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Diplomacy in Action

Background Briefing on U.S. Assistance to the Philippines

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
November 13, 2013


MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today’s call on U.S. assistance to the Philippines. A reminder that this call is on background with all attribution to Senior Administration Officials. For your information only, then, I’d like to introduce our three officials for today. [Introductions redacted.]

So we’ll start first with brief introductory remarks from each of our speakers, and then we’ll open up to questions and answers after that period. We’ll start first with Senior Administration Official One. Go ahead, please.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks. Thanks very much. I’ll just make a couple of brief remarks to open it up. One, obviously, if we’ve all seen on the press, the – sort of how dramatic and devastating this typhoon was. So from the very beginning, in fact, even a few days before the typhoon hit, we were working to prepare. We’ve been taking very much an organized, coordinated, whole-of-government approach to try to respond as best we can to meet the humanitarian needs. For us, obviously we have a major embassy in Manila. They’ve been active, constantly in touch both with Philippine officials as well as with other U.S. agencies involved in disaster relief. Some of them were down in Tacloban today working on this disaster relief.

A couple of sort of broader points: One, President Obama called President Aquino on Monday to express our condolences and express our support. Similarly, Secretary of State Kerry spoke with Foreign Secretary Del Rosario earlier this week. So there’s been a constant message from all levels of U.S. Government to the Philippine officials and counterparts that we want to be a good partner, respond as best we can. I think my colleagues from OFDA and DOD will get into the details, but in brief, what we’ve done is responded quite quickly in a very coordinated way, bringing people to the disaster’s zone to first assess the extent of the damage so we know what’s needed, coordinating again with our Philippine colleagues, and then to bring in supplies, equipment, assets to help (a) deal with the obvious casualties and losses, but (b) also try to get logistics going so that assistance that comes in from now on can be distributed effectively. So it’s a pretty major effort on the part of the U.S. Government, but let me turn it over to my OFDA and DOD colleagues to get in more detail.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Great, thank you. So the U.S. Agency for International Development, in anticipation of the storm, prior to it hitting the Philippines deployed an advanced disaster assistance response team to Manila to be ready. We had that team on the ground in the affected zones within 24 hours of the storm hitting, and that was the first international governmental response team to reach the area. That team has been assessing and determining priorities over the last few days and has been feeding information back to the U.S. Government on response priorities and how to structure the response. And we have been working – at USAID we have been working really closely, I would say hand-in-glove, with the U.S. military in coordinating that response. The way that works in this sort of a situation is we provide and fund the assistance and work very closely with the military on coordinating the delivery and the prioritization of what goes where and so on.

The U.S. Government to date has provided an initial $20 million in humanitarian assistance, half of that through the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, and that’s going for things like emergency shelter, water purification, and hygiene, and that is to prevent waterborne diseases and so on. Half of that is going for food aid in partnership with the World Food Program.

We feel like we’re at a point now after a few days of very difficult initial logistical setup – I would say we are cautiously optimistic that we are starting to turn a corner on some of the logistics challenges. So in the last 24 hours, we have seen some improvements in the coordination at the airport. As a lot of you have probably seen, the airport at Tacloban is very small. It can only handle midsize planes. It can’t handle large 747s and so on. That – we have seen some improvements in efficiency there. We have seen some improvements in the rapidity of goods going out from there, so we’re getting through some of the blockages at the airport.

But also, very critically, an overland route to Tacloban City has now been opened. So for the first few days, there was no overland road route open to Tacloban City, so we were fully reliant on the airport as our only hub for getting anything into that town. And it was a lot like trying to squeeze an orange through a straw. We are now getting more straws, if you will, and bigger straws. And the road route – we’re, again, cautiously optimistic that that’s going to be a pretty significant game-changer because that opens up the port on the other side at Ormoc and opens up a whole other, much higher volume logistical vine that we can start getting aid into Tacloban City.

We also, through some of the military assets, are able now to get aid out into some of the coastal villages that were destroyed. And so in the past 24 hours, USAID, along with our Pacific Command counterparts, have been carrying out deliveries of emergency shelter and those hygiene and water purification and so on supplies to these other villages in some of the affected coastal areas. And so the aid is now really starting to push, and that is going to accelerate more and more in the coming days.

We’re also – in the next probably 12 hours, some of the U.S. food assistance is going to start coming through World Food Program. And – so we feel like we’re at – we’re getting to a better place. It’s been a very difficult first few days wading through some of these logistical obstacles. That’s not unusual in this kind of a crisis. We’re getting a better handle on that and feel like we’re starting to turn a corner.

