THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Via Teleconference)
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome and to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s on-the-record teleconference. Today’s program will provide an update to the U.S. Government relief efforts in response to the devastation brought to the Central American region and Colombia by back-to-back hurricanes Eta and Iota. With millions of people affected, the U.S. Government has committed funding for aid and assistance to help those in need in this region. The briefers will provide an update to the ongoing efforts to work with humanitarian partners and local government officials to identity humanitarian needs and deliver immediate aid.
We will first hear from Deputy Assistant Secretary Hugo Rodriguez and then from the Disaster Assistance Response Team Lead Tim Callaghan. After their remarks, we will open it up to question-and-answer. Please note the transcript will be posted to our website, fpc.state.gov, and the briefers’ remarks will also be available translated into Spanish.
And with that, we will begin with remarks from Deputy Assistant Secretary Rodriguez.
MR RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Jean, and thank you all for joining us today. As Jean mentioned, my name is Hugo Rodriguez and I’m the deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs covering Central America, Mexico, and regional migration issues. I’m here today to discuss the extraordinary efforts of the U.S. Government to assist the people of Central America and Colombia as they recover from two serious calamities, Hurricanes Eta and Iota.
I know that people throughout the region are suffering deeply, many having lost homes, their livelihoods, and in some cases even loved ones. For those of you participating today who have been personally affected by the hurricanes, please know that our thoughts are with you and we continue to work hard on response and recovery efforts.
While mercifully, the death toll from these storms was low, the impact the storms will have on these countries is overwhelming. By our estimates, more than 7 million people have been affected by the storms. In Honduras, nearly half of the population has been affected in some way, with many homes swallowed whole by mudslides and 70 percent of crops destroyed. More than 400,000 Guatemalans and Hondurans remain in shelters.
Even before the storms made landfall, our embassy teams in Central America and Colombia began coordinating with host governments and interagency partners to prepare a response. On November 5th, as Hurricane Eta was still ravaging the isthmus, U.S. military helicopters began rescuing people stranded by the storm and delivering aid to isolated communities. In response to requests from the Guatemalan and Honduran governments, USAID deployed a Rapid Response Team led by my colleague, Tim Callaghan, from USAID.
And I’d like to turn it over to Tim now to discuss in more depths of any elements of the U.S. Government’s response. Tim, over to you.
MR CALLAGHAN: Thank you very much, Deputy Assistant Secretary Rodriguez, and good afternoon, everyone. My name is Tim Callaghan and I’m the lead for USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team, or DART. This team is on the ground throughout Central America and Colombia as we speak serving as the U.S. Government lead federal agency for the response to Hurricanes Eta and Iota.
As many of you likely know, these powerful storms hit back-to-back in the span of just two weeks. They also traveled an almost identical path, bringing heavy rains, flooding, and landslides to many of the same areas. Millions of people were affected, and many people remain in evacuation shelters. These hurricanes were rainmakers, plus they hit at the end of hurricane season, which means the ground was already heavily saturated and could not absorb the rainwater. Rivers overflowed their banks and we saw landslide in many places.
USAID was on the ground and responded immediately to Hurricane Eta. Then, on November 17th, the USAID – we deployed the team that I currently lead, the Disaster Assistance Response Team. At its height, the team comprised of 40 experts spanning seven countries. USAID also allocated $48 million in humanitarian assistance to help people in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Colombia.
Our immediate response has primarily focused on providing aid to people in the evacuation tents. Many of these families lost everything and they need lifesaving aid right away. USAID is providing emergency food assistance, hygiene kits, safe drinking water, shelter materials, urgent medical care, protection for the most vulnerable, and basic household items like blankets and kitchen sets.
USAID is also working with our partners to lay the groundwork for people to return to their homes and start early recovery efforts. As part of those efforts, we’re providing heavy-duty plastic sheeting that will be used to repair people’s homes. We’ve been working with communities to jump-start people’s ability to earn a living. We will be providing seeds and tools to farmers and supporting other programs to get people back on their feet.
