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Rice Press Availability at the Bayou La Batre

Press Availability at the Bayou La Batre Community Center

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Bayou La Batre, Alabama
September 4, 2005

(3:30 p.m. EDT)

SECRETARY RICE: Good afternoon. I want to just say that, first of all, it is a great honor to be here, to be here with this fine team of local officials and state officials who have mobilized to help the people of this area who are clearly very much in need. This has been a terrible disaster for our country and I came here to what is my home state because I wanted people to know that we are thinking about them and praying for them. I talked to the President this morning. When I told him, as he's known, that I was coming down to Alabama, he just wanted everybody to know that we're doing everything that we can to get back on our feet.

But that really what is really heartening to everybody is that communities are coming together. The great thing about America is that we care about each other, and so being here with volunteers, being here with local officials, being here with Alabama National Guard. I was at a church this morning where the prayers were said for people who are in need.

I know that it's going to take a lot of hard work and some time to rebuild the lives of people, to rebuild the economy, to rebuild the housing. But it's a commitment from the United States of America, from the highest levels of the United States of America, that it's going to get done; and America and this area will again emerge strong.

I also want to say that I had a chance to pack up some boxes and people are coming through. This is a beautifully organized center for distribution. I met with some of the people who have been evacuated here. And it just gives you great heart to see what people are doing.

And I just want to say one final thing about the State of Alabama, my home state. I was talking with Governor Riley earlier today, and the volunteer effort here and the pulling together to help Alabamans in time of need is apparently going to be extended even in this time of difficulty for the State of Alabama to Louisiana and Mississippi, because Alabama is going to take in people from neighboring states. And that really says a lot: A state that is hurting like Alabama, to want to take in people from places that are hurting too, it just shows what we can do when we pull together as Americans.

And so it's really been an honor to be here. I'm so inspired by what is going on here and I just thank you very much for having me home for a few hours. Thank you.

QUESTION: Dr. Rice, I have a question.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes.

QUESTION: Speaking of grassroots, yesterday I interviewed a woman who was so upset by the lack of response from our government, she picked up her own team of people -- 60 doctors -- to come and evacuate and treat refugees in Biloxi. And she wants to know, and I want to know from your response, where was the federal government and how do you plan to move forward? How can you explain the grassroots people having to pick up for themselves instead of having more support earlier on?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I do believe that, as the President said, that getting on top of what was an unprecedented situation for the United States -- I don't think we've experienced a natural disaster of this size and of this scope -- I'm really grateful and thankful that local people did mobilize and do what they could at a local level. The federal government has been responding. I am in contact with people like Secretary Chertoff -- I've talked to him many times -- at the Department of Homeland Security, the FEMA people who are here. People are pulling together and trying to respond.

Look, we will have a chance to go back at some point and evaluate how well we did in issues like evacuation. Clearly, older people and sick people, it was hard for them to get out of places like New Orleans, and we've got to go back and take a look at all of that. But what I think we need to do right now is we just need to pull together as a country, try to get through this crisis period, and then start helping people rebuild their lives.

Because as hard as people are working in shelters like this, you want people to begin to have a horizon about the future. And I know that they're going to bring in some housing across here that will allow people to begin to get some normalcy back in their lives. I met some children who are planning to go to school. Schools around the country are mobilizing to take those children. So I think we just need to pull together as a people and let's just focus on what we need to do from here on to help people deal with their lives.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) criticized the Administration. Fairly or not? And as an African American, how does that make you feel when you see this?

SECRETARY RICE: I am an African American. I'm from Alabama. I can tell you that this response is not a response about color; this is a response about Americans helping Americans. No American wants to see another American suffer, and I don't believe for one minute that anybody allowed people to suffer because they were African-Americans. I just don't believe it.

People are doing what they can under the most difficult circumstances. Some of the poorest people, obviously the African-American community in New Orleans, was especially hard hit. They're some of the poorest people. And yes, we do, I think, at some point, need to see that people couldn't evacuate who were poor, people couldn't evacuate who were elderly, people couldn't evacuate who were sick. And we obviously need to understand better how to make sure that that doesn't happen again.

But what I see is I see Americans across the spectrum -- Asians and blacks and whites and Latinos -- helping each other. Because you may be a hyphenated American, an African-American or a German-American or a Mexican-American, but you're American in this country. And that's what you're seeing is that Americans are pulling together to help Americans.

QUESTION: Dr. Rice, I know we weren't expecting something of this magnitude, this type of disaster, but was there a strategic plan in place if something like this should hit or were troops mobilized once we realized what was going on?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, in fact, there has been a lot of planning and lot of effort that had gone into trying to simulate bad crises of this kind. Especially after September 11, a lot of effort has gone into trying to simulate crises. I think that the magnitude of this one probably got the upper hand for a while. The combination of the bad storm and then the levee break in New Orleans, the fact that there was just so much water I'm going to go out now and look at some of the storm damage here. But what we really have to do now, and I know what the President is focusing on and I know what Mike Chertoff is focused on, and Mike Brown and others are focused on, they are focused on making sure that the hardest hit get what they need. One of things that I have been able to do is just walking around and talking to people to get a sense of what people need. We know what the near-term needs are, what the medium-term needs are, but we know that this is going to be a long effort. This is not something that we are going to recover from in a few days, or a few weeks, or even a few months. But we are going recover. And these fine folks here have done an amazing job of managing the short-term consequences. I know that they are going to need a lot of help to manage the longer term.

QUESTION: What do you think of the 56 foreign countries, which made offers of help to the United States including France? Can you maybe answer in French?

SECRETARY RICE: Absolutely. (Laughter) I don't dare answer in French.

Thank you very much for bringing up the question because we have, in fact, had offers from more than 70 countries around the world. We are now putting those offers to good use. We have used Canadian airlift. Singaporean helicopters were in the area and have helped with people. We have offers from France and those supplies will be taken up. We have a need, as a matter of fact, for in some parts of the devastated areas -- for meals ready-to-eat, the MREs, and we have gone out to countries to ask for more of those. We've had cash contributions.

I just want to say that people have said without fail that the United States is a compassionate country that has helped so much when there has been devastation around the world that they want give back to the United States. And that should make us feel good as Americans to know that people acknowledge how much we have been able to help and that they now want to help us.

The United Nations has mobilized their disaster experts. I want to thank Secretary General Kofi Annan for that. Their people are sitting with our people in Washington to plan out UN support. So there's just a lot.

And if I could just close with one story that is particularly heartening to me, the small country of Sri Lanka, which has just gone through its own devastation because of a tsunami, is one of the cash contributors to this effort. And that says something about the heart of the world as well as the heart of America.

Thank you very much.

2005/834

Released on September 4, 2005

ENDS


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