I think I’ll leave it at that and turn it over to DOD, and happy to answer more questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: For DOD, I’d like to first express our very sincerest condolences and heartfelt thoughts and prayers out to the Philippine people for their tremendous loss in this storm. The DOD understands that the Philippines are a very great ally of the United States, and we stand by our friends and allies in a time of crisis, and that at this time, we’re doing all we can as fast as we can to provide support and close coordination with the U.S. Embassy, USAID, our international partners, to the Government of the Philippines and their lead in these relief operations.

Currently right now, our 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade headquarters, with over 307 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are on-deck in the Philippines and have begun initial relief operations as of the 10th of November.

I’ll be ready for any questions at this point.

MODERATOR: Okay, operator. I think we’re ready for the question and answer session. Can you please read the instructions to the callers for how to ask a question? And then we’ll wait a moment for those first calls – or questions to come in.

OPERATOR: Certainly. Ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear a tone indicating that you’ve been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. Again, if you have any questions or comments, please press *1.

MODERATOR: Okay, operator. I believe the first person we have in line for a call is Phil Stewart from Reuters. Can you please open Phil’s line, please?

OPERATOR: Phil, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks. Thanks again for doing this call. Can you give us a sense of what your expectations are for the total number of U.S. personnel, both civilian and military, for this operation? And can you give us a sense of how big this operation’s going to be compared to other ones like, say, Haiti or even Thailand? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So this is Official Number Two. We’re still at a point where we are trying to be demand-driven. Our team on the ground is asking for certain capacities. We are ramping up those capacities right now. That is very heavily focused on logistics and military liaison, just basically keeping that pipeline – getting that aid pipeline set up effectively, keeping it running. We expand and contract that as needed. In the next week or two, as we get a handle on the logistical challenges, we will start expanding out into looking ahead to some of the recovery and reconstruction challenges. That’s definitely the early next step. That has other personnel implications.

But we’re still really in early days. Our assessment team that we’ve had out there for the past about five days, we’ve pulled them back to Manila now. We’re debriefing with them extensively. And we’ll have a much better picture of the needs and how this thing is evolving once we’ve done that full debrief. So on the civilian side, that’s basically where we’re at. Obviously, I’ll leave the military side to my colleague.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: And this is Speaker Number Three. As well, the expectations for size are still under assessment. It is going to be a requirements-driven solution, and the size of the devastation, I think, is still yet to be seen at this point as we continue to unfold new areas that are being declared as calamity areas by the Government of the Philippines.

As we uncover those, again, we will continue to push forces and assets into the region to ensure that we can provide the most support and the best support that is requested by the Government of the Philippines to cover down on those new areas as they are uncovered. As of right now, we’ve got vessels that were requested by the commander on the ground that are already moving into theater to hopefully head off as much of the undeclared disaster areas before they can be uncovered.

QUESTION: And just to follow up, though, I mean, do you have any sense of the scale of the operation at the end of this week? I know we have around just over 300 people, U.S. military personnel, on the ground right now. Will it be 1,000 at the end of the week? Will it be 500? Any sense of scale?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: At this time for DOD, there is an intent to embark Marines from Okinawa that could, by the end of the week, possibly have our numbers well up over 1,000.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Operator, if we can go to our next caller, I believe we have Margaret Brennan from CBS next. Can you open Margaret’s line, please?

OPERATOR: Margaret, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. What is the security situation or the assessment of the security situation on the ground right now? And I know that one of the officials said that you’ve seen improvements in the last 24 hours when it comes to delivery and entry point for aid. What is the main entry point, and where will evacuations be handled out of?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. So this is Official Number Two again. I’ll take the evacuation thing first because I think that’s pretty easy. So the C-130s that have been flying aid in have been also flying evacuees out. And so I don’t have an exact number for you, but I understand it’s in the thousands of people who have been evacuated out of there. And the Armed Forces of the Philippines did a great job, particularly in the first 48 hours, of triaging who needed to be – who was urgent, who needed to be urgently evacuated, and getting those people onto planes and getting them onward to additional medical care or whatever they needed for whatever reason they needed to be evacuated.

In terms of the security situation, we have some – we have seen some improvements in the last 24 hours. A lot of the security challenges were due to what you’d expect – that there was initially a sort of state of shock amongst the population, services were badly interrupted. The Government of the Philippines has done a really good job of trying to reestablish. They have sent additional soldiers in there, declared curfews, and that has helped a great deal from what we have seen.

