Report to the President
REGARDING: Presidential Delegation to Central America
DATE: Friday, November 13, 1998
Mr. President, the people of Central America have suffered a disaster of Biblical proportions. The pace of their recovery depends, to a large measure, on what we as their neighbors do to help them, and on the long-term involvement of the international community.
Every member of your delegation to Central America is deeply grateful for the opportunity you gave us to visit this region and witness firsthand the devastation that has resulted from Hurricane Mitch.
The scale of the disaster is beyond anything we have ever witnessed, beyond anything ever recorded in the region, surpassing even the devastation of the Managua earthquake of 1972. The human toll from this disaster is immense -- more than ten thousand lives lost. No one in Central America has been untouched by this tragedy.
On the first day of our trip, we went to the Manuel Bonilla school in Honduras. Before the storm, it was a resource for the entire community -- now, it's submerged in mud. A courageous and determined group of local men and women in the community are working to dig it out of the muck and turn it into a medical facility to heal the sick and injured. Our delegation pitched in to help -- spending the day shoveling mud and caring for young children, who are still bewildered by what has become of their homes, their neighborhoods, and their families.
That evening, we slept in tents outside a shelter in the Japon School, where we talked to people about where they were when the storm hit. Even though there was a warning system in place, many lived too far from town to hear it. Before they knew it, they had water up to their chests. I met one woman who was six months pregnant. I met a grandmother caring for her grandchildren. I even met a blind man who had to find his way out of danger by touching the wet and slippery walls. Each had lost everything. All are now living together in one large room. Disease is rampant.
The next day in Managua, we went to Ciudad Sandino to see the flood damage. An entire village was completely washed away -- wiped out. People are finding what shelter they can beneath sheets of plastic draped over branches stuck in the ground. One small stream trickles through the area, but it is contaminated. The people are battling outbreaks of both cholera and malaria. They have to rebuild -- but are mostly concerned now about food and water. We spent the day unloading supplies -- baby food, water, and diapers.
Remarkably, Mr. President -- even among men and women who have lost hundreds of friends and family members -- people have not lost heart. Their spirit and determination in the face of this disaster inspired every member of this Delegation. They need help, but they are not waiting for help. They are doing everything they can to pick up what pieces remain and rebuild. In Honduras, they are already working on a plan to rebuild lost homes. In the make-shift shelters in Managua, many people had tape measures and were measuring foundations for new walls they will build as soon as materials arrive. They are suffering immense pain and grief, but their spirits defy fatigue and discouragement. They will get through this. And their North American neighbors will be by their side.
We were all heartened to see the hard work being put forth by our Embassy personnel, USAID relief workers, their private U.S. organizations, the U.S. military and all the other U.S. Government people who have rushed to the scene. The professionalism and determination of all those joined in relief efforts is uplifting and appreciated tremendously by the people of Central America.
As you know, the American relief presence in the region is large and growing. The announcement of $70 million in aid you made last week, and the additional $10 million you authorized me to announce on Tuesday, is a welcome and desperately needed investment in the recovery of our neighbor countries in Central America.
During our trip, I was graciously received by President Flores of Honduras and President Aleman of Nicaragua. Both are diligently coordinating relief efforts, even as they themselves share in the grief and suffering that have come to their people. They expressed their immense gratitude for U.S. efforts to help their countries through this crisis -- but the scale and scope of the disaster demands that they ask for more.
After seeing the extent of the damage -- the loss of hundreds of thousands of homes and the catastrophic collapse of important infrastructure -- I have prepared, in consultation with our delegation and relief experts, a set of recommendations I believe will help address the needs of our Central American neighbors, in a way consistent with the close ties of friendship between our nations.
As I noted earlier, Mr. President, the efforts and accomplishments of our military personnel have been heroic, but they could multiply their impact if they had more resources. I understand that an additional $45 million in draw-down authority is available now that could support expanded DoD efforts in relief operations. In addition, Mr. President, I recommend that you look for ways to expand DoDs efforts further. They are doing a tremendous job.
Mr. President, I would also like to share with you the sense of urgency conveyed by Presidents Flores and Aleman as they discussed their concerns over their external debt, and their desires for enhanced trade with the United States. They both know it will take immense amounts of time and money to rebuild their countries. They believe that an even playing field in their trade relations with the United States would speed their economic recovery.
They also believe that their foreign debt -- under the present circumstances -- is an immense obstacle to rebuilding their economies. Mr. President, I recommend that you find the best way to provide bilateral and multilateral debt relief for these stricken countries, and to support offers of emergency financial assistance from the international financial institutions. I know your team has already been in deep discussions on these issues, and that you will do all you can to help relieve these countries of any burdens and barriers that will hinder efforts to rebuild their nations.
