More about the crisis and how you can help:state.gov/haitiquakeAbout the Author: Paul Mayer serves as the Consular Section Chief at the U.S. Consulate General in Montrèal. He served as Acting Consul-General at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince Haiti during the days following the January 2010 earthquake.
The news of the earthquake in Haiti hit me the same way the tsunami in Southeast Asia did: A tragic event that had happened far away. I donated money to the Red Cross, and even used the same credit card I'd used five years before. It hit much closer to home when I learned that an officer with whom I'd served in Montreal had been seriously injured at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. I wanted to give something more than money, so I contacted the Bureau of Consular Affairs to ask how I could help. Less than 24 hours later, I was on a plane from Montrèal to Santo Domingo and just six hours after arriving in the DR, I was strapped into a DHS/CBP Blackhawk helicopter, 600 feet above the ground, flying toward Port-au-Prince.
Unfortunately, whatever preparations I thought I'd made for what I would see when I arrived weren't enough. As we made our descent to land outside the embassy walls, I saw throngs of people crowding the streets adjoining the embassy. What I saw on the ground was worse. There were faces which reflected panic, fatigue, anger, pain, hunger and thirst. There was more desperation than I'd ever seen in my career: hundreds, maybe thousands, of people had come to the U.S. Embassy with their suitcases packed, mostly based on the hope and the belief that the U.S. government was going to feed them, house them, cure them or whisk them away.
The Department of State and its Bureau of Consular Affairs always makes the protection of American citizens its first priority in times of crisis. I was one of several dozen officers and staff who volunteered to help our mission in Haiti. Many of my fellow volunteers were outstanding French or Creole linguists, and many had come from the other side of the world (China, India, Senegal, South Africa!), knowing that they'd be working 16+ hours per day, sleeping on the floor and eating military MRE's.
Organizing the evacuation of American citizens is a multi-step process, involving confirmation of citizenship, eligibility for evacuation, status of family members, etc. In Port-au-Prince, it started every day with a queue of several thousand people standing in front of the U.S. Embassy, waiting and waiting. U.S. Marines and Diplomatic Security personnel were always nearby, and consular staff were constantly watching for people who were elderly, ill or in need of immediate assistance. At the head of that line stood consular officers and local staff, asking questions and making decisions about evacuation eligibility. More than one person said that it felt more than a little like Sophie's Choice. It made me doubt the wisdom of leaving my safe life, my dear wife and daughter. On Day 5 after the earthquake, I gave out cases of food and hundreds of water bottles to people in the line; I never felt as if my actions were enough.
On my second full day in Port-au-Prince, I went to work at the airport, where crowds of people were gathering in the hope that they'd be able to ride one of the gigantic USAF C-17s to safety in America. Even in January, the sun and heat of Haiti are intense, and people were standing in line for hours, waiting again to meet a consular officer who would then determine their eligibility for evacuation. Just like at the embassy, working at that pre-screening position was crucial and crushing work. You needed to make an immediate decision as to whether the person was qualified, explain the decision in French or Creole, and then move politely and efficiently to the next person. Everyone was watching; everyone was listening. TV cameras and reporters eavesdropped, thinking they'd get a scoop. We listened to explanations from people who all fervently believed that they had a valid reason for being evacuated to the United States, though only some of them had U.S. passports or U.S. citizen family members.
To say that it was heart-wrenching to do this work doesn't fully capture the feeling. Many tears were shed and many voices were raised. Time and time again, we would hear people begging us, “Please, what are we supposed to do?” It was so, so hot, and we all perspired copiously, but we knew that the people waiting in the queue were hotter and thirstier than we were. As much as it hurt, we had to say no to the unqualified cases; not doing so would be against the law and would also disadvantage those American citizens whose safety and well-being was our first priority. Under U.S. law, the State Department has very clear guidelines for the aid and assistance we provide American citizens in times of crisis, and our office of Overseas Citizen Services in Washington is there to support and guide us every step of the way. The Foreign Affairs Manual (we call it “the FAM”) explains things in precise detail.
The FAM, however, doesn't prepare you for the feeling you get from saying, “No” and “I'm sorry” over and over. The FAM doesn't tell you how many bottles of water you will need to give people who've been standing in line for six hours. The FAM doesn't tell you how quickly you need to take the Power Bars you'd bought at Wal-Mart out of your backpack, just so you can give them to the people who are saying, “Please, j'ai faim.” The FAM does not tell you whether you're permitted to shed a tear when you see the look of resignation in a person's eye after you've said, firmly, “I'm sorry, but you do not qualify.” People just walked away, with their kids in one hand and their suitcase in the other. There were 500 more in the queue, waiting for their turn to come. This was Day 6 after the earthquake.
Much could be written about the stress and strain of our work days -- 16 hours on, 8 hours off -- or about the questionable glamour of sleeping on the floor of the consular section, or the daily diet of MRE's. The truth is that the several dozen volunteers and I would have endured even more if we thought that it would better help us to carry out our tasks. We fought off the fatigue by contemplating the magnitude of what we were accomplishing: Thousands of Americans already evacuated, and one crazy day in which we moved more than 1,600 people through the Embassy, through the consular section, on Embassy vehicles to the airport, and into the cavernous cargo bays of the C-17 transports. I'd been asked to fill in as Consul General for a colleague who'd needed to depart post temporarily, and I had the privilege of guiding a marvelous team of entry-level and mid-level officers, reminding them about the need to sleep, to eat and drink, to wear sunscreen. On Day 9 after the earthquake, I fell asleep at the computer keyboard while trying to write an email explaining this to my wife and daughter.
I'm composing this blog on Day 18 after the earthquake, on a Boeing 757 evacuation flight sponsored and operated by United Airlines. I'm en route Chicago and, eventually, back to my family in Montrèal. I am almost ashamed to admit that my gas tank is empty, and that I need to go home. When I climbed the staircase to the plane's entry door, I took a picture from the top step. While fatigue and stress have diminished my operational effectiveness, I take some comfort in knowing what we've left behind (to say nothing of the 14,000 + evacuees). The world knows that Haiti needs more help and more aid. My Consular Affairs colleagues know that we need to be vigilant to the needs of American citizens and their families. The Consular Section is in good hands, led by a well-rested Consul General. Now all I can do is look out the plane window and hope that I don't forget what I saw at the evacuation when it's Day 28 or Day 108 after the earthquake.