And the other piece of that is now, as more aid is getting in, that is relieving some of the pressure. So what we’re seeing is violence and the insecurity that manifested and that we’ve seen, as you have reported in the media and witnessed to some extent there on the ground – that was really driven by the desperation of people to get assistance, and so now, as we’ve handled and are handling some of these logistical hurdles and the volume of assistance is starting to really spike upwards, we’re anticipating that that will dissipate pretty quickly.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you very much.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: And for Speaker Number Three, the assessment on the ground from the DOD side is predominantly that the security situation or the threat would be armed looters, and second to that would be the vector-borne diseases. And at this time, there are medical supplies that are being routed inbound. We have contingencies to take care of our forces and cover for the convoys as well. So the security situation is felt to be well in hand at this point.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you very much. Operator, if we can go to our next questioner, I believe it’s Chris Good from ABC News. Can you open Chris’s line, please?

OPERATOR: Chris, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks. Can I just – first, before I ask my question, I just want to confirm two numbers that you guys threw out. It was over 1,000 U.S. personnel on the ground and over 1,000 evacuated by U.S. military? Did I hear that right?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: From DOD, thus far, we show that we’ve evacuated approximately 800 personnel just out of Tacloban, and for the DOD personnel on deck, we currently have just over 300 DOD personnel on deck.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. And then my question is: I’m wondering if we can get a tick-tock of the arrival of U.S. aid supplies and their distribution out to the hardest-hit areas, just if you can give us a couple times of – I know that we’ve already heard when the first shipment got there, but if you have any specifics you can give us on when shipments have landed and when they’ve actually gotten out to Tacloban.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, I can. This is Official Number Two. So the first set of heavy-duty plastic sheeting for emergency shelter and 10,000 family hygiene kits arrived in Manila on Tuesday – and that’s Tuesday, Manila time – and they were distributed the 13th, Manila time, so that was much earlier today. We have another such shipment that arrives, I believe, tomorrow, and that will be distributed on a similar timeline. Basically, once it arrives in Manila, they have to take it off the pallets, repackage it for onward distribution and so on, so that takes a few hours. And then they bring it down to Tacloban for onward distribution. I think they’re using Ospreys for some of that.

Also, the first shipment of U.S. food aid arrived in Cebu, or it – well, by now, I think – what I heard this morning was it was arriving within hours, so I think it is there by now. And that gets then handed over to the World Food Program, who is managing the onward distribution of food aid. And so that will be going in, I would imagine, within the next 24 hours. WFP would know the exact process on that.

We also are – USAID is also in the process of making grants to nongovernmental organization partners who have expertise in the area. Their activities are already underway. A lot of them have gone in there initially with some of their own private funding, and we are in the process – we have made several of those grants already – we’re in the process of making more that will add a lot of gasoline to the tank of their activity, and that will be ongoing over the next several months.


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: And from Speaker Number Three, a bit of a tick-tock on DOD operations and supply into and out of the area: Beginning at about 1100 on the 12th, the DOD assets, CH-50 – or, I’m sorry, KC-130 aircraft and MV-22 aircraft operating from – with KC-130s out of Clark Air Base in – on Luzon near Manila, ferrying supplies down to Tacloban, then picked up by MV-22s and provided out to specific relief areas, delivered approximately 107,000 pounds of USAID relief supplies, including 6,000 pounds of Philippine-provided food, another 6,000 pounds of Philippine-provided water, and some other heavy equipment to be able to move those supplies. As well, they moved 169 evacuees out of Tacloban just that day.

Later on the 13th, as more assets came into the AOR, they ended up, by the end of the 13th, delivering a total of 167,330 pounds of supplies consisting of a range of tarps, medical supplies, blankets, humanitarian relief kits, (inaudible), and other relief supplies, and as well, transported over 500 evacuees out of Tacloban to Manila just on that day.


MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Operator, if we can go to our next question on the line, I believe we have Rick Gladstone from the New York Times. Can you please open Rick’s line?

OPERATOR: Rick, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Earlier today in Tacloban, the top UN relief official was asking about fuel. There’s a fuel issue in Tacloban. Are you guys bringing fuel into Tacloban? What are you doing about the fuel problem, if anything?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: This is Official Number Two. That is very much on our radar screen. I think that is a part of this whole big logistical morass that we are working our way through right now.

