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U.S. trying to determine how to help Yazidi survivors

Operating from inside the U.S. consulate in Erbil, a handful of disaster response experts from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are working on the question of how to help the Yazidis who make it off the mountain alive.

As significant numbers of Yazidis walk their way down the mountain, often via the north side, and across the border into a Kurdish-held area of Syria, the U.S. has scaled down its estimates of those needing rescue from Mt. Sinjar. U.S. officials admit that initial estimates of between 30,000-50,000 people were little more than educated guesses. The next challenge is figuring out how to help the survivors, many of whom are exhibiting symptoms of extreme stress, hunger and dehydration.

Also troubling is the significant number of unaccompanied children who have lost parents either to death or separation. It has become clear, this official told CBS News, that family tracing services to try to reunite families will be required in any next step of this humanitarian response. The people who made up families and villages have now been scattered over a tremendous amount of territory. The United Nations Refugee Agency said as many as 35,000 of the people who have made it off the mountain via Syria have since wandered back into Iraqi Kurdistan.

"It's a horrific situation across the board. A lot of children. Again, every day that goes by it gets worse," said State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf.

"Horrifying" was the word used by a USAID official to describe the accounts being shared by Yazidis who have managed to not only escape from ISIS but survive the ensuing ordeal of being trapped on Mt. Sinjar.

The official - a disaster relief expert who remained unnamed due to U.S. government protocol - said trauma care and "psychosocial" treatment will be needed. At this point the medical care they are receiving is basic. USAID officials said the immediate focus is first on medically stabilizing the survivors and finding them shelter. There are already plans being made for how to house them during the cold winter months. The official said that they are confronting that question early because they learned the hard way just how harsh the winter can be in that region, given previous experience with refugees and displaced people in neighboring Syria.

A State Department official described the plan as "fluid" and not organized, which is a diplomatic way of saying that no one has yet determined what exactly will be done and which country or agency will do it. The Iraqis, a USAID official said, have "done everything that they can do."

Exact costs are still be determined but the U.S. is expected to provide financial and humanitarian aid. The UN is also expected to play a large role. Non-government agencies such as the International Rescue Committee are already helping the Yazidis.

For those who do remain on Mt. Sinjar, an evacuation by the U.S. does not seem likely. The Pentagon said on Wednesday that the U.S. military assessment teams had determined that the food and water delivered by airdrop has lessened the need for rescue.

  • Margaret Brennan

    Principally assigned to the State Department, Margaret Brennan also serves as a CBS News general assignment correspondent based in Washington, D.C.