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Presidents Bush and Clinton's Tsunami Region Visit, February 19-21


Ambassador Douglas A. Hartwick, Senior Coordinator of the State Department's Tsunami Reconstruction; Karin Torgerson, Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of USA Freedom Corps
Foreign Press Center Briefing
Washington, DC
February 25, 2005

2:00 P.M. EDT Hartwick at FPC

Real Audio of Briefing

MR. DENIG: (In progress) and as you know, the two presidents recently traveled to Asia to visit the affected countries themselves. We’re very pleased today to be able to present to you a briefing by two experts. Our first speaker will be Karin Torgerson, the Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the USA Freedom Corp, an office in the White House. And our second briefer today is Ambassador Douglas Hartwick, the Senior Coordinator of the State Department Tsunami Reconstruction Task Force. Each of our briefers will have an opening statement and after that they’ll be glad to take your questions.

And I will therefore first hand over to Ms. Torgerson.

MS. TORGERSON: Good afternoon. Early on the morning of December 26th, 2004, the seas of South and Southeast Asia turned monstrous. An earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale deep under the ocean off the coast of Sumatra caused a tsunami the likes of which had not been seen for decades. In a matter of hours, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, millions of people were displaced, and countless livelihoods were destroyed.

In the wake of this disaster, on January 3, 2005, President George W. Bush announced that his father, former President George Bush, and former President Bill Clinton - as he called them, two of America’s most distinguished private citizens - had agreed to lead a private sector fundraising drive in support of the tsunami victims in South and Southeast Asia. Among their other efforts, the two former presidents immediately filmed a public service announcement, directing Americans to go to our website, www.usafreedomcorps.gov, to find information about the charities working in the region to provide relief.

Since January 1st, 2005, more than 2 million visitors have gone to our website and the PSA that the two presidents filmed has garnered more than $2 million in donated media time since its release on January 7th, 2005. Estimates from the Center on Philanthropy at the University of Indiana currently placed the level of American private sector donations at more than $1 billion. And that’s just the private sector, not counting any of the government money. American corporations and foundations make up more than $290 million of this total. The actual figures, in fact, may be much higher. For example, at least 43 of the charities providing relief in the affected regions have not reported the funds they’ve received.

On February 4th, 2005, President Bush announced that he was sending the two former presidents as an official delegation to tour the tsunami-affected areas in Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The delegation, of which Ambassador Hartwick and I were pleased to be part of, left on February 17th, 2005.

The mission of the trip was threefold: to provide an opportunity for the two former presidents to learn more about the needs in the regions to aid them in their efforts to encourage additional donations; to allow them the opportunity to build and sustain goodwill on behalf of the United States in the region; and finally, to draw the world’s attention to the continuing needs of the region. On each of these fronts, the trip was a tremendous success.

And I’ll pass now to Ambassador Hartwick to give you some of those details.

AMBASSADOR HARTWICK: Thank you, Karin. I, too, appreciated the opportunity to join the two former presidents on this historic and rather unique trip. As Karin suggested, the presidents’ trip was moving testimony to the fact that America cares deeply about the people affected by this tragedy. We are committed to providing humanitarian and relief, reconstruction, to support those in need. As you may know, the President - George W. Bush - has recently requested a supplemental package of $950 million, most of which will be new funds to assist in this reconstruction effort.

So overall, the United States is helping lead a coordinated international response by working with the international community, the United Nations, international financial institutions, relief organizations and many NGOs. Although America is at the forefront at this massive international response, we fully recognized that the affected countries themselves are responsible for their recovery needs. We will continue to work in partnership with the affected countries to ensure that assistance is targeted where it is needed most and that this assistance is distributed in a fair and transparent manner.

It’s been approximately two months now since the tsunami struck the region. Each country suffered in different ways and has different needs, but all of these countries suffered a tremendous loss. We express our sincere condolence to the victims and their families who suffered as a result of this terrible tragedy.

But we are also inspired by the courage of the people and the governments of this region. I share great praise for Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, India, Malaysia, Somalia and others that also suffered. The United States has coordinated very well with these countries, especially with our military and other immediate relief operations.

Let me turn briefly to the four stops we made on this presidential mission and then Karin and I will be happy to answer any questions you have.

