State Department Briefing on Earthquake in Japan

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–March 11, 2011 – Via teleconference

MR. TONER: Thank you and good morning, and thank you all for joining us. Obviously, we’re all seized with the natural disaster that’s unfolding in Japan, both the earthquake that struck off the coast of northern Japan earlier today and the subsequent tsunami that’s now affecting the entire region. The U.S. mission and State Department have been mobilized from the early aftermath in responding to U.S. citizens who have been or may be affected by the disaster. And so here to talk to you this morning about that response, we’re very fortunate to have Assistant Secretary Janice Jacobs of the Bureau of Consular Affairs. And just a reminder before handing it over to Janice that this is an on-the-record briefing.

Go ahead, Janice.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: All right. Thank you, Mark, and good morning. First of all, let me begin by thanking all of you for the ongoing coverage each of your news organizations is providing regarding the situation on the ground in Japan and the tsunami threat throughout the Pacific region.

As you know, assistance to U.S. citizens is the State Department’s highest priority. At this point, we have received no reports of U.S. citizens killed or injured in Japan. Our Embassy and our consulates in Japan are working to obtain information on the status of U.S. citizens and to provide assistance as necessary.

We know that many people are worried about the welfare of their friends and family in Japan. We understand also that some telephone landlines there are disrupted. We are recommending that people try contacting loved ones in Japan by email, text, SMS message, or social media.

We have stood up a consular Task Force that will be responding to concerns about specific U.S. citizens in Japan. People may email the taskforce at [email protected]. And I’ll repeat that, [email protected]. Concerns about specific U.S. citizens in the tsunami zone overseas outside of Japan should be sent to [email protected]. Again, I’ll repeat, [email protected].

So that we may properly pursue your inquiry, we will need information about the person in Japan who may need assistance. For each person, please be sure you send us the person’s full name, date of birth, place of birth, as much information as possible regarding their physical location and contact information within Japan. And also please send us any information that you feel is important for us to know such as any preexisting medical conditions or whether you or your loved one is either elderly or a child in Japan without his or her parent.

We also have a phone line for persons who do not have access to email. We ask people to use our email boxes if possible. Email allows us to gather accurate, important information quickly and ensures that its submission is not delayed by call volume. Our phone line in the United States and Canada is 1-888-407-4747. Again, 1-888-407-4747.

We’ve issued a Travel Alert strongly urging U.S. citizens to avoid tourism and nonessential travel to Japan. You may view that Travel Alert and all of our information updates on Our alert is also advising U.S. citizens to take basic earthquake safety precautions as aftershocks are expected. Warden messages are going out to U.S. citizens in countries that are under tsunami warning.

I’m happy to take any questions that you may have.

MR. TONER: Great, we’ll open up to question now, Operator. And if I could just remind folks to state their name and media affiliation, thanks so much.

OPERATOR: Once again, to ask your question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. Please limit your questions to two. You can get into the queue as many times as you need by pressing *1. Once again, to ask your question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. One moment for that first question.

The first question is coming from Sean Flax from NHK. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing the call. I’m wondering, has the U.S. Government received any formal request for assistance from the government? If so, when? And if not, what is the U.S. ready to do in the case of this request?

MR. TONER: Sean, Mark here. I can actually answer that since it’s a little bit out of Janice’s lane. We’ve been in and remain in close contact with the Government of Japan, and we’re working with them at this point just to assess their immediate needs and help as we can respond. So that’s all I can give on that specific question.

OPERATOR: The next question is coming from Elise Labott, CNN. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, Janice. Thanks for doing this. And how many – can you talk about the scope of Americans in Japan, specifically in the north right now? And then also, could you talk a little bit more about the consular response in terms of what you’re doing in terms of consular teams in Japan and the tsunami-affected area, all the preps that you’re doing? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Okay, happy to do so. On the numbers, we know that there are thousands of American citizens who either live in Japan or are visiting there at any given time. As I said, we don’t have any information about any injuries or deaths among the American community at this point. Basically, we – the people who register or enroll their presence with the Embassy or the different consulates, we will know about them, we will know where they are, and we will be able to push out information to them in addition to the general information that we’re pushing out to everyone.

