- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2020

The State Department said it was accelerating efforts to bring home thousands of Americans stranded abroad by the coronavirus with no easy way to get home.

With global air travel shriveling and a massive influx of requests piling up each day, the State Department is scrambling to arrange charter, commercial or military planes for Americans in countries around the world.

“We are devoting all of our resources to this,” a State Department official said in a background briefing Monday. “It has been a lot of hard work, and it is going to be a lot of hard work going forward.”

Criticism is mounting that the U.S. has fallen behind countries like France and Canada in its response to get Americans evacuated, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill say they are besieged by pleas from constituents for help.

“It was very difficult because a lot of countries got their citizens out within a few days,” one U.S. citizen stranded in Peru told The Washington Times. “It’s been the seventh day of lockdown and we are just now getting a response from the State Department.”

People have created Facebook groups in share the best resources and developments from U.S. agencies, but to little avail.

The State Department has launched a call center to assist stranded Americans and department officials told reporters on Monday that the most effective way to communicate with the agency to facilitate travel is to register with the department’s online “Smart Traveler Enrollment Program,” or STEP.

“The only way to find someone is if they are registering with STEP,” a senior State Department official said. “That’s how we build the manifests for these flights.”

But some say the effort is still falling short.

Over 13,500 Americans have contacted the department for help arranging transportation back to the U.S., the State Department official said Monday. Roughly 5,000 Americans have returned from 17 countries, with 1,600 more expected to fly home this week.

“We’re looking at 16 or so flights in the next five days and we’ve got additionally about 1,600 passengers identified for those flights, with room for more,” the official added.

Stranded Americans have gotten creative — some have created spreadsheets and information forms in an effort to coordinate private charter flights back to the U.S.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, on Sunday called on the White House to authorize the use of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) to charter commercial flights for this purpose, noting the airline industry is currently pressing for a major financial aid package from the government because of the virus crisis.

“No American should ever have to worry that they might be abandoned abroad by our government,” Mr. Menendez said in a letter to Mr. Trump.

Lawmakers have also raised “serious concerns” about the backlog, after U.S. citizens in Honduras, Morocco, Peru and Tunisia reported difficulties booking flights or obtaining support from American embassies and consulates.

Army veteran Marta Villanueva told The Washington Times she and her 92-year-old father have been stuck in a small village outside of San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras, as she tries to get in touch with the U.S. Embassy and the Defense Department to secure a seat on the next military flight.

“As a soldier, who has been in war and in the middle of natural disasters, my biggest anger is that our active duty-service member families were left out,” she told the Times.

A senior State Department official explained the agency is “hearing about people who are in very remote locations in very remote parts of the world. It’s complicated.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday said his department is working with the Pentagon and commercial and private airlines to fly U.S. citizens back home on Defense Department flights “where there is space available.”

The State Department’s call center number for overseas citizens is (202) 501-4444; for those calling from the U.S. on behalf of family or friends overseas, the number is (888) 407-4747.

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

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