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Transcript of doorstop: 2 September 2005: Hurricane Katrina.

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DATE: 2 September 2005


BRUCE BILLSON: First of all I would like to extend the Australian Government’s condolences to all of those who have lost loved ones during this terrible disaster. We understand why people are concerned about the welfare of people thought to be in the area. It is a very difficult, challenging time for US authorities. The information is unfolding and a true picture of the extent of the loss of life and also the awesome task of evacuating victims is an evolving picture that we’re trying to stay on top of and provide the most up-to-date information we can.

Australians are thought to be involved in the area. We have been in contact through several hundred calls to our hotline, and believe there may be one to two dozen Australians in the area. The hotline is 1800 002214, and we urge all Australians with concerns about loved ones thought to be in the area to contact that hotline and to share with us any new information that comes to hand that they may become aware of.

QUESTION: Has anyone been confirmed from Australia as caught up in it?

BILLSON: Yes. We do know there are Australians in the area. We have very reliable and confirmed accounts of Australians in the area. We have reports also that Australians have been moved from the Astrodome over to the Hilton Hotel. We believe there are some arrangements being made for primary staging posts to assist with the evacuation. There’s quite a considerable effort going in to getting people out of the city, and we’re monitoring those developments.

QUESTION: Are Australian Consulate officials on the ground?

Inquiries: (02) 6277 4879 1

BILLSON: Not in New Orleans itself. The American authorities have denied access to any officials from any foreign government. We’ve made it very clear and repeatedly expressed our desire to get to the area as soon as the opportunity is available so we can take account and provide support for Australian citizens. The first opportunity we have at this time to meet with evacuees is in Houston, which is the staging post for the convoy of buses. We’ve set up a temporary Consulate there; Australian officials are standing by to meet with people as they arrive to provide whatever support and assistance is needed.

QUESTION: What sort of contribution is Australia making to ….?

BILLSON: We’ve made an offer to the American authorities, not only in terms of expertise but sadly in our region, Australian expertise has played a very crucial role in disasters in our region, and we have some body of knowledge that may be of use to the Americans. We’ve made that offer; we’re awaiting for advice from the American authorities as to what assistance they would appreciate from Australia and how we can be most helpful.

We are considering pre-deploying two emergency management authority experts to our Embassy in Washington to be able to liaise directly with those authorities. That’s under active consideration now while we wait for a clear assessment of the needs of the American authorities and how we can be of most assistance.

QUESTION: Did those people work in the Tsunami …?

BILLSON: Well, they’ve had a broad range of expertise, and part of the reason why we’re making the offer of our expertise available is that Australians have done some excellent work in a range of disaster environments, and we’re prepared to make that expertise available if that would be helpful to the American effort.

QUESTION: Are any Australians known to be missing?

BILLSON: At this stage the information is unclear. Most or the overwhelming majority of people in New Orleans and in the hurricane affected area took the advice of the American authorities to leave the area. As you can imagine, some of those arrangements for leaving the area have not left a clear trail of people’s movements. So not only are we establishing whether there are Australians in the area directly affected, we’re also checking out the possible location and confirming the welfare of people who may have left the area and gone to one of the other safer areas in the region.

Inquiries: (02) 6277 4879 2

QUESTION: Have you got a count of the number of Australians affected in the area?

BILLSON: Well, at this stage the information is unclear. We believe there may be one to two dozen in the affected area, although that is very fluid. The numbers are hopping around as new information comes to hand, and communications are very difficult into the area directly affected with mainly public telephones being the most reliable way of making contact with outside authorities and loved ones.

QUESTION: Why did it take so long for the size of this emergency to evolve?

BILLSON: Well, it’s been—you’ve seen the images on the television. They are absolutely compelling that this is a very, very substantial disaster, and even the most wealthy and powerful nation in the world is finding difficulty in contending with the scale of the disaster. I think those images are compelling; our hearts go out to people contending with stifling heat after the consequences of a hurricane and the inundation, and the American authorities assure us that they are ramping up activity to evacuate people out of that area.

QUESTION: Do you think that’s a little late, though? There’s criticism that perhaps they were under-prepared.

BILLSON: Well, that’s not something I’m an expert in; that’s why we’re offering emergency management authority expertise if that would be helpful, based on our experience. If we can make a positive contribution to assist the US authorities and their relief and evacuation effort, we stand ready to make that contribution.

QUESTION: Is their delay in accepting that a frustration?

BILLSON: I’m not sure quite what the situation is, other than to say the constant advice we’re getting back from US authorities that they are singularly focused on evacuating people out of the disaster area. That’s their primary objective; that’s where all the energy is being directed. We’re offering assistance if we can support that effort and the relief effort more generally, and we’re waiting to hear how we can be of most assistance.