We started off visiting in Phuket. Being met at the airport by the Foreign Minister and President Thaksin’s wife. We went immediately by helicopter up to about an hour, I'd say about 40-minute helicopter flight north to the area that was probably hardest hit along the western coast of Thailand. There we had a chance to visit a village called Ban Nam Khem, a village that was two-thirds destroyed. There we had a chance to meet some schoolchildren and watch people rebuilding houses and watch some of the work going on for rebuilding and repairing some of the fishing vessels that were there.

The devastation was very evident. By air we could see many, many of the hotels that many of us saw in the immediate aftermath. We saw the hotels now seven-weeks later, kind of some of them had been repaired, most of them empty and not repaired yet.

We returned to -- back down to Phuket, had an opportunity to the Wall of Remembrance, built really to permit people who were coming to grieve to be able to go and give their condolences, and then ended the evening with a press conference and a dinner with the Prime Minister of Thailand, and where we discussed our good cooperation together in providing relief activities from Utapao, the Thai Airbase, that really provided the United States and several other military forces in the region to come together and work in a coordinated way to provide immediate relief, which was very important.

Following morning, we went down to Medan, Indonesia, the island of Sumatra and met with President Yudhoyono and several of his cabinet, particularly those concerned with the tsunami relief and reconstruction effort. We had an excellent meeting, discussed both the needs probably that they envision for Aceh, expressing hope that this time and effort to come together might provide opportunities for better reconciliation between some of the Acehnese groups who have been resisting the government Jakarta. President Yudhoyono fully agreed with all of that. And we talked about the importance of making sure that the probably billions and billions of dollars that will indeed be needed to go into Aceh reconstruction will be spent in a way that assures accountability to all who donated the money.

We then went up to Banda Aceh, which as many of you know was by far the worst hit area. Hit in two ways, it was hit, of course, by the earthquake which immediately proceeded the tsunami. And then just washed away by the tsunami. It was sort of hard to describe what it was like. I think all of us have seen the videos and so forth repeatedly on television but -- and I'm sure Karin would agree -- that it was nothing like seeing it when you’re on the ground what devastation happened. Literally, most of the village disappeared as far as your eye could see, and of course with it most of the inhabitants of that particular village where we were. Lampuuk was its name.

The presidents had a chance to talk to a number of survivors and some of the relief people on the ground. It was truly a very moving experience. We then returned to our helicopters and we did a bit more of the view of the general region and returned to the airport and flew on to Sri Lanka.

In Colombo we had a chance to meet with the President and a number of her key cabinet people and some of the opposition and discussed some of the Sri Lankan needs and the nature of the impact of the wave there that hit. And the following morning we helicoptered out to southern part of Sri Lanka, unfortunately not the area that was the worst hit, but it just proved to be awfully far given our short time period. But we did get a chance to visit the southern coast, which was badly hit as well, to see the nature of the damage and then have a chance to visit the private sector project that was providing desalinization water for the communities there and also a school where we had a number of schoolchildren that had been pooled together, and a lot of the painting and artwork they’ve been doing over the past several weeks to kind of express themselves. Again, the presidents were again quite moved by that whole experience.

We then returned, caught our airplane and went to our last stop, which was to the Maldives, islands out about an hour and twenty minute flight from Colombo. And there many of you might not be too familiar with the Maldives, but it’s a series of islands, really small islands for the most part, and you can imagine out in the middle of the Indian Ocean out there with the tsunami passing through, they were fairly exposed. And I think the tallest island was about nine meters high, no more, so just about every island was affected, some more than others. So we met with the President and all of his key cabinet officials and their disaster relief task force and they presented us with a very interesting presentation about their needs as they envision it to both deal with their recovery and reconstruction and then perhaps to maybe strengthen their islands in the event of something similar to this happening sometime in the future. And it was thoughtful, well put together.

And at that point, we returned, met with the press, had a chance to speak to, as it turns out, early morning Sunday shows in the United States, which was in the evening time where we were, and were able to recap a bit of the impressions we had. And the two presidents did that in part by bringing a couple of hand-drawn pictures they’d received in Thailand, but it was really symbolic of the whole trip of the pain of the young children they had seen, drawing these pictures of missing family members and cars floating and trees down, and I think it just basically captured the moment and the whole point of this presidential mission, which was try to help these people try to recover as quickly as possible.