In the initial phases of this response, many communities were cut off from assistance. To reach these people, USAID requested the unique capabilities of the U.S. military to assist in our response efforts. Over the course of 28 days, SOUTHCOM’s Joint Task Force-Bravo delivered more than 257 metric tons of relief supplies and in support of the civilian-led response efforts. In addition, the U.S. Army Vessel Chickahominy transported heavy machinery from mainland Colombia to the hurricane-affected islands of Providencia and San Andres to help clear debris for relief efforts.
Over the last week or so, many of the floodwaters have receded with only low-lying areas still affected. Main roads have been cleared of debris. With these improved conditions, the U.S. military completed their mission last week, and those efforts have transitioned to commercial transportation companies, local authorities, and the humanitarian community. We are all seeing cleanup efforts well underway and shops and markets are reopening in the affected communities.
This response is one of many examples of USAID’s work to save lives and alleviate suffering around the world. As the world’s largest humanitarian donor, the U.S. provided more than $10.5 billion in humanitarian aid last year. Nearly two-thirds of this funding, more than $70 billion, came from USAID as we responded to dozens of disasters, helping tens of millions of people. Helping people in need is what we do as Americans and knowing that the efforts are truly making a difference is why I’m so proud to lead this disaster response.
Thank you very much and I turn it back over to you, DAS Rodriguez.
MR RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Tim. As Tim mentioned, the Joint Task Force-Bravo team based on Honduras played a critical role and I’d just like to briefly foot stomp some of those efforts. In cooperation with local governments, JTF-Bravo flew rescue and aid delivery flights in Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama, as well as aid delivery in northern Colombia. These efforts involved almost 300 missions and in total they rescued more than 850 people, many trapped by the widespread flooding. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the dramatic footage. Their work saved many lives and as Tim mentioned, they delivered more than 1.2 million pounds of desperately needed food, water, and other critical relief supplies to the hard-to-reach areas that needed them most.
On top of our interagency coordination on relief efforts, we want to recognize the much-needed assistance and relief that reliable international partners such as Taiwan are providing. In Guatemala, Taiwan is working with partners on building a disaster relief early warning system. In Honduras, Taiwan is partnering with a Los Angeles-based Taiwanese NGO to donate more than 1,000 boxes of humanitarian supplies. And in Nicaragua, Taiwan has donated nearly 800 tons of rice to affected local communities.
Just as the United States was with our neighbors during the storm and the rescue, we are with them in the recovery phase which has only just begun. And as our partners in the region work to rebuild their communities and their economies, the United States will continue our work with these governments, international organizations, the private sector, and other partners to build a more resilient and more hopeful future.
Thank you. With that, Jean, I’ll turn it back to you for any questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, both of you. We are ready to enter the Q&A session. Did we – David, can you indicate if we – what journalists need to do to indicate they’d like to ask a question? Thank you.
OPERATOR: Certainly. Ladies and gentlemen, for your questions at this time, please press 1 then 0. Press 1 then 0 only once to be in queue for questions. One moment for our first question. And once again, ladies and gentlemen, for your questions, please press 1 then 0.
We have a question from the line of Carmen Rodriguez with La Prensa Grafica. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, good morning. Thank you so much for doing this conference. I would like to know why is not include El Salvador in this support regarding the Eta and Iota. I was reading a little about that and El Salvador is not included in this support.
MR RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Carmen.
MR CALLAGHAN: Yeah.
MR RODRIGUEZ: This is Hugo. I can – I’ll quickly jump in here and just note that our humanitarian assistance is driven by requests from host governments. And in the case of Eta and Iota, the Government of El Salvador did not request our assistance. I know there were conversations between the government and the U.S. embassy there in the event that assistance was needed. But in the end, it was determined that El Salvador had sufficient resources to deal with the crisis that resulted from the storm.
