Less than a week after his swearing in, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah is faced with his first major challenge as administration of USAID. He is officially leading the U.S. relief effort through the Office of Disaster Assistance.
Shah was out in front of the cameras today explaining the administration's response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti, where the death toll may have topped 100,000.
After doing a string of television appearances Wednesday morning, including the Today show, Shah joined State Department Counselor Cheryl Mills and Southern Command head Gen. Douglas Fraser to brief reporters on the U.S. response.
"We are working aggressively and in a highly coordinated way across the federal government to bring all of the assets and capacities we have to bear to quickly and effectively provide as much assistance as possible," said Shah, "The goal of the relief effort in the first 72 hours will be very focused on saving lives. That is the president's top priority and is what the president has directed us to do."
Two Urban Search and Rescue Unites of about 72 people each will deploy to Haiti immediately, Shah said, and 15 people doing surveillance and analysis will be on the ground today. Additional teams from various government agencies are being identified to go down there as we speak, Shah added.
Fraser said the military is the moving aircraft carrier Carl Vinson from Norfolk to the area to add to the significant assets already close by. A large amphibious ship with a full Marine Expeditionary Unit, about 2,000 men, could be deployed as well.
The State Department has issued a travel warning and given instructions to the approximately 45,000 American citizens currently in Haiti, Mills said. There were several American injuries but almost all 172 Embassy personnel have been accounted for. Although the UN building sustained considerable damage, the U.S. embassy is in intact and has become a relief hub. Non-essential staff are being exited from the country.
Shah emphasized that the final decisions on the U.S. response would take a little longer to develop.
"This is about having options, and the president has asked us to make sure we look across the entire government, all of our capabilities, and make sure we generate as many options as possible," he said, "And as we get real information on the ground about what is the best way to pursue the president's goal of saving lives in this critical time frame, we'll be able to narrow those options and make strategic decisions."
Earlier Wednesday, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said State hosted a conference call with the American Ambassador Kenneth Merten, DCM David Lindwall, and officials from the White House, Coast Guard, DOD, SOUTHCOM, USAID, and others.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about the tragedy from Honolulu, where she is on route to Asia. She said she has already spoken with Shah, Mills, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright.
She won't cancel her trip but will stay actively involved in the response. The event seriously derails her ambitious plan to improve the overall situation in Haiti.
"It is Biblical, the tragedy that continues to daunt Haiti and the Haitian people. It is so tragic," said Clinton, "They had the four hurricanes last year. We had a good plan. We were just feeling positive about how we could implement that plan. It was US, UN, international. We had donors lined up. We had private businesses beginning to make investments. There was so much hope about Haiti's future, hope that had not been present for years. And along comes Mother Nature and just flattens it."
UPDATE: The State Department released a statement saying that Clinton will cut short her Asia trip and immediately return to Washington due to the crisis.