More about the crisis and how you can help:state.gov/haitiquakeAbout the Author: Gordon Duguid serves as Acting Deputy Spokesman. He is presently serving with the Haiti Joint Information Center in Port-au-Prince.
The first duty of any American Embassy is assisting U.S. citizens. The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince was built and staffed to handle about 200 applicants for consular services a day. Typical consular services for citizens in Haiti include applications for birth certificates for Americans born abroad or new passports; applications by Haitians for visas or immigration; and requests for visas or information from people of every nationality. Before the earthquake, we estimated that there were 45,000 Americans in Haiti. We estimate the number, because not all Americans register on-line with the embassy. As independently-minded folk, Americans tend not to think about telling a bunch of strangers in an embassy what we are doing.
As of January 26, the Embassy had evacuated more than 12,000 Americans and their family members. Including evacuees, we've accounted for more than 17,000 U.S. citizens. Another 4,300 U.S. citizens believed to have been in the area of the earthquake remain unaccounted for.
For the past week, we have had 2,000 people lining up outside of the embassy, mostly Haitians who have an American family connection and are trying to join that person in the United States. Today, that number doubled, and we had a very close impersonation of chaos. Despite the bedlam outside our gates, what the people in line are doing is very rational. For the most part, Haitians are trying to get the vulnerable in their families out of the country for the time being. I understand that instinct.
Our consular officers are working 20-hour days to provide assistance to those who are entitled based on legal or humanitarian grounds. Their work is not only exhausting, but heartbreaking. Many people have compelling stories about why they should travel to the United States, but not all are allowed under U.S. law. And because we have so many people in line, it is difficult to render service to those who are entitled to it while sorting through those who are just hoping we will let them travel. For example, there was an American citizen child in the line today suffering from a swollen brain and very ill. He was being cared for by a French woman and a Haitian man. Had they had to wait in line like all the rest to get to the consular section, the child might have been endangered. I just happened to be giving an interview near the spot where they were standing, and the TV producer saw the child and pointed him out. We then got the child and woman on the next flight out.
Frustrations in the line are high. All day today, the press section has been broadcasting public affairs messages via Haitian radio explaining who we can help and who we can't. We are now planning more aggressive information campaigns to convince people to come only if they really are entitled to U.S. help. With the situation as it is now, we are really worried someone who survived the earthquake will be crushed on our doorstep.
Read Gordon Duguid's next entry from Haiti.