W Jeremy Konyndyk didn’t have much time. He’d been awakened by a phone call at 3:30 a.m. over the weekend, and now, on Monday morning, his team was in high gear responding to the earthquake crisis in Nepal.
So a State Department briefing for out-of-town opinion writers clearly was not high on his to-do list.
“The first member of our DART team — the Disaster Assistance Response Team — has now touched down,” Konyndyk reported, and emergency response teams from Fairfax, Va., and Los Angeles were also on their way to the Himalayas.
Konyndyk is the U.S. government’s principal point person for international disaster response. His portfolio has included the Ebola crisis in West Africa — “overall, it’s been a hugely effective response so far” — and his list of trouble spots seems to grow by the day.
“Syria remains the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” he said. “Yemen has the potential to be really bad.”
Add to those South Sudan and perhaps Iraq, and you get a picture of just a small sliver of the work that falls within the purview of the State Department.
As for Nepal, one of the most imminent tasks was preparing to deliver the high-quality plastic sheeting used for emergency shelters. Congestion at the Kathmandu airport was complicating things, but his people were in the process of coordinating with partners at the United Nations, military agencies and others to help with search and rescue and other vital needs.
The good news appeared to be that, despite the death of thousands of Nepalese, estimates of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in the region projected far worse consequences. The epicenter of the quake was in the lightly populated village of Barpak, more than 100 miles from the capital.
“The damage in Kathmandu is significant but not nearly as catastrophic as might have been expected,” Konyndyk said.
Still, landslides on Mount Everest and a death toll surpassing 6,000 so far mean that overall, “it’s very, very bad.”
About two dozen journalists heard Konyndyk and nine other colleagues deliver updates on hot spots throughout the foreign policy agenda — Iran, the Islamic State, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, for example, had no real news about the process of establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, but her pitch on the dynamics throughout the region was useful. The U.S. is keeping an eye on China’s economic activities in the region, she said, especially with regard to whether its interests go beyond the economic.
Much remains to be worked out before the U.S. Interests Section in Havana can be upgraded to embassy status, not least being congressional approval. But it also has taken longer for the Cubans “to come around to being OK with things that are, frankly, standard,” Jacobson said.
“What I’ve said to people is, it’s not going to look like our embassy in London, I understand that. But it has to look like other embassies in other places in the world that may be fairly restrictive,” she said.
And the two nations have to get beyond a point of mutual distrust.
“We have to be sure,” she said, “that we all understand the way we’re going to operate so that we don’t end up starting down a road and finding that they think we’re violating some agreement or that we misunderstood each other. But we’re going to get there, and I think that’s inevitable at this point.”
Sunday is World Press Freedom day, and Doug Frantz, assistant secretary for public affairs, reminded the visiting writers how dangerous the world has become for journalists.
“This department,” said Frantz, a longtime journalist, “respects freedom of expression as a universal value” and hopes that it can help “make impunity for violence against journalists a bilateral priority.”
Amen to that.