Tim, did you have anything you wanted to add?
MR CALLAGHAN: Yeah. I mean – and obviously, thank you. Yeah, and as DAS Rodriguez said, there was no request from the Government of El Salvador. For us, this typically means that the government can manage the response efforts, and then when we didn’t get a request, obviously our focus went to where the extensive damage was in the region, which was Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and then later Colombia with the devastation we saw in the islands.
MR RODRIGUEZ: And if memory serves, Salvador had earlier in the hurricane season requested assistance as a result of a tropical storm that came through the area and we provided assistance at that time.
MR CALLAGHAN: Correct, yeah. In May, with the heavy rains that occurred from a tropical storm, as DAS Rodriguez stated, we did get a request and the U.S. Government did respond with several million of support, again, in coordination with the government.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you so much.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Jason Beaubien with NPR. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, this is Jason Beaubien with NPR. I wonder if you could just put into perspective the scale of these two storms. I mean, is it similar to Mitch? Is it worse than other things that we’ve seen? I mean, these haven’t gotten as much attention given the COVID situation and so much else that’s been going on in the world. I wonder, as people who have responded to other disasters, how – if you could sort of try to quantify how extensive this is.
MR CALLAGHAN: Yeah, DAS Rodriguez, if you’re okay, can I take this one? Yeah.
MR RODRIGUEZ: Yes, absolutely. Go ahead.
MR CALLAGHAN: So – thank you. Yeah, I’ve been with USAID doing emergency relief for 20-plus years, 19 years based out of the embassy in Costa Rica. This is the worst rainmaking situation I’ve seen regionally in my careers here in Costa Rica, and I’ve covered the region. Obviously, Mitch was devastating with its wind impacts and it sat over Honduras. But since then – again, as I mentioned in my opening remarks – to have two Category Four storms back-to-back with wind impacts, obviously, in Nicaragua and the rain impacts in Guatemala, Honduras, and also Nicaragua – it’s something I haven’t seen in my 20 years.
And you have to remember the – also the fact that it happened at the end of hurricane season, which – and this hurricane season has been historic. So the amount of rain that fell, especially in a place like Honduras with, again, roads and landslides, as DAS Rodriguez mentioned in his remarks – we were still seeing landslides after the storms passed when it was raining because the grounds were and still are incredibly saturated.
So from my standpoint regionally, the amount of rain that these two storms and the impact it had on communities and roads and bridges and landslides in rural communities and so forth, it’s certainly something I haven’t seen. The worst amount of rain I had seen in one country was 2001, Hurricane Michelle, I believe. But regionally, to have multiple countries impacted at the same time, this has certainly been a tremendous impact, again, because of the rains. Thank you.
MR RODRIGUEZ: And if I could just add, Jason, Mitch – the death toll is estimated as a result of Mitch at 9,000, more or less, victims. And in the case of these storms, the changes that the governments of Honduras and Guatemala has implemented since Mitch kept that number in the low hundreds. They were able to start moving people out of the storm path in advance, and their response into the affected areas was much quicker given the lessons learned from Mitch in ’98. So thankfully, a great deal less loss of life, but the damage in terms of costs, the destruction – roads, bridges, houses – is just as high. Area affected, damage to agriculture is definitely Mitch-scale, if not bigger.
MODERATOR: I think we have availability now for any follow-up questions if Carmen or Jason have them. Thank you.
OPERATOR: And again, ladies and gentlemen, please press 1 then 0.
There are no follow-up questions. Please continue.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. If there are no other follow-ups – and both of you can feel free to contact me by email if you have any – we will conclude this briefing. I wanted to thank both of our speakers for providing this update on this important assistance to those in need after these devastating hurricanes, so thank you both.
MR RODRIGUEZ: You’re welcome.
MODERATOR: And thank you to our journalists for participating. This briefing is now concluded.