The consular response is – this is something that we are well trained for. We had a very, very quick reaction this morning. As soon as the news hit, we had a consular taskforce set up to start answering inquiries. Our people on the ground in Japan are in constant contact with us about the situation there. The consular folks are reaching out to the American citizens trying to push out information about what to do and how to – what the Japanese authorities are making available also in their response to the earthquake.

So we – unfortunately, we’ve had practice with this type of situation, and we do know what to do, and we will continue to monitor the situation very carefully. And of course, it’s not just Japan. We are working with our consular teams in all of the countries that might be affected by the tsunami, sending out Warden Messages to American citizens and making sure that people are taking the necessary steps to protect their safety.

OPERATOR: The next question is coming from Debra Pettit, NBC News. Your line is open. You need to un-mute your phone.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Yes, thank you. You – at this point, you say you have no reports of anyone injured or killed. How does one go about – excuse me – you’ve already answered my question. I apologize. You can go forward.

OPERATOR: The next question is coming from Megan McCloskey, Stars and Stripes. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Is there any need for evacuations of U.S. citizens yet? Or is there going to be any sort of alternate housing set up or some place for folks to go if their homes aren’t safe?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: We don’t have any information right now on the need to evacuate people. For the tsunami, for example, I think there was a warning for people to leave the coastal area. The Japanese authorities are responding to this, I think, in a very responsible way, and I know that they will have resources available to them if it’s necessary to actually relocate people. So we’re, of course, coordinating very closely with the Japanese Government and on their response, offering assistance as needed, but also passing information that they make available on to American citizens. But yes, any American who contacts us directly saying that they need help, we will definitely follow up on that and work through either the Japanese authorities or through our own means to assist that American.

OPERATOR: The next question is coming from Raghubir Goyal, India Globe and Asia Today. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Madam and Mark, and my condolences to the affected members of the family. My question is that, number one, what sort of help Japanese need and also if any other nations have requested your help; and finally, if you’re asking nearby nations like India and other nations to provide quick help to Japanese because they are nearby to Japan?

MR. TONER: Mark here again. Goyal, the focus of this particular call is really on American citizens affected by the earthquake and tsunami. I spoke earlier about the fact that we’re in very close contact with the Japanese Government and are trying to assess their immediate needs and long-term needs, and try to determine how we can best respond to them. So that’s ongoing. Thanks.

OPERATOR: The next question is coming from Michele Kelemen, NPR. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. And you sort of touched on this before, but I wanted to talk a little bit about – have you talk about the tsunami warning system. I mean, Japan has a very sophisticated one. The population knows what to do after a quake. Do you think this system worked as it was – as it should have? There were a lot of casualties; it seems surprising.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Yeah, this is Janice. Really, I think that the Japanese are incredibly prepared for this type of disaster. They have drills, they have warnings. And so I think it’s kind of hard for us to evaluate right now whether it worked exactly as it should. I think given the size of the earthquake and the tsunami, that it’s hard to have precautions or measures in place that can guard against – completely against any loss of life. But we know that the Japanese are well prepared and have had a lot of experience with this.

OPERATOR: The next question is coming from Julia Kimani, CBS News. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. I wanted to know if you guys had any information on the status of any of their nuclear plants. Sorry. There have been reports that there was a possible radiation leak from one of the reactors and that workers were having trouble cooling one reactor.

MR. TONER: Mark here again. I would just refer you to the Government of Japan for any questions about – it’s not for us to discuss the status of their nuclear plants.

OPERATOR: The next question is coming from Kimberly Halkett, Al Jazeera. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi there. Wanted to find out if the U.S. would be sending any search-and-rescue teams. For example, some of the elite teams from Fairfax, Virginia often respond for recovery efforts in major quakes.