So that was our trip. I had one little thing. We did take a quick stop as we left Banda Aceh out to visit the USS Fort McHenry, which was a ship off the coast - the last remaining US military ship with helicopters - to say thanks to the American men and women onboard, who were completing their missions. It was the last of the ones out there. It was accompanying the USS Mercy, which was a hospital ship. The hospital ship remains off the coast of Sumatra, but the military ship had basically completed its mission because all of the support necessary, helicopter and otherwise, by this time now, six-seven weeks after the disaster, it’s pretty much available, on the ground already. So they -the two presidents thanks the men and women, and had some photos, and then we departed.

So with that, be happy to take some of your questions. Karin, why don't you come join me.

MR. DENIG: If I could ask you to please, as usual, use the microphone and identify yourself and your news organization. We'll start with the gentleman on the right here, please.

QUESTION: My name is Guga Pardede, VOA Indonesian Service.

How this charity money would be used particularly in Indonesia?

AMBASSADOR HARTWICK: Well, at this point, we are waiting for the assessment on the part of the Indonesian Government, which is a very large undertaking. The Indonesian Government, working with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank is completing what is referred to as the needs assessment to have a better understanding exactly what needed to be rebuilt. Of course, and in coordination with other donors, with the World Bank, with the Asian Development Bank, the NGO community, you will have to figure out the best uses for these funds that have been collected. And we will be having a series of meetings and discussions over the next several months, really, to fine-tune this process to make sure that the money is spent as well as possible.

MR. DENIG: Okay, the gentleman behind him, please.

QUESTION: I'm Herman Galut from VOA Indonesian Service.

Did the visit of the two former presidents influence the minds of Indonesians, especially the (inaudible) of United States that foreign assistance is needed because the first phase of the tsunami (inaudible) tendency to resist foreign intervention?

Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HARTWICK: Well, my comment is that it's hard to imagine, as I said in my opening remarks, how badly Aceh was hit by this wave and by the earthquake and it will be a daunting task to pull together the necessary assistance from around the world It's hard to imagine, as I said in my opening remarks, how badly Aceh was hit by this wave and by the earthquake and it will be a daunting task to pull together the necessary assistance from around the world and it certainly exceeds the ability, I think, of any one government, the Indonesian Government in this case, to be able to do it all by itself. That probably is the unique aspect of the damage to Indonesia in that the destruction was so vast, so extensive. We know the numbers of people killed and missing are in the hundreds of thousands and that of course reflects kind of what we saw on the ground, which was shocking. So we are proud to be able to try to help, I think as many other countries are, helping the Indonesian Government and the Acehnese people do the best we can to help them recover as quickly as possible, hopefully even to make life in the aftermath of this terrible disaster better than it was before. It will be a lot of work.

MS. TORGESON: The only thing I would add is that both presidents stressed over and over again in the press conference is that it was very important that the local governments direct the recovery and so that is something that they feel very strongly about, that whatever is done is done in a manner in the proper forum so that the local governments have been assisted appropriately.

MR. DENIG: Okay, next question. Yes, sir, in the front here.

QUESTION: Alex Alexander from the Russian News Agency.

With so much money flowing into the region, so much disaster relief, do you have an estimate as to what the percentage of those funds is being wasted due to corruption or sort of inefficiency? Because it's always a problem with these types of efforts.

Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HARTWICK: I guess the simple answer is no, I don't have an estimate of that. I think that in every stop we made, in particular Indonesia, the governments themselves -- President Yudhoyono himself -- made a point to acknowledge that this was of a concern to his government, that he and his cabinet were going to do all that they could to make sure that these funds were expended in a way that was transparent and accountable. There is no doubt that when you're talking about billions and billions of dollars in emergency assistance it's something hard to keep track of, and there's many, many different players you have to remember here, too. So it will be something that I think will take everyone's care and vigilance to keep on top of.

Bear in mind that the reconstruction effort really lies ahead of us, that what is behind us now is the immediate relief and a bit of the recovery, but the reconstruction is all ahead. And this something that will be done, I think, over the next two to three to four years, not in the next two to three or four months. So the ability to put in place practices and procedures that hopefully will prevent or minimize problems of corruption and that kind of thing, we have time to do that better. But we heard that really everywhere we went from the various governments. Presidents Bush and Clinton themselves spoke to that issue when they were doing the morning talk shows, saying that, you know, we have to work with these governments, these governments are concerned about it, and we'll all do the best and we can count on them to work with us to make sure these funds are expended properly and not contribute to corruption.

MR. DENIG: Yes, Steve.

QUESTION: Hi, Steve Kaufman with Washington File.

Number one, I just wanted to double-check that the trip was from the 17th until when?

