Thank you Brian, for that introduction. And thank you for the tremendous job you are doing at the U.S. Agency for International Development to respond to this crisis.
Let me start this morning by welcoming everyone here today. Distinguished Ambassadors, members of the cabinet, representatives from the donor community, and everyone who joins us today from the private sector -- it is a pleasure to be with you. I think the tremendous outpouring of support and concern from the private sector in the wake of Hurricanes Mitch and Georges is a reflection of your remarkable generosity and of your understanding that we are all neighbors in the Americas.
The scale of the disasters, we now know, is staggering. Just from Hurricane Mitch, there are more than 9,000 confirmed deaths and another 9,100 missing and feared dead. Some 3 million people were left homeless or displaced. Total damages exceed 8.5 billion dollars throughout the region in lost property, infrastructure and crops.
This is, literally, the worst storm in recorded history in this hemisphere. Over a third of Honduras' 10,000 schools were damaged or destroyed. Hospitals and health clinics suffered extensive damage. Conditions there have created a public health emergency with diseases like cholera and malaria now emerging.
Despite such terrible devastation, the courage and spirit of the people of Central America is inspiring. President Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also recently returned from Central America, and my husband, Vice President Gore, join me in the admiration I feel for a people who refuse to be defeated or discouraged in the face of such overwhelming devastation and destruction.
I met many such people just weeks after the storm when I led a Presidential Delegation to the region. And I can tell you that what I saw there had a profound effect on me. Let me say this: it is hard to comprehend the damage and the conditions without seeing them firsthand. The destruction is unlike anything we have ever faced here in the United States. Entire communities had been swept away. Houses in downtown Tegucigalpa had flooding up to the second floor. I spoke with families who had to wade through waist deep water and mud to escape from their homes in the middle of the night. These families had seen their homes, all of their possessions and their most cherished family treasures all destroyed in the fury of rain and mud. Now these same families are living in small schools that have been turned into makeshift shelters, and are trying to imagine a way that they can begin their lives anew.
I talked to mothers who had lost their children and fathers who had seen entire crops andlivelihoods disappear. In Managua, we went to the Ciudad Sandino to see the flood damage. An entire village was washed away -- utterly destroyed. People were constructing makeshift shelters from whatever materials they could find -- sometimes these were as rudimentary as plastic sheets draped on sticks that had been stuck in the ground. Only one small stream was available in the area as a water supply, and it was far from clean. As a result, people now find themselves battling cholera and malaria.
During our visit, I was able to announce expanded U.S aid for the region and we delivered additional food and medicine on our flights. I was also pleased that our delegation was able to work side by side with the community leaders to assist in the clean up effort. We helped clean out a kindergarten that had six inches of mud on the floor and helped bag relief supplies in Managua. It gave us a very important sense of the work that must be done for these communities to rebuild.
And the issues of rebuilding and reconstruction are exactly why we are gathered here today.
Our goal in Central America is simple. We must plan for a reconstruction effort that does more than replace what was washed away. We want to see the countries of this region move forward in the direction they were headed before these storms hit -- on the path to stronger, more prosperous democratic and economic development. We cannot allow the progress that has been made in recent years -- the steady march to more open markets and democracy in Central America -- to get washed away in the aftermath of these storms.
Getting Central America back on track will demand the help of many of the people in this room. It will also demand that the private sector and the public sector work together in real and meaningful partnership. I have been very encouraged by the efforts I have already seen and hope that this conference will spur on many more opportunities to join forces. I know that a great number of American companies and non-profits have already made significant contributions. From American Airlines donating transportation of relief supplies, to General Mills donating a half million pounds of flour, to the many garment manufacturers who have helped supply clothing, to the work of Purdue and Cornell University in lending expertise to help improve health care and education, and to the many other too numerous to mention -- you have already made a terrific difference in the lives of people who have been so very hard hit.
I am also pleased that our federal agencies -- many who are not traditionally involved in international disaster relief efforts -- have been reaching out to work in tandem with the private sector. For example, I know that HUD is working with homebuilders on how to restore shelter for thousands of people. USDA has been working with some of the larger food manufacturing groups on large scale food donations to the region. The Department of Labor has reached out to unions to help organize donations and relief supplies. As Brian mentioned, USAID is working with Toledo and nine other cities to help establish state-of-the-art centers to manage public donations in response to humanitarian crises.
I also know that USAID has worked very closely with Lucent Technologies, who has helped finance the phone bank that USAID has been operating to field calls from the American public who wish to contribute to the relief effort.
Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, joined by Mack McClarty, is joining us now from New Orleans to announce some good news from the Department of Transportation. Secretary Slater --are you there?
[Satellite call from Secretary Slater.]
These public-private partnerships are a phenomenal example of the tremendous capabilities that we have gathered here today, and they give me great optimism that we can rebuild and move forward in Central America.
Last week, the President met with Presidents from the regions hardest hit and announced $17 million in additional aid, bringing the total U.S. relief effort up to $300 million. He also announced that he will visit the region personally early next year to survey the damage and to look at ways the U.S. can further support long-term reconstruction efforts.
The International Monetary Fund has estimated that the external financing needs of Honduras and Nicaragua -- the two hardest-hit nations -- will be approximately $1.4 billion over the next several years. The President announced that the U.S. and other creditor nations will relieve Honduras and Nicaragua from debt service obligations until 2001. The U.S. will urge other creditors to provide similar relief.
Much of the financing for reconstruction in Central America will come from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). As the largest shareholder in the IDB, the United States has worked to ensure that sufficient resources will be available for rebuilding Central America. The IDB alone has already approved $353 million in financing for relief, recovery and reconstruction -- and it is redirecting up to $430 million in loans to help finance recovery from Mitch.
Today, you will have a chance to hear some very detailed breakdowns of the different needs by sector in the region. It is my hope that this information will help all of you figure out the best, and most appropriate ways, to move forward with assistance.
I also want to stress that it is Central America itself who is leading the relief and recovery effort. In prioritizing donations and public sector contributions, we must at all times heed the leadership, capabilities and needs as they are determined on the ground. We need to listen to our partners in Central America and figure out how we can best assist them in that effort.
Indeed, if there is a silver lining to this storm, it is that it happened during a time when the people of all the Americas understand their deeply shared ties and common vision for greater prosperityand freedom for all their peoples. The outpouring of support for Central America has come from Tierra Del Fuego to Alaska, and will continue to do so. Central America is the natural bridge that bonds North and South America. We share more than just borders with the 32 million people of Central America -- we share family. Our lives are forever linked.
I believe this conference is a very important step in mobilizing action from around America, public and private, in showing that blood is indeed far thicker than water. Both the President and the Vice President, and Mrs. Clinton, are fully behind this effort today, and collectively I know that there is no challenge that those of you represented here today cannot meet. Thank you.
More Speeches by Mrs. Gore
Partnership for Central American Reconstruction
Take the Lead Against Lead Poisoning
National Conference On Preventing
President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House | White House for Kids
White House History | White House Tours | Help
T H E W H I T E H O U S E