About the Author: Angela Barbano Emerson is a Cultural Affairs Officer at U.S. Embassy Santiago.
At 3:34 a.m. on February 27, I was jolted awake in my apartment in Santiago, Chile, along with most of the Chilean population. There was no doubt in my mind that a really big earthquake had just struck. Colleagues from the embassy immediately began reaching out to one another to account for everyone and make sure friends were safe. I made my way into the U.S. Embassy to start emergency response, along with many dedicated colleagues, both Chilean and American.
When I arrived at the embassy, I found that many of my colleagues, both locally employed Chileans and U.S. diplomats, had preceded me without anybody having told them to come. Under the direction of the Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission, a task force had been established, repair work had begun inside the embassy, consular colleagues were cranking on communications with the large American citizen community in Chile, and personnel from the Defense Attache's Office (DAO) and U.S. military advisors were reaching out to their Chilean counterparts. In addition, USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance had been mobilized. The Public Affairs Section, to which I belong, began fielding a flood of requests from both local and international media.
In those early hours, our primary concern was our people, in the broadest sense of the word. We quickly launched an effort to account for all Chilean and U.S. members of the embassy community, including contract guards and gardeners. We have now accounted for everyone. Simultaneously, our consular colleagues began the enormous challenge of contacting resident American citizens, while keeping in contact with the local government and hospitals that might encounter American citizens who were in need of assistance or had been injured. Meanwhile, our DAO and military group, as well our Embassy Disaster Relief Officer were in immediate contact with their Chilean government counterparts to see how we could help. By Tuesday, March 2, a small embassy team of consular and public affairs personnel had deployed to Concepcion, a major city near the quake's epicenter that lacked the most basic services. This team has had good success in contacting the local U.S. citizen community to assess assistance needs, and has already put dozens of family members in touch with one another.
As the Cultural Affairs Officer, my principal concern was the welfare of our public diplomacy Chilean and U.S. grantees. A group of young Chilean leaders, who had just finished an American Studies Institute program in Amherst, MA, was stuck in Washington, D.C., with no way to get home (Santiago's International Airport had been damaged by the quake, and was not accepting commercial flights). With the help of the Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs (ECA) program officer and her partners, we made sure that the group had sufficient funds to stay longer in the United States, and rescheduled their flights to help them return to Chile as soon as possible. We ensured that the grantee who hailed from near the quake's epicenter would be met by her Santiago-based brother. We went through a similar process to ascertain the welfare and whereabouts of our Fulbright grantees, and checked on the status of our binational centers. One of our most active centers is based in Concepcion and suffered serious damage. Right now, we are investigating ways to help the Concepcion binational center get back up and running.
Before the quake, we had already been preparing for an overnight visit by Secretary Clinton. Following the quake, the importance of Secretary Clinton's visit took on new proportions, especially given her friendship with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. This was an opportunity for our nation's top diplomat to show solidarity with the Chilean people and its leaders. On March 2, Secretary Clinton made a brief stop at Santiago airport. She met with both outgoing President Bachelet as well as President-elect Sebastian Pinera, and announced that the U.S. Government was prepared to respond to the Chilean government's requests for assistance, including communications equipment, field hospitals, and water purification units. She also conducted a much appreciated virtual meet and greet with the embassy community by phone from her plane to thank dedicated employees for their hard work under incredible circumstances.
As Secretary Clinton said during her visit, Chile can count on the continued friendship and support of the American people and government. We will be here for the long haul to help this great nation rebuild.