MS. TORGERSON: Well, President Clinton stayed behind in the Maldives, and I lost track of the dateline time. But I think we left him on the 22nd in the Maldives, which would have been the 21st here. President Bush was back in Houston by the evening of the 22nd.

AMBASSADOR HARTWICK: And again, to say the 19th to the 21st in the region. We arrived on Saturday the 19th and we left on the evening of the 21st.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

And my second question is sort of a what's next in terms of the needs assessment that the two former presidents -- will they be reporting it to President Bush and will those -- will what they see will have an effect on subsequent U.S. aid efforts?

AMBASSADOR HARTWICK: They will be meeting with President Bush fairly soon. They, of course, are private citizens responding and seeking assistance from the private sector, whether it's corporate or private individuals like you and me. And they'll be paying a lot of attention to just what it is and how best to get this money spent and allocated to the needs. As I described earlier, that process is ongoing so we're not quite there yet.

But separate from the public assistance, the USAID money and other agencies that we will be seeking money from the supplemental for that work, that also is being actively looked at to figure out how best to make that have the greatest impact, I think, in the next several months.

MS. TORGERSON: And then, of course, President Clinton will be starting March 1st as the UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Reconstruction so he will continue to have some public role in that function as well.

MR. DENIG: I think I'll take advantage of my position to ask a question, if I may, from Ambassador Hartwick.

AMBASSADOR HARTWICK: Sure.

MR. DENIG: Could you comment on to what extent we're coordinating with other donor nations, particularly with regard to either material aid or expertise that countries are providing?

AMBASSADOR HARTWICK: Well, I think this was a most unusual disaster, the likes of which we really haven't seen in modern times, and as a result of that I think the international outpouring, in addition to American outpouring, has been significant. That, of course, makes the coordination effort very important and there are a series of meetings and opportunities we're all going to be taking to make sure that we're all working together on this front.

First of all, I think most importantly, the coordination effort on the ground in key countries which usually already is dependent on people who are there on the ground, have been working prior to the disaster. That is underway and has been going on for some time and that will, I presume, be critically important and we'll continue to rely on that.

Then, in an international way, the United States is in active contact with various governments whom we know are providing assistance or intend to provide assistance to make sure that we are speaking to one another so that we're able to think through what our plans are in conjunction with what other plans are, and, of course, doing this all the time with the host governments who are themselves putting together their needs assessments and how best to put their plans together, and then how we can help them. We will probably have a couple of big international meetings. There's one scheduled on March 18 at the Asian Development Bank in Manila where we will come together and talk about, among other things probably, the unusual aspects of this assistance outpouring, and that is the enormous amount of money that's coming from the private sector, which is somewhat unusual, because we want to make sure it's integrated well enough that it is itself used well and that we can count on it in a manner that -- and these governments can count on it in a manner that produces the best results.

MR. BOOKBINDER: One of the Indonesian journalists who was not able to make it this afternoon had asked me if I could ask about -- they want to know about the role of the USA Freedom Corps in this whole process, if you could explain that.

MS. TORGERSON: USA Freedom Corps is an office that was created by President Bush after 9/11 to encourage more Americans to volunteer either internationally or within the country. So our mandate, for at least the first two and a half years, has been increasing volunteer service.

When this disaster hit, the call went out to the two former presidents and they happily affirmatively agreed to take on this role, our office was seen as a natural home for being able to coordinate their efforts. USAID has worked for years with a number of these NGOs that were already responding in the region and they had a ready-made list on their website of those NGOs for people to go to and donate money directly to the NGOs. USAID was kind enough to allow us to put that list on our website and we've had that website up, I believe, since January 1st or 2nd, encouraging people to go there to donate. So when the two presidents filmed their PSA [Public Service Announcement], they again forwarded people to our website as being a central location for information about where people could give money if they chose to do so. And as I think I mentioned in my opening remarks, we've had 2 million visitors in just the last seven weeks.

Of course, there are a number of requests that come in for both presidents, either from embassies here or from mom and pop organizations who want them to come and be at a fundraiser that they're having, so we've been working with their offices to forward those requests through, make sure that everyone is followed up with and, you know, just act as much of an informational liaison for the two presidents as we can.

MR. DENIG: Okay, Steve.

QUESTION: Hi, I just wanted to ask, in the countries that you all visited with the two former presidents, did you get a sense that there was a significance grasp of two former political rivals traveling the country? Is that something that you sort of found in the places you visited that that was something apparent?

