Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the US Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas in Miami, Florida. I would like to welcome our participants who have dialed in from the United States and across the region. This is a background conference call with officials from USAID and the Department of State. I’d like to reiterate that this call is on background and all speakers can be referred to as Administration Officials. The topic of today’s briefing is the US response to Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. We will begin with remarks from the three officials and then we will open it up to your questions. For those of you on the call, please press *1 on your phone to join the question queue. If you are using a speakerphone, you may need to pick up the handset before entering *1. If you should require assistance during the call, please press *0 and an operator will assist you offline. Today’s call will last approximately 30 minutes. And with that, I’ll turn it over to the Senior Administration Official from USAID.
Senior Administration Official: Thank you. Good morning, everyone. Thanks so much for the opportunity to take part in the call today and share more information about how USAID is responding to a Hurricane Dorian. On September 2nd, USAID deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team known as a DART to the Bahamas to coordinate the U.S. humanitarian response to Hurricane Dorian. Members of this team are on the ground with more arriving today, and they are working closely with the government of Bahamas and the US Embassy in Nassau, to help people affected by the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Bahamas. As you know, the conditions on the ground are devastating. Today, USAID is deploying an Urban Search and Rescue team or USAR from the Fairfax and Los Angeles County Fire Departments as part of the DART. These USAR teams will be working in coordination with the government of the Bahamas to conduct search and rescue missions, as well as conduct other critical operations on the ground.
USAID DART has begun aerial assessments of the damage to identify the needs of highest priority. Already, they have identified shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene as urgent humanitarian needs. Today, we’re getting assistance in to address those in need. USAID is airlifting relief supplies from our emergency warehouse in Miami to be distributed to people in need through the Government of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency. This assistance includes plastic sheeting to provide shelter to more than 22,000 people, hygiene kits for 3,000 people, and water containers for 3,000 people. We are also providing an initial 200,000 dollars to the Bahamas Red Cross to address immediate water, sanitation and hygiene, and shelter needs. We will continue to scale up our assistance in the coming days to help provide critical aid on the ground and to save lives. Year round, USAID is working to reduce the risk and impact of disasters. For example, in the Bahamas, we have worked with the Red Cross to train community and local responders and share information that can help save lives. Thank you so much for your time. I look forward to your questions.
Moderator: Thank you. And now over to the Senior Administration Official from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Senior Administration Official: Well, good morning, everybody, and thank you for joining us. Since before the Dorian made landfall, the U.S. Embassy in Nassau had been providing emergency updates, contact information for local authorities, locations of shelters and other information to all U.S. citizens, both directly through our Step Smart Traveler enrollment program and through social media. Thanks to the advance warnings, we believe that most U.S. citizens in the affected area who wanted to leave were able to evacuate ahead of the storm. At this time, we’re not aware of any U.S. citizens killed or severely injured in the Bahamas during Hurricane Dorian, but Embassy Nassau, is collecting information on U.S. citizens in the affected area who need assistance and passing on those locations and that information to our U.S. Coast Guard and/or other U.S. government and Bahamian authorities so that they can be included in search and rescue operations. And again, this is something that, of course, is a very high priority for us. We are encouraging those who are in the affected areas who are safe to contact friends and family as soon as they are able to do so to let them know of their welfare. Much of the information that we are collecting through Embassy Nassau, is coming from families and friends of those in the area who have not been able to contact them because communications are intermittent at best. So that’s what we’re doing right now. And again, trying to assess where U.S. citizens who need help are and make sure that we can get that help to them. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. And now over to the administration official from the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Senior Administration Official: Good morning, everyone, and thank you so much for all the interest in this really concerning situation. I think as we all watch the devastation and the destruction from the images we’re seeing coming out of the Bahamas, I think we’re all very focused on ensuring that we have the right response to humanitarian needs and to meeting the needs of the victims there in the Bahamas. You’ve heard a little bit about some of the primary focus of our efforts so far. And I’d like to give you a little bit more of an idea of what we’re doing as sort of the entire U.S. government as well. From the very beginning, when we saw the storm approaching, our embassy has been in close touch with Prime Minister Minnis. The embassy issued a disaster declaration very quickly, which enabled the mobilization of U.S. resources. We’re constantly in contact with our team on the ground there to monitor the needs. In fact, as soon as the storm passed over our Chargé d’Affaires, Stephanie Bowers did overflights with Prime Minister Minnis and Vice Admiral Scott Bushman from the U.S. Coast Guard so that they could see firsthand the scope of the devastation and better be able to assess the needs of response that enabled the assistance to be more targeted as we’re going in to meet the very pressing needs there.