MR. TONER: It’s a fair question. I think it goes to what I was saying before, which is that we’re obviously in the very earliest hours or minutes after the earthquake. And we’ve been in touch with the Government of Japan and we’re trying to work with them to really assess what their needs are, and then we’ll try to respond as best we can to what their specific needs are. So lots of things remain on the table, but we’re going to work with them to coordinate.

OPERATOR: Once again, if you do have a question or a follow-up question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. The next question is coming from Mary Beth Sheridan, Washington Post. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks a lot for doing this. Just a quick question, Janice. Are you guys doing kind of 24-hour operation at State to take the calls from people worried about their relatives and so on?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Absolutely. We will be running 24/7 as long as necessary.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: The next question is coming from Cindy Wade, TV Asahi. Your line is open. You may need to un-mute your phone.

QUESTION: Sorry. Hi, I’m just wondering if you have any updates on the situation in Hawaii and the waves that are hitting there.

MR. TONER: No. I understand that FEMA is actually going to do a conference call this morning, and they’re better poised, obviously, to address the effects on U.S. territory.

OPERATOR: The next question is coming from Debra Pettit, NBC News. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Could you give the phone number again for the 24-hour operation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Sure. This is for people who are in the United States or in Canada. It’s 1-888-407-4747.

OPERATOR: The next question is coming from Kimberly Halkett, Al Jazeera. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi there. Just a follow-up. You say that you are in close and continuing contact with the Japanese Government with regard to what the U.S. might contribute in terms of its response. Do you have a sense of how prepared Japan is at this point? I know, obviously, this is an area that’s quite familiar with quakes. What sort of resources do they have on hand at this time?

MR. TONER: Well, again, as Janice has said, it’s not really for us to – I mean, the Japanese are quite prepared for these kinds of natural disasters. Obviously, the scope and size of this one is enormous. But I really would defer to them to talk about their resources and their planning and their response.

OPERATOR: Once again, if you do have a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. One moment for the next question. The next question is coming from Brandon Lambert, Fuji Television. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi this is Brandon with Fuji TV asking if Secretary Clinton – I understand that she has a new counterpart in Japan. Has she reached out to him or anyone at this juncture?

MR. TONER: I don’t have anything to – I mean, I don’t have any updates or anything to say about that. Obviously, she’s very seized with what’s going on in Japan and is very focused on it, and we’ll probably have more – she’ll probably say more later today. But at this point, nothing to add.

We have time for just a couple more questions.

OPERATOR: The next question is coming from Graham Nelson, Tokyo Broadcasting System. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hey, this is Graham from TBS. I was wondering, P.J. has tweeted earlier that the U.S. Embassy had been moved to an alternate location. I’m just wondering where that is and how long the U.S. Embassy – or I’m sorry, the command center is going to operate from there. Is there any consideration to moving it back?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: This is Janice. I think just as a precautionary measure, they moved people – some of the people out of the Embassy building today. And the consular team is in a nearby location, not far away. And so that was just done, I think, really to make sure that everyone was safe. I don’t have any information about when they might be moving back, but I do know that the consular section and the consular people are in full operation and reaching out and helping Americans from where they are.

OPERATOR: The last question is coming from Kimberly Halkett Al Jazeera. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi there. Sorry to keep hammering on this. But because we seem to be a bit lean on specifics with regard to the U.S. response should it be necessary, when might those decisions be made and what would it be contingent on?

MR. TONER: Well, Kimberly, it’s contingent on what the Japanese actually request from us and need. And as I said, that discussion is ongoing. And of course, as these – this is a very fluid situation. But as we get more information, we’ll certainly relay it to the media.

That’s the last question. Thanks so much, Assistant Secretary Jacobs and to all of you for joining us. And as I said, we’ll try to update you throughout the day as we get more information. Thank you.