Thursday, January 14, 2010

US Embassy Haiti and the Hard Work Ahead

 Map from Relief Web

From the Special Briefing yesterday on the situation in Haiti with Cheryl Mills, State Dept Counselor, USAID Administrator Raj Shah and U.S. SOUTHCOM Commander General Douglas Fraser (Washington, DC | January 13, 2010) with updates on the US Embassy and staff in Haiti. 

Cheryl Mills, State Dept Counselor:
[T]here are approximately 45,000 U.S. citizens who are in Haiti. The Embassy Port-au-Prince has activated its Early Warning System to connect with those citizens and establish, one, how they are doing and, two, what support they might need. We have received a number of reports of injured U.S. citizens, so we are working through those to be able to make sure that we are getting everybody the assistance that they need.

There have been a number of calls that have come into our Consular Affairs here at the Department seeking information about loved ones who are in Haiti. For those people who are seeking information, the President gave out this number. I just want to give it one more time, and that is 1-888-407-4747. And that’s a number that you can call into if you are seeking information or seeking to make a request with respect to someone who is – that you are trying to connect with that’s in Haiti.

In terms of Embassy personnel on the ground there, we have about 172 personnel who are there under chief-of-mission authority. As of 8:00 a.m., we had accounted for just about all of them. There were eight personnel who were wounded, four who had been seriously wounded. We have already had U.S. Coast Guard heels on the ground to be able to medevac them to get appropriate care. And so we are beginning to see that happen as well.

We have ordered the departure of approximately 80 Embassy spouses, children, and non-essential personnel. Those will begin happening later today so that we can ensure that the infrastructure and resources that are there can be properly concentrated on those who are in need. The Coast Guard will have planes actually arriving, I believe, this afternoon. And I’m sure General Fraser will be able to speak to that to help and assist in that evacuation process.

The Embassy structure has remained intact and so it has become a point of support. And it has been providing medical support and other support for Haitians and Americans and others who have been able to reach the Embassy.

The Skeptical Bureaucrat on the embassy structure that survived the earthquake: “Those Fortress Embassies occasionally have their uses. The U.S. Mission in Haiti is fortunate to have moved into a new office complex last year, a nice seismically-resistant one with lots of infrastructure support and located close to the airport.

I don’t know if those 172 employees under chief of mission authority mentioned above include local employees. The embassy in Haiti issued 35,000 visas in FY2008 but had a refusal rate of 61.4% in FY 2009. I imagine that the consular workload there is not insignificant; which would also mean we have a large number of first tour officers serving at post. Our American staff will be dealing with the evacuation of their own families as well as the demands at work.  They will most certainly be working in shifts as they account for American citizens in country, help those injured, assist our citizens with contacting families back home, process them for evacuation, and identify and confirm American casualties.  I can’t even begin to imagine the magnitude of the work especially on dealing with casualties – visiting hospitals and mortuaries, if those survived the calamity ... bodies on the streets …. all can quickly be overwhelming.     

One other thing to remember with this kind of devastation -- the local employees who make up a significant number of mission employees will also be dealing with possible casualties in their very own families. The earthquake occurred approximately at 5:30 p.m. So the local staff would have been home or on their way home; which make casualties among the local employees also a real possibility.

The Embassy’s Consular Task Force was set up with four local phone lines for an approximate American population numbering 45,000.  It’s hard to tell how much of the phones and the cell towers are actually working.  And if only a fraction of those individuals have registered at the embassy or have kept their contact information current, the work of tracing them would be doubly hard. And with limited local staff support, that work would be even much harder.  I hope TDY consular personnel from the neighboring missions are on their way to Port-au-Prince. I hope, too that PA personnel get some additional help; Anderson Cooper is in Haiti and a whole lot of folks from the big news media are on their way there.         

Meanwhile, in the State Department’s later briefing yesterday -- the Spokesman said that a small number of American citizens were at the airport and that there were two C-130s on the ground to evacuate Americans.  The Coast Guard has also evacuated a small number of injured Americans. 

He also reported that as of 4 o'clock yesterday, more than 82,800 donors texted their help and $828,000 had been raised so far. By simply texting “Haiti” to "90999" a donation of $10 would automatically be added to one’s cell phone bill. PJ Crowley said that this was an arrangement worked out by the State Department with mGive Foundation Mobile Accord, the Wireless Association and the American Red Cross.

Finally, I should mention that our US Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten is a career diplomat.  He has served as a Deputy Executive Secretary to Secretary Clinton and earlier to Secretary Rice. His Washington experience also includes two assignments in the State Department Operations Center. 

The Executive Secretariat (S/ES), comprised of the Executive Secretary and four Deputy Executive Secretaries, is responsible for coordination of the work of the DepartmentThe Operations Center (S/ES-O) is the Secretary's and the Department's communications and crisis management center. Working 24 hours a day, the Operations Center monitors world events, prepares briefings for the Secretary and other Department principals, and facilitates communication between the Department and the rest of the world. The Operations Center also coordinates the Department's response to crises and supports task forces, monitoring groups, and other crisis-related activities.  It should be comforting to know that our top guy on the ground in Haiti is not a stranger to crises.

Contact Information

US Embassy Haiti
Americans are urged to contact the Embassy via email at to request assistance. Americans in Haiti can call the Embassy’s Consular Task Force at 509-2229-8942, 509-2229-8089, 509-2229-8322, or 509-2229-8672.

State Department Ops Center | Haiti Task Force
The State Department has also created a task force to monitor the emergency. People in the U.S. or Canada with information or inquiries about U.S. citizens in Haiti may reach the Haiti Task Force at 888-407-4747. Outside of the U.S. and Canada, call 202-501-4444.

Locate Relatives Through ICRC

The International Committee of the Red Cross has opened an online page called which aims to accelerate the process of restoring contact between separated family members.  You can check The List to see if your relative's name is on the list, Register yourself if you want to inform your relative of your whereabouts, Register your relative if the relative you’re looking for is not on the list.

The ICRC cautions that it has no means of verifying the information sent through this open network. “The information given on this website is not confidential and can be consulted by everyone. It is the responsibility of the persons publishing information on this website to ensure that no harm can result from this publication. The ICRC cannot be held responsible for any possible negative consequence that might arise from the publication in this website.”

Updated @9:58 pm
Info on Ambassador Merten added.

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