But yeah, it’s certainly true. A lot of the – really, all of the fuel infrastructure was destroyed either in the storm itself or by subsequent looting, from what our team has reported. So that is a very real issue. It’s something that we are looking at. I don’t think we have a specific strategy yet. As a lot of these pieces are coming to our attention, they’re coming together. But I think that’s something where we and DOD are going to be working together to try and get that addressed very quickly as that is obviously a very key element of a distribution pipeline, and DOD may have more to say about that as well.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: And – yeah, from Speaker Number Three, while we recognize that as an issue, we’re focused right now on the three primary issues for sustainment of life, which are going to be the water, the food, and the shelter. And that’s been the predominant focus for the near term, is to get those three key sets into Tacloban so we can prevent further loss of life, and then look to – for the sustainment piece to come in after that.

QUESTION: Can I ask a quick follow-up if that’s okay? The – Valerie Amos was saying that – the UN relief coordinator – that there is fuel in Tacloban. It’s – there are fuel stations, service stations that have fuel but the owners just can’t – are reluctant or unwilling to sell it or provide it just because they fear violence, robbery, the breakdown of law and order. I mean, it seems to be like a – there’s like a gridlock kind of situation where they won’t sell it unless there’s security, and there’s no security because there’s no fuel to get security people to Tacloban. I mean, it’s one of these things you know better than me. What can you do to get them to open up their fuel tanks?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: This is Speaker – Official Number One. Let me try to address it. I mean, I think whenever there’s security issues, they’re obviously watching them very closely, but it’s really a host government responsibility to tackle the security issues so that people would feel comfortable, for example, opening their stores, their gas stations, what have you. And obviously, we can bring (inaudible) to their attention and encourage them to address issues, but it’s – it is really a Philippine Government – they need to tackle this.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: And from Speaker Number Three, DOD, we are supporting the Armed Forces of the Philippines and moving them into the area so that they can take the necessary measures to alleviate the security concerns in Tacloban and the immediate area. So we’re moving their forces in there so that they can do that type of policing.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. I think we have time for probably a couple more questions here before our speakers have to go. Operator, if we can go to the next person in line, I believe it’s Paul Shinkman from U.S. News and World Report. Can you open Paul’s line, please?

OPERATOR: Paul, your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes. Good afternoon. Thanks so much for doing this. I wonder if there are any existing limits or if the Philippine Government has put any limits on the scope of the U.S. military mission there? And also, aside from the – on the military assets, aside from the KC-130 and the MV-22s, what other military assets have the – those who are on the ground already brought with them? Are there any unmanned assets there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: As for the scope of the military operations and how we – if it’s been limited by the Government of the Philippines, we are providing the assets to the commander as they are requested by the Government of the Philippines, and weighing very carefully what we bring in, how we bring it in, just to ensure that we do not overwhelm the capacity that can be sustained inside the Philippines at this time since it is a very tenuous time there.

In addition to that, your question asked if there were unmanned assets in the Philippines at this time. No, we don’t have any unmanned assets operating from the Philippines. But we do have some assets that are operating from Guam that are providing some overhead reconnaissance to assess the damaged areas, and that imagery is then provided to the commander and distributed so that we can ensure that we get a good look at all of the possible damaged areas.

MODERATOR: All right. Great, thank you. Operator, I believe we have time for one more question. If we can go to our next person in line here, Sangwon Yoon from Bloomberg. If you could open her line, please.

OPERATOR: Sangwon, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I had a question about the UN flash appeal for the Philippines, about $301 million, and the U.S. has already pledged 20, but are there any plans to increase the U.S. contribution since it’s only funded so far up to 14 percent of what’s been appealed for?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: This is Speaker Number Two. I’m not going to speculate yet on what more we’re going to do. I would say right now, we’ve done this tranche of $20 million. We’re focused on making sure that is effectively distributed. We’re – we anticipate the U.S. Government is going to continue to support this response. I don’t want to speculate yet on specific numbers or what that’s going to look like. I would also – obviously, the needs are pretty significant.

The other thing I would just note on the UN flash appeal and the 14 percent funding that you figured is that that has been out for, I think, a grand total of about 48 hours. So 14 percent in 48 hours is not too bad, and I think that you’re going to see more global contributions start rolling in as this – particularly as the aid effort opens up and the logistics issues get sorted out.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: And from Speaker Number Three, the DOD perspective, I would echo that as well. We are focused on the mission at this point, and we’ll let the senior leadership make the decisions on the amount of funding and how long we can do this.

MODERATOR: Okay, great. Well, I’d like to thank all three of our speakers today for their time, and all of you for participating. Operator, this concludes today’s call.

PRN: 2013/1408

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