The Cable

Inside the Haiti response situation room

On the ninth floor of the Ronald Reagan building in downtown Washington, the lights are on 24 hours a day in the room where the massive U.S. government response effort to the Haiti crisis is being coordinated. The first conference call is at 7:30 each morning, after which a series of issue teams that make ...

On the ninth floor of the Ronald Reagan building in downtown Washington, the lights are on 24 hours a day in the room where the massive U.S. government response effort to the Haiti crisis is being coordinated.

The first conference call is at 7:30 each morning, after which a series of issue teams that make up the interagency task force on Haiti get their assignments for the day. They regroup around 5 p.m. to prepare for another call in the early evening. But the desks are manned throughout the night.

"People have been working flat out 24/7. Some folks have been up until 5 a.m.," Susan Reichle, the USAID official who heads the coordination effort, told The Cable.

Reichle is not in charge of the entire relief effort — her boss, USAID chief Rajiv Shah is — but her shop is the clearinghouse through which the information is channeled up and down the chain within the U.S. government.

"It’s a way for all that information at Port-au-Prince to come up to the interagency and a way for us to get messages back to Port-au-Prince from here," she said. "We deconflict issues and problems all day."

The interagency team is led by USAID’s Office for Disaster Assistance, but has representation from an alphabet soup of government entities, including DHS, FEMA, the Coast Guard, DOD, the Joints Chiefs, OSD, OCHA, HHS, the State Department, U.S. Southern Command, and U.S. Transportation Command.

Shah isn’t in the room. He’s busy interfacing with top officials and lawmakers. Shah met with national security advisor Jim Jones yesterday, speaks with people like State Department counselor Cheryl Mills and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen regularly, and went to Capitol Hill today to brief House appropriators.

But Shah "is the decision maker," Reichle emphasized.

The interagency team coordinated by USAID doesn’t have complete control over every aspect of the mission. For example, Southcom still makes the decisions about how to vet the 1,400 daily requests for planes to land at the lone Haiti airport. There are only about 140 landing spots to offer, and only about 50 percent of those go to humanitarian missions. The rest are divided between foreign government flights and military missions.

And the coordination mission has been a mix of successes and failures. In one example, a team of experts from Health and Human Services sat idle for days in Port-au-Prince because there were no vehicles or security personnel to move them and they had no direction as to what to do.

"Every team has had to go through some struggles to get into countries and then when they are in the country to do their jobs," Reichle acknowledged.

In the long term, it’s not clear that USAID will remain in charge. Although President Obama announced an initial $100 million for Haiti relief, a long-term budget is being put together at State’s Bureau of Foreign Assistance, the "F" Bureau, led by Rob Goldberg.

In the past, USAID administrators have supervised the F Bureau, but under the current arrangement its money (as well as USAID’s) is controlled by Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew, rather than Shah.

For now, the search-and-rescue mission continues, but the interagency team is beginning to shift some of its focus to longer-term needs like shelter, food, water, and health. Eventually, Reichle said, the center of gravity will move back to the regular parts of USAID.

"It always transitions over to the regional bureau. They’re the ones with the lead over the long term," she said.

The administration completed a Haiti policy review recently and the crux of the review will still be implemented. The goal is to build Haiti better than it was before the quake.

The goal, Reichle said, is "decreased dependency over the long term on foreign assistance," and to "build a foundation for a more stable, resilient, and market orientated Haiti."

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