U.S. Coast Guard has been extremely active there. They’ve been performing search and rescue operations from the very beginning of the time that the weather permitted. As of this morning, they had already conducted 18 different sorties and had saved 61 people who were in very dire situations. We have 20 different Coast Guard cutters prepared to respond strategically positioned. And we’re cooperating very closely with the Bahamas National Emergency Management Authority, as was previously mentioned, as well as the Bahamas, Royal Bahamas Defense Force and the Royal Bahamas Police Force and other partners that are there on the ground. We continue to stay hand-in-hand with our Bahamian friends and partners, and we have one shared goal, and that is to assist the victims of one of the strongest hurricanes that’s ever been recorded. We’re very focused on the importance of that partnership. Back in April, we launched with all of the Caribbean, the U.S. Caribbean Resilience Partnership, which is more targeted towards preparing in advance of these types of situations, but we do have 10 different U.S. government agencies that were partners in that partnership and we are looking to see where we can leverage some of those assets and resources to better be able to respond.
We do have a U.S. government interagency meeting planned for this afternoon to better be able to assess what tools we might bring as the needs are becoming clearer over the coming days. At this point, I have no further opening statements and I think we can turn it back for questions.
Moderator: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing. And as a reminder, to join the queue, you will need to press *1 on your phone.
We’ll give it a minute. For participants to join the question queue.
And our first question goes to Nora Gamez of the Miami Herald. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Thank you for doing this. Are there any plans for the mobilization of more FEMA resources to the Bahamas?
Senior Administration Official: This is USAID. I can take that question and then turn it over to others. At this time, we are deploying, as I mentioned, the two urban search and rescue teams from L.A. County, California and Fairfax County, Virginia. These two urban search and rescue teams happen to be also FEMA teams that respond to domestic emergencies. Other than that, once we identify needs that are not being able to be met, we will identify all sorts of different sources to meet those needs. So, at this time though, we have not requested additional assistance from FEMA.
Senior Administration Official: I’ll just add that we have been in touch with FEMA multiple times every day since the storm hit and even in advance of that, making sure that FEMA is well-informed of what is happening so that if and when there should be a need for their services and resources, they are absolutely up to speed and they have indicated their willingness to assist if necessary.
Senior Administration Official: And maybe I’d add just one other thing. The USAID Administrator spoke to the acting Secretary for Homeland Security yesterday and Department of Homeland Security offered whatever assistance USAID might need in responding to the disaster.
Moderator: Our next question goes to Nico Scavella of the Nassau Tribune.
Question: Has there been any reports of looting or violence, particularly [inaudible]?
Senior Administration Official: So, this is Western Hemisphere, and I can take that. I’ll say that we’re still doing a lot of overflight assessment and communications are very difficult on the ground. Certainly, law enforcement is always a concern in every crisis situation. So, we’re working closely with the authorities in the Bahamas to make sure that we can get in security resources as soon as possible and help make sure that that does not unfold, but information coming in and out is a bit difficult at this point.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Ezra Fieser of Bloomberg News. And as a reminder to join the question queue, please press Star 1.
Question: Thanks for doing this. A question for AID on this urban search and rescue teams. Can give you a few more details? How many people, have they had any rescue so far, and for how long will it be on the ground?
Senior Administration Official: We are mobilizing these teams today, and each team from Fairfax and Los Angeles County will have about 57 people each and they will come under the auspices of the DART that I mentioned that’s already on the ground, which will have about 13 people by the end of today.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Ariel Bowleg of JCN.
Question: Yes, hello. My question is you’ve seen you’ve heard reports of four U.S. citizens being airlifted. Do you know if they’ve been injured or they’ve just been removed from unsafe conditions?
Senior Administration Official: I can take that one. I can just say that because of privacy laws, we are unable to provide that information. The important thing, though, is that we have begun lifting people out of the affected area.
