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Stranded US travelers express frustration as lawmakers call for answers

Americans stranded around the world after transportation shutdowns and border closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic say they are struggling to get help from the State Department, with their distress potentially set to become the biggest test of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tenure.

While the secretary says his agency has no higher priority than the safety and security of US citizens overseas, Americans in places as far flung as Morocco, Peru, and Honduras tell CNN they are feeling abandoned, saying embassies are not helping them come up with a plan or even responding to their calls. Lawmakers are raising the alarm.

A group of senators wrote to Pompeo Wednesday to demand answers, saying they are “particularly concerned about an increasing number of reports that Americans and their family members have been unable to leave areas affected by COVID-19 and return home.”

“Americans in Honduras, Morocco, Peru, and Tunisia, among other countries, have reported to our offices that they are encountering difficulties in obtaining support from US Embassies and Consulates, including to arrange commercial flights home,” nine Democratic senators wrote the secretary on Wednesday. “In some cases, they are reporting that they are unable to establish contact with, or receive even basic information from, US Embassy personnel.”

A State Department spokesperson responded to queries about stranded Americans by telling CNN that “we are aware the governments of several countries have announced suspension of air travel. We are considering all options to assist US citizens in these countries.”

Pompeo told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that the Trump administration “just learned about them over the last couple days,” adding that “it’ll take us some amount of time” to get the stranded Americans home.

“We know of students that are in Peru, some other travelers that are there as well. There are other countries, too, where those countries have shut down their airports,” Pompeo said in the Wednesday interview. “We are working to try and solve problems for each of those American citizens. We just learned about them over the last couple days; it’ll take us some amount of time. But know that President Trump has made clear that we’re going to do everything we can to get every American home safely.”

Other State Department officials say their colleagues are working around the clock to be as responsive as possible, and expressed frustration that Americans did not adhere to the travel warnings to avoid getting stuck.

On Tuesday, Pompeo told reporters that he’s “mindful, too, as we work to make sure that we’re protecting our team, the State Department team, we have a responsibility to try and help American citizens wherever they are as well.”

Pompeo pointed to his agency’s travel advisories, as did the State Department spokesperson, who said the agency is “continuously assessing travel conditions in all areas affected by COVID-19 and will continue to update our travel advisories and safety information for US travelers as situations evolve.”

But that feels like little use to travelers like Burt Pines, a retired judge from Los Angeles, who is stuck in Morocco with his wife and a small tour group after the country canceled all incoming and outgoing international flights. The State Department issued its worldwide travel warning to Level 3: Reconsider Travel on March 11, the day they arrived in Morocco and the day the World Health Organization declared the virus had reached pandemic proportions.

They immediately set about trying to leave the country. “We tried to get in to talk to somebody in the embassy and were turned away and told to talk to the consulate in Casablanca,” he told CNN. “They have our names and other information but have given us no information or any other information to help us. They told us to try to book other flights, but they’ve been canceled. They’re not providing any other assistance now and I don’t know what they’re planning.”

‘We’d like some information’

“We’d like some information about what the government is doing,” Pines said, speaking by cellphone from Rabat. “It’s been very difficult to reach anyone at the consulate or embassy and we’ve heard nothing from them about any plans to assist us.”

Pines is not alone. There is also a group of about 50 American students in Morocco who have had a similar experience — unclear answers from the consulate, and multiple canceled flights.

“People are calm and for now everyone is in good spirits but everyone wants to get home at this point,” 21-year old Charlotte Del Col, one of the American students, told CNN this week. “We recognize it is not a state of emergency here in Morocco but there are some people on the trip who are from places like Washington state who are worried about being allowed back in.”

Jack Kroeger, whose wife Maureen and son Sean are quarantined on a cruise docked in Argentina, said he has gotten minimal response from the embassy. They departed more than a week before the worldwide advisory was issued, and he’s concerned they may not be able to get back to the US after they disembark.

The lawmakers told Pompeo they want “an immediate clarification” about his plans to get these Americans home, “whether by commercial airline flights, charter flights, or other means, as well as a detailed description of all efforts you are taking to provide support and guidance to Americans and their families who are either unable or choose not to return home during this crisis.”

A former top State Department official who is in touch with current staff said the government could evacuate stranded Americans if necessary, but adds for the time being they should just stay put.

Kristin Monesmith, one of the many Americans stranded in Peru, said she had received notice from the State Department on Wednesday afternoon to “shelter in place for the duration of the quarantine.” That quarantine, announced Sunday, is expected to last at least 15 days. Monesmith, an emergency department nurse, said she was given notice from the department — passed along through her senator’s office — that “the government of Peru has expressed intentions to assist with American Citizens return to the US. The details of that assistance are developing, but no specific information on the plan is available at this time.”

The advice to shelter in place comes as a 100-page federal plan, obtained by CNN, shows the Trump administration is making contingency plans for a pandemic that could stretch up to “18 months or longer.”

“This is a global pandemic, American citizens, like all others in this situation, should shelter in place,” the former official said. “This is not because of under-staffing or incompetency. We have evacuated massive numbers of America citizens in the past. If called upon, the US government can still do that.”

The former official, who worked on emergency evacuations, added that “there is a very well-oiled process and a seamless emergency evacuations. But when we are faced with a pandemic it is not feasible to globally evacuate.”

Staffing issues

However, the State Department has struggled with staffing issues after a drastic hiring freeze instituted by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that has affected consular operations — the part of the State Department that works with Americans overseas. An August 2019 Office of Inspector General report found that 96% of embassies and consulates who responded to OIG’s surveys said the hiring freeze “had a somewhat negative or very negative effect on overall operations” and “embassies and consulates consistently reported that the hiring freeze had negative effects on consular operations.”

Pines and his fellow travelers are in their 70s or 80s. Some, like his wife, have medical conditions and a limited amount of medication with them. As they wait for help or a response from State, they’re rattling around their empty hotel, which has remained open for the 10 of them, since all other guests are gone. Pines says they’re concerned conditions could get worse and possibly dangerous.

While some people who are wealthy enough can find ways out, including private chartered jets, regular Americans are depending on their government.

On Tuesday, US Embassy Morocco tweeted that there were 30 commercial flights traveling to London Thursday, and advised travelers to contact the airlines to secure a seat on them and then travel on to the US. However, many individuals replied that there was no availability.

“We understand that the German and French governments have made arrangements to evacuate their citizens,” Pines said. “I would hope something could be done on the part of the United States government, otherwise we’re stranded.”

Monesmith said she, too, is aware of other countries making similar arrangements to get their citizens home from Peru.

“We’re not asking for a ride at taxpayer expense. If our government were to charter a plane, we’d be willing to cover our share of the cost,” Pines said. “We’d happily pay for a seat.”

“I understand that the US government is facing real challenges right now, but certainly something can be done by somebody in the State Department to assist the Americans here who are trapped in Morocco,” he said.

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