MS. TORGERSON: I think Doug can probably speak better to some of the meetings that he attended. I can tell you my impression was, particularly with the children. I don't think they really knew who they were but they were excited to have them there. It was obviously cameras and people coming behind them. And in some ways that actually made it more touching because there was a sense of joy and a sense of survival. So it's not something that I actually saw firsthand from the people there. We certainly heard about it in the media that we were reading from the States that certainly they had picked up on that theme, but I think --

AMBASSADOR HARTWICK: And the two presidents themselves, whenever they spoke to the press during the course of the visit, acknowledged that this was, you know, despite the fact they were from different parties, in a sense political adversaries in the past, they had come together for this very, very important event. And my impression was that the unique nature of having two former presidents coming together and traveling around this affected region is something that is most unusual and I think everyone, from the various presidents and prime ministers we met with on down, acknowledged that fact. Whether they were former rivals or not was probably in some respects a little less important. The fact that these two gentlemen, one of them father of our current president, had taken the time and he, a man of some age, to come out and do this, was, I think, very much appreciated by everybody that we talked to. It was quite evident.

MR. DENIG: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: I forgot to mention. My name is Herman Galut, VOA Indonesian Service.

Will USAID provide financial assistance to develop what they call an early warning system for tsunami?

AMBASSADOR HARTWICK: Well, good question. I think one of the issues here in trying to develop an early warning system in that immediate region is the cooperation and the work together of the countries in the region. The United States is not in the region so in a sense it really will require all of the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean area to come together.

The United States has had considerable experience in providing an early warning system in the Pacific area in conjunction with another 25 countries in the Pacific area as well, and I would expect that our experience and possibly some of the technology we've been able to use and perfect over the past several years might be quite helpful in designing a system for the Indian Ocean area.

I think you'll find the scientific community also believes that whatever system comes out of this for the Indian Ocean and perhaps as an Indian Ocean component of a bigger system is able -- that this new system provide early warning for a variety of disaster kinds of events, not just tsunami but earthquakes, cyclones, those kinds of things, and that we will try to link these various disaster regions together. And again, this is looking down several years from now but working it so it all comes out together. So this will be very important.

MR. DENIG: Any final questions?

QUESTION: Yeah. As you mentioned earlier, when you arrived in Medan from Phuket, President Clinton and former President Bush met with Indonesian President. How long did this meeting take place? Did they talk about deadlines, you know, about the presence of foreigners in the Province of Aceh or is the involvement of UN required in coordinating this emergency relief or reconstruction process?

AMBASSADOR HARTWICK: Well, let me take the last part of your question first, the requirement of the UN. The United Nations has been an active player in the recovery effort already and has been working closely with the Indonesian Government and with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank in the needs assessment.

What the future role precisely is not clear, but there are many United Nations relief organizations active in Aceh today. President Yudhoyono welcomed them in providing the assistance. In fact, President Clinton took the opportunity in this visit to say, "I’m going to go back and I’m going to be working for the Secretary General on tsunami reconstruction and recovery, starting in March," as Karin said. And so he asked some questions about how can I make this as valuable as possible to you, the Indonesian Government. So there was discussion.

There was some discussion about the challenge the Indonesian Government faces, given some of the political difficulties they’ve had in the Aceh region of Sumatra. And President Yudhoyono agreed with the two American former presidents that the Acehnese people have suffered a lot from this, and it would be very, very nice to see that out of this terrible disaster that something good comes out of it in terms of a better understanding and reconciliation for the Acehnese people with the Indonesian Government.

What is the future of international organizations, NGOs, and so forth in Aceh? It’s really hard for me to say. It’s up to the Indonesian Government. You know, there are a lot of different people running around there now. My guess would be that in the years -- in the months ahead, there’ll be needy -- there’ll be a need to kind of rationalize who’s doing what there. Because the nature of the problems are changing; the immediate relief period now is giving way to reconstruction and that’s just a different picture.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Any final questions?

All right. In that case, I would like to thank our briefers very much. Also, to point out to all of you, we have several very good fact sheets out front, so please help yourselves to that. And please also keep an eye on the website of the U.S. Agency for International Development because they will continue to update their facts and figures. So, www.usaid.gov will continue to be updated and provide you with the latest.

Thank you very much, Ms. Torgerson. Thank you very much, Ambassador Hartwick. Appreciate it very much.

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