QUESTION: US authorities were allowed on the ground after other disaster relief efforts, such as the tsunami; is it frustrating for the Australian Government that you can’t get Australian Consulate officials on the ground? Do you think it’s fair?

Inquiries: (02) 6277 4879 3

BILLSON: Well, the US authorities primarily are trying to get people out of the disaster area. That’s been the direction all the authorities, all foreign governments that have expressed an interest in getting access to the disaster area have been advised that they are not able to enter at this time. We’ve made it clear that as soon as the opportunity is there, we’d like to get our officials into the disaster area to confirm that any Australian in that area in need of assistance gets the assistance that we can provide to our consular services.

QUESTION: Would you have to ensure that assistance officials would be safe?

BILLSON: Well, we’ve obviously been concerned about some of the images. There are quite clear reports of crime and activity that is unsettling; that’s another reason it’s been put to us about why having other additional people come into the area is not something that the US authorities are supporting at this time. So the welfare of Australian citizens is our primary goal. The primary evacuation or relief effort is being handled by US authorities. We are making them absolutely clear that we’re concerned about the welfare of our citizens. We’re ready to assist in evacuation efforts and we’re keen to ensure that their welfare and needs are met as soon as possible.

QUESTION: We’ve had reports that Australian tourists were actually flown into New Orleans at the same time that New Orleans citizens were being evacuated.

BILLSON: Yes, I’ve heard similar worrying reports that there were aircraft flying into the area just in the days prior to the disaster. Actually, within the window, when people were being advised to leave the area, I understand people did arrive into the area on trains as well. I am perplexed by that. We have raised that issue with US authorities to suggest that the notification for people to leave that region should be reinforced by having those major modes of transport similarly alerted to the fact that people were being advised not to enter that potential disaster region.

QUESTION: We’ve also had reports from worried relatives that they’re not getting much help and assistance from the Australian Foreign Affairs.

BILLSON: Well, I’ve actually spoken to some of those worried relatives and have assured them we’re doing our utmost and everything we possibly can to assist them and their family members. One of the issues that seems to be of concern is that Australia is not in control of the relief effort; it is in the United States, and the US authorities are those in control of the relief effort. We are constantly contacting family members and loved ones, sharing with them

Inquiries: (02) 6277 4879 4

the most up-to-date information we have, and also benefiting from the information they can share with us.

QUESTION: How many officials are you sending?

BILLSON: At this state we already have an honorary Consul in Houston; there’ll be another two consular staff there at the sports stadium to receive evacuees when they arrive. You will see an Australian flag and our presence quite clearly identified there, so that Australians in need of assistance know there is help at hand and we can get on with the job of providing that support and getting them back safe and home and in arms of their loved ones.

QUESTION: If there are Australian citizens in the Convention Centre, what would they be facing, and is it possible death?

BILLSON: Well, at this stage the Convention Centre is not an attractive environment. The water has begun to recede according to our information, but you’ve heard reports about sanitation, access to clean water and food being a particular challenge in a venue of that size with the number of people reported to be in there. This is why we believe the US authorities are now removing people out of that venue, taking them to other locations where the evacuation and transport effort can be coordinated.

QUESTION: Is Australia doing enough to help?

BILLSON: Yes, Australia’s doing everything it can and offering to do more, if that is the request, and we can support the efforts of the US authorities. Whatever the uptake of our offer of assistance by the US authorities, our primary goal is to make sure that Australians in need of assistance get that assistance.

QUESTION: Has the US response been surprising? I mean, it’s meant to be the world’s richest country and it seems to be a fourth world response to a disaster?

BILLSON: Well, I’m not an expert in that. What I do know is this is a disaster of gigantic proportions. The efforts to vacate a major modern city, to have people leave that area in the face of a potential risk has now not only proven to be as large and as damaging as people thought, but then some. That’s obviously going to strain the most advanced, developed

Inquiries: (02) 6277 4879 5

Inquiries: (02) 6277 4879 6

county in the world. The US authorities are bringing all their resources to that task, and we’ve offered to assist where we can.

QUESTION: There have been reports this morning of families or at least a husband and wife hiding under some kind of travel overpass with dead bodies around them, and they say they’re concerned about their safety. What would you advise them to do?

BILLSON: Well, our advice is, where information is available about people’s location, please convey that to us. We’re in regular contact with the US authorities. I have personally spoken with family members and loved ones of members thought to be in the area. We’ve conveyed details of our knowledge of where people may be; in some cases we’ve conveyed photographs to the American authorities and emphasised that we are very keen and very insistent that their welfare be attended to as soon as possible. We’ll follow up those inquiries, but any fresh information that becomes available, we are conveying that very directly, very speedily to the US authorities. Thank you.