Friday, January 15, 2010

Ambassador Merten: The Embassy is Doing Its Best

Register online and help the US Embassy /Consulate locate you in an emergency

This morning, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten speaks with TODAY’s Meredith Vieira about logistical challenges behind search and rescue operations in Haiti. He also said the embassy is doing its best but has no way to check on the 40,000 or more Americans estimated to be in the country. This NBC report says that about 450 Americans have been evacuated since Tuesday's disaster. Ambassador Kenneth Merten said "a steady stream" of U.S. citizens has been showing up at the airport and embassy seeking help leaving the country, but so far not in overwhelming numbers.

I think the main challenge in calamities like this is how do you track or trace a large number of people overseas in an emergency.  Even if you have the local addresses, what do you do when phones are not working, when there are no doors to knock on, or when entire neighborhoods are simply gone?

This city has an estimated population of between 2.5 and 3 million people.  The UN’s initial estimate is that 10 percent of the housing in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince has been destroyed, leaving some 300,000 people homeless.  The World Food Program is aiming to feed two million people for about 30 days. That's pretty mind-boggling.

The report also says that U.S. soldiers were sorting the Americans for evacuation at the airport. It quotes that people without citizenship were angry and cites one Vladimir Lexus, a 23-year-old musician who lives in Miami who said: "I can't believe this!"  I don't know what the airport set up is like but if 450 Americans have already been evacuated, I'm sure there are Consular Officials at the airport to check on the citizenship of evacuees and prepare evacuation documentation as they are required to do.  

Update 1/17/2010: This one from NDS: Haiti: Some Numbers | Number of consular staff working the massive crowds at Haiti's airport, before reinforcements from Consular Affairs arrived: 4.  That's right. 4.

This is perhaps also a learning moment for the American traveling public and for those Americans who reside overseas.  First -- as the State Department points out “Millions of Americans travel abroad every year and encounter no difficulties. However, U.S. embassies and consulates assist nearly 200,000 Americans each year who are victims of crime, accident, or illness, or whose family and friends need to contact them in an emergency. When an emergency happens, or if natural disaster, terrorism, or civil unrest strikes during your foreign travel, the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate can be your source of assistance and information.”

If you are overseas now, take a moment to register here with the State Department ( By registering your trip or your presence overseas, you help the embassy or consulate locate you when you might need them the most. Registration is voluntary and costs nothing, but it should be a big part of a traveler or overseas resident's planning and security.

Second – if you have children born overseas, it is helpful to document their citizenship as soon as you are able.  You don’t want to document their citizenship amidst an evacuation.  

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