Also of concern to the Presidents are the immigration issues that confront Central Americans in the United States. I understand that the INS has authorized a temporary stay of deportations for Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala through November 23rd. Clearly, we cannot deport people whose native countries have been devastated. For humanitarian reasons, I ask that you suspend deportations through the holidays. I also ask that you review U.S. policy early in the new year, based on recommendations to be provided on an urgent basis by appropriate agencies. Finally, President Flores expressed concern about unequal immigration status among Central Americans residing in the United States. I ask that you consider introducing legislation that would put Central Americans on equal footing with one another in the eyes of I.N.S.
I also recommend the rapid deployment of skilled U.S. disaster experts and others who can work at the side of government officials, local groups, and those most immediately affected to aid them in their efforts. As I suggested in my Tuesday phone call to you, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Agency for International Development could work together to deploy Spanish-speaking FEMA officials who have recent experience in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. They could make an immense difference.
As you know, the Peace Corps maintains a "reserve" of experienced "Peace Corps Alumni" they call their "Crisis Corps." They have names of about 2,000 volunteers, who can be very effective in working with non-government organizations and local groups on relief and recovery projects. These volunteers could be mobilized to provide short-term assistance in the Central America recovery effort. We need to draw attention to this unique resource and encourage its full use. In the longer-term, we should encourage the Peace Corps and USAID to make this resource even more effective by finding ways to speed deployment, and perhaps explore ways to give these volunteers the right to return to their places of employment after spending time overseas during a disaster.
We should look to USAID, the Peace Corps and other groups to expand our existing mechanisms for dealing with disasters such as Mitch, and to explore new initiatives to draw on our wealth of human resources. This could include gathering significant numbers of private citizen volunteers, including our seniors.
The private sector is keen to support and participate in assistance efforts. USAID coordinates these efforts, and would be an experienced guide in helping expand private sector involvement. In particular, we should find ways to facilitate efforts of U.S. companies operating in disaster-stricken areas to provide goods and services to the relief effort.
It was apparent from our visit that the most valued and vital element of any relief effort is project coordination. Continuous improvement of project coordination should be an ongoing goal of our relief effort. There are many private organizations throughout the United States that have valuable talent and experience in this area. Building a registry of private organizations and a means for coordinating reporting activities -- perhaps using the Internet -- could help us improve and accelerate our crisis response. There is no doubt that -- over the next months and years -- the disaster relief operations in Central America will give rise to many novel approaches. Creating a storehouse of information on the relief efforts will help ensure we don't lose the benefits of the lessons we learn in this disaster -- so that we can take advantage of them to help minimize the grief and suffering that may come in future disasters.
Also, Mr. President, President Aleman said that he would greatly appreciate U.S. expertise to assist with reforestation in the aftermath of the catastrophic mudslide. The Nicaraguan people would like to develop a memorial park at the site of the disaster. In addition, the President wondered if it was possible to get technical assistance to help them better understand their volcanoes and the dangers associated with them. The U.S. Geological Survey and USAID has environmental experts standing by, ready to provide this assistance. Mr. President, I recommend you offer the Nicaraguan people the full benefit of U.S. expertise in this area, to help them speed their recovery, restore their environment, and remember their loved ones.
Finally, Mr. President, we may not be capable of preventing disasters, but we are capable of preventing deaths -- by anticipating disasters, warning the people in danger, and doing everything we can for their safety. Before I left for Central America, I received a fascinating briefing by the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and MEDEA. These organizations work together to use intelligence, geological, and weather data to prepare a remarkably vivid picture of the hurricane and its aftermath. Analysis of this type could have warned people living in high-risk areas to evacuate when the rains started. Even now, the information can help relief workers find the hardest hit areas and identify critical damage to road networks and utilities. This approach can also identify danger areas (such as areas at risk for mud-slides) so people can avoid them when they rebuild towns and roads. Perhaps most valuable, this technology can allow us to monitor the long-term environmental impact of the storm and literally watch the recovery process. That way, we can identify problem areas such as failing crops before they become major crises.
The United States has this technology right now. But we do not have it deployed where we need it. The Vice President has been promoting the development of this concept -- referred to as G-DIN, the Global Disaster Information Network -- for more than a year now. I understand that relatively modest investments can help expand this network, and help ensure that the people who really need this information both in the US and abroad can get it when and how they need it.
Mr. President, our friends and neighbors in Central America are well aware of your personal commitment to address their immediate and long-term recovery needs. They are touched by our generosity; we are moved by their bravery -- moved not just to emotion, but moved to action. This is a decisive moment in our relations with the people of Central America. They need us now, desperately. And they will never, ever, forget any kindness we can show them in their time of need.
The members of the delegation and I again thank you for the honor of representing you in Honduras and Nicaragua. We are all eager to be of continuing service as we help our Central American neighbors rebuild their homes, their lives, and their nations.