(Talon News) — Secretary of State Colin Powell briefed reporters on Monday en route to Bangkok, Thailand for a meeting with foreign leaders regarding the devastation resulting from the Indian Ocean tsunamis which have so far claimed over 140,000 lives.
Sec. Powell, who is traveling with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said that President Bush wanted both men to travel to the area “to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the nations of the region and to make an assessment, as well, of the situation and see what else we might need to do.”
“[A] lot of aid is now pouring in,” Powell said. “I think the real challenge will be the distribution of the aid out of the ports and off the airfields.
Powell said that over $2 billion now has been committed by the international community, but added that the funds will not be spent right away.
“This is money that we’ll spend out over an extended period of time,” Powell explained. “There is no shortage of money at the moment. The international organizations are being adequately provided for now, but there will be needs in the future. [O]ne of the things we’re going to be looking at is getting some money into the system that could help employment — employment that will give people economic wherewithal, but also can use their energy to help in the rehabilitation and reconstruction effort.
Gov. Bush also addressed reporters and said that the trip was important not only to show the administration’s support for the relief efforts, but the American people’s support as well.
“I guess that’s partly my role to be here, having gone through the hurricanes last summer and received the benefit of the outpouring of support of the American people that allowed us to recover quickly,” Gov. Bush said.
“My focus here is to look at the assessment, as Secretary Powell said, but also focus on the longer-term recovery issues and report back to the president,” Gov. Bush added. “And I look forward to doing that. The relief effort is a logistical nightmare, but it is something that can be overcome.
Bush added that irrespective of how much tragedy is taking place, there will be a way to get food and water and medicine to people.
“The long-term recovery issues are the ones that are a greater challenge, and the ones where I think the expertise of our country can be brought to bear to really help people,” Bush noted. “Millions of people are counting on that help, and I know that our country, once again, will be there to help them.”
When asked to specify some of the biggest issues to be faced, Powell said the major challenge “is going to be the retail distribution of aid.”
“It’s one thing to get stacks of bottled water and food and both the governor and I have been through this: he in Florida, and me in a number of places in the world where you have a sudden infusion of assistance: Provide comfort in the northern mountains of Turkey and Iraq come to mind back in 1991,” Powell explained. “You have a sudden infusion of assistance and then you get organized on the ground to distribute that assistance in a sensible way.”
Powell added, “And then you start to relocate people back to their homes, or into temporary homes, so that you’re giving them shelter and you’re able to sustain the population. And then you make sure you’re on guard for disease and you make sure you’re providing for sanitation and clean water, wholesale, not just bottled water.”
In addressing the coordination of efforts, Sec. Powell said the current challenge is unprecedented, with twelve countries being involved in a single catastrophe.
“[T]here is no organization standing in place, ready to deal with something like this,” the secretary of state said. “So, as a result, individual nations started to take action. And, that’s why three days into the crisis, President Bush directed the creation of … a core group of four nations representing nations in the region, who had the capacity to help others. I include the United States in that, in the region, because of our military presence in the region, and our diplomatic presence and our communications ability.”
When asked by a reporter whether the trip by Sec. Powell and Gov. Bush might “siphon some rescue, relief efforts away, because helicopters, policemen are going to be involved” in transporting the delegation, Powell said that all of the nations on the trip “have welcomed the visit.”
“In fact, when I had concerns that we would be intruding in Sri Lanka and did not have it on the original schedule, the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka called and said, ‘Please come, if it’s only for a few hours at the airport in Colombo. It’s important for Sri Lankans to see United States presence here.'” Powell said. “So, we have been careful in the scheduling of the trip to not interfere with the relief effort.”
Gov. Bush added that it is important to encourage the aid workers who are “on the ground right now … working 24 hours a day.”
“So, I know that the secretary is very sensitive about making sure we don’t get in the way, but I also think we need to be mindful of the fact that there’s a lot of work being done and someone needs to put an arm around somebody and say, ‘thank you for a job well done,'” Bush said.