Moderator: Please press *1 to join the question queue. We’ll give it a few seconds to see if other journalists have questions. And our next question goes to Cesar Menendez of Diario Las Américas.
Question: How many American citizens do you think are right now in the Bahamas?
Senior Administration Official: That’s something that’s hard to answer because as you may be aware, U.S. citizens are not required to register their presence in any country, so we can only estimate numbers. But again, that’s not really the important thing. The important thing is knowing who is affected, who needs help and making sure that information gets to the authorities who can provide that support.
Moderator: All right. Please press *1 to join the question queue. We’ve got three Administration Officials here ready to answer your questions, so if you have any, now is the time. All right. If there aren’t any further questions. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank the Administration Officials for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. And we do have one more question. Since we have time, I’ll take it. We have Matthew Lavietes from Reuters. Please go ahead. And for the rest of you who may have questions, please press *1 to join the question queue.
Question: Thank you for doing this. Can we go back to talking about FEMA? What is the decision-making right now when extra aid might kick in? Yeah. What’s the timeline for that? Are they waiting to assess further the damage before they decide to come up with more aid or is that completely off the table?
Senior Administration Official: This is USAID, first of all, one part of your question, let me just make it clear that FEMA is responsible for U.S. domestic responses while USAID is responsible for overseas responses. However, as we have discussed, we’re coordinating very closely with FEMA in case some of their domestic capabilities can be utilized overseas. If it’s the right tool for the right job. What our DART team is doing on the ground today and yesterday is doing this in-depth assessment on what the likely needs are going to be and then coordinating those with both the government of the Bahamas and the U.S. Embassy. And if there’s something very specific and unique that FEMA can offer that we can’t get anywhere else, we have a process within the US government to activate those resources to bring to bear in an international environment like the Bahamas. And as I mentioned, the Acting Secretary for DHS has been very proactive in offering assistance that any part of DHS can provide to the Bahamas should we call for it.
Moderator: Our next question comes again from Ariel Bowleg of JCN.
Question: [inaudible] said about Abaco only [inaudible] currently that you’re focusing on at the moment and will it be both focused on Grand Bahama and Abaco?
Senior Administration Official: From USAID, if I heard the question correctly, you were asking if we’re focused just on Abaco or Abaco and Grand Bahama. Is that correct?
Question: Yes, currently at the moment [inaudible] in Abaco.
Senior Administration Official: And I think from the USAID perspective, we had better weather to do an overflight of Abaco yesterday. The idea is to provide assistance wherever it’s needed in the Bahamas and we hope to do assessments in Abaco and Grand Bahama as the weather permits.
Moderator: Please press *1 if you’d like to join the question queue. Our next question comes again from Nico Scavella of Nassau Tribune. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi, yes, this is a bit of a broad general question, and forgive me if it’s already been asked, but did you guys give an idea based on the information that you guys have received on the ground from Abaco as well as Grand Bahama, what kind of aid do you guys think is needed or warranted based on what you guys have been hearing or seeing or whatnot and without getting too much into speculation, could you give an understanding of the scope of exactly what is required to fully roll out these respond efforts?
Senior Administration Official: I’ll start from USAID. And again, our assessment data is limited at this time just because it’s taken time to get out and do on the ground assessments due to weather conditions. However, what we anticipate is that the immediate needs for lifesaving following the search and rescue – what we expect to see are needs on shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene. This is what we’re focused on in the first phase of the immediate response in this situation so far.
Senior Administration Official: From Western Hemisphere, I’ll just reiterate that Coast Guard has also been very actively engaged in providing sources for evacuations for those who are in need as well as taking necessary enforcement officials. We also have other efforts, such as the FAA is offering to help provide support for air traffic control in and out and other resources that may be needed. We are ready to respond to requests as they come along.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Rachel Wellford of PBS News Hour. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Thanks again for doing this call. Just a quick question because we have a team coming to the Bahamas in the next hour, the air lifting that you’re talking about, the search and rescue from Coast Guard and others, do we know if that’s for the most part, going taking people to Nassau or other places?
Senior Administration Official: I believe that they are being taken to Nassau at least as an intermediary step, but beyond that, I couldn’t address that further.
Moderator: That concludes today’s call. I want to thank the administration officials for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at MiamiHub@state.gov. Thank you and have a good day and the operator will provide you with instructions on how to access the recording.