people either before, during, or after a hurricane so, again, we get our message out there. This is something we’ve already done in previous crises, a recent example being the March earthquake in Chile. At that time, the Bureau of Consular Affairs used Twitter and Facebook to provide U.S. citizens with the current situation on the ground and information on how best to contact the embassy in Santiago. Our tweets were immediately translated into Spanish and further disseminated and many were very surprised that the U.S. Government was actually recommending the use of text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook to contact family in post-earthquake Chile.

One of the things we talked about at the workshop was the fact that, in a hurricane as in other crises, often your internet might be down or your telephone services might be down if cell towers are down and so forth. But what we found in Chile, for example, was that text messaging still went through and many people were able to reach their loved ones using that. We also discussed the – with the ways that our embassies and consulates in the region are talking to and engaging with their host governments, whether those be their emergency and disaster response entities or even private entities, such as the tourist board, the hotel industry, and so forth, again, to make sure that people have the information and that we know what those other entities are doing to plan for earthquakes – sorry, for hurricanes as well so that we know where the resources, locally, are available and what those are.

So it was a very productive discussion, I think. You must realize that in the foreign – the State Department, many of our officers overseas are Foreign Service officers and may not have been through a hurricane season at their – in their country before. And this is a way, again, of bringing everybody up to speed, making sure that they know what we can do to help them, where to turn to for various types of assistance and then to share good practices among each other and to know how they can support each other, again, before, during, and after a hurricane. So with that, I will stop and we can – I guess we can – John, we can open up for questions.

MODERATOR: Exactly, thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. If you’d like to ask a question, please press *1. Please un-mute your phone and record your name clearly when prompted. Your name is required to introduce your question. To withdraw your request, please press *2. Once again, to ask a question, please press *1 and record your name. One moment, please. Once again, to ask a question, please press *1.

MS. BERNIER-TOTH: Does nobody have any question?

OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Sheannette Virtue from Carib Press. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Good afternoon. I’m with Carib Press in Los Angeles. Actually, I noticed that the focus was on, primarily, U.S. citizens. What about Haiti? Is there any special concerns there for Haiti given the earthquake a few months back?

MS. BERNIER-TOTH: Well, I think certainly we are concerned about what can happen in Haiti. Even under the best of circumstances and prior to the earthquake, a hurricane hitting Haiti can cause severe destruction and damage, landslides, and so forth. So, yes, that is a great concern. Our embassy in Port-au-Prince was unable to attend the workshop, but we do stay in close communication with them.

Again, I would note that this office’s primary mandate and responsibility is the protection of American citizens overseas. So there are humanitarian disaster assistance aspects involved in, for example, responding to a hurricane in Haiti that would fall to other offices. Our role would be to make sure that we provide information to American citizens who might be in Haiti at the time of a hurricane, that we know where they are, how they are, that we try to assist them with whatever they might need that – again, that’s within our power to provide. But again, because – just because Haiti was not able to participate in the workshop, that does not mean that we haven’t been in close communication with them, because that – every year, it is something that we worry about in the context of Haiti.

OPERATOR: Once again, to ask a question, please press *1. There are no further questions at this time.

MODERATOR: Okay, well, thank you.

MS. BERNIER-TOTH: Thank you all and let’s hope for, again, a quiet season. But the prediction from the National Hurricane Center is an above average one. So again, our motto is hope for the best, but we will be prepared for the worst. So thank you all for participating.

OPERATOR: Thank you for participating in today’s conference call. You may disconnect at this time.

PRN: 2010/712

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