Assistant Secretary General Speech


June 12, 2020 - Washington, DC

• H.E., Leon Charles, Chair of the Permanent Council and Permanent Representative of Haiti to the OAS;
• Ms. Katie Taylor, Executive Director of the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF);
• Dr. Ciro Ugarte, Director of Health Emergencies of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO);
• Ms. Elizabeth Riley, Executive Director of the Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA);
• Ms. Lauren Hutchinson, Geotechnical Engineer, BGC Engineering Inc.;
• Mr. Tim Callaghan, Senior Regional Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA);
• Ms. Kelly Witkowski, Manager, Climate Change and Natural Resources Program, Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA)
• Mr. Pablo Gonzalez, Principal Specialist, Executive Secretariat for Integral Development (SEDI)

Distinguished Members of the Inter-American Committee on Natural Disasters Reduction (IACNDR);
Distinguished Permanent Representatives and Alternate Representatives;

Good morning,
I am pleased to welcome you to the first virtual meeting of the Inter-American Committee on Natural Disaster Reduction (IACNDR). As Chair of the Committee, I am delighted to convene this meeting at the request of the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) to consider the pressing issue of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season.

I would like to thank the PADF and the OAS Executive Secretariat for Integral Development (SEDI) and its Department of Sustainable Development for helping to organize this Webinar.

In light of the global pandemic and start of the Atlantic hurricane season, today’s virtual meeting comes at an opportune time as we seek to renew our commitment to work collaboratively in preparing for and responding to impending natural disasters.

This morning we will hear presentations from our special guests and from members of the Committee on their plans to prepare for the hurricane and rainy seasons, and any other natural disasters, all while coping with a global health emergency.

The world has changed dramatically since our last in-person encounter. Life as we know it has unraveled faster than we could have ever imagined. Just a few months ago no one would have predicted our current situation. It is encouraging though, to see the response of international organizations and our Member States who have responded just as effectively despite the uncertainties and unpredictability surrounding the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a complex global crisis, but thankfully in some areas virus transmission is slowing, offering a glimmer of hope. Over the past weeks several of our Member States have begun to ease restrictions through a phased approach. Our collective efforts to remain indoors and implement sanitary measures have contributed to flattening the curve, but as life slowly returns to normal, we cannot afford to become complacent as the virus is still ever present. In the absence of a vaccine, projections of COVID-19 transmission rates indicate that the current crisis will be a protracted one.

In the current situation, any natural disaster could create unprecedented challenges for government officials already working feverishly to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, which many experts believe will continue throughout the summer.

As you are aware, the Atlantic hurricane season officially started on June 1 and will continue until November 30. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting that the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season will be unusually active.

The NOAA outlook calls for a 60 percent likelihood of an above-average season, with a 70 percent chance of 13 to 19 named storms, six to 10 of which will become hurricanes. Three to six of those could become major hurricanes of Category 3 intensity or higher.

As we have experienced in the past, any storm has the potential to cause devastating damage, loss of life and livelihood. This, coupled with the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, could be catastrophic.

In many of our Member States, emergency response systems are already overburdened in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of the standard disaster contingency strategies — evacuation shelters, food assistance, an influx of aid workers — may be rendered unsafe.

When a major natural disaster occurs, the impacted country often sees an important influx of aid workers from emergency relief agencies, civil society and private sectors groups. Given the risk of virus exposure, aid organizations and government agencies must now also contemplate movement restrictions and quarantine periods established by different countries.

Emergency responses for many natural disasters involve the evacuation of large sectors of the society into communal spaces, such as schools or community centers. When physical distancing is critical to containing the pandemic, these necessary actions present additional challenges. Furthermore, the health risks associated with the pandemic will compel authorities and first-responders to reconsider common practices used during a wide range of post-disaster activities, ranging from ensuring adequate hygiene and sanitation measures to safeguarding food supply chains.

Governments must begin to contemplate pre-emptive strategies and make plans to adequately counter the compounding risks of COVID-19 and a natural disaster. While the primary focus of many governments is on managing the COVID-19 crisis, planning for potentially concurrent natural disasters is also crucial to ensure that communities which are likely to be impacted at a disproportionately higher rate are sufficiently prepared for the complexities that could arise from overlapping crises.

We are currently navigating uncharted waters. The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with an impending natural disaster could exacerbate the existing heightened socio-economic vulnerabilities. We hope such a situation does not materialize, but the agencies of the Inter-American System must nonetheless be well prepared to face any imminent challenges ahead.

This Committee will meet as necessary, before and after a disaster, to ensure effective coordination with all of the agencies of the Inter-American System that are focused on disaster prevention and mitigation. Our goal is to strengthen coordinated multilateral action to respond to the immediate needs of Member States that may be affected by a disaster in the coming months.

We must be ready to adapt to the current needs. For example, the Inter-American Defense Board has played an important role in recent years in establishing a situation room, which is activated after a natural disaster. The situation room plays an essential role in the compilation of “open source” information as well as reports prepared by the Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) and the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams. During this hurricane season, the Board must be prepared to establish a “virtual” situation room to help facilitate this important support.

Faced with the new challenges, our Committee must become creative and encourage cross-agency collaboration. Over the years we have seen how governments, the private sector and civil society can mobilize and act quickly when threats become apparent. This Committee stands ready to meet the challenges ahead. I look forward to a productive meeting.

Thank you