About the Author: U.S. Embassy New Delhi American Citizen Services Officer Charlie Seten and Regional Security Officer Owen Turner were the first Americans on the scene after flash flooding and mudslides devastated the town of Leh in the Ladakh region of Kashmir in early August 2010. Read Charlie's first-hand account of efforts to help stranded citizens below.
The noodle shop was designed to hold about 50 people but was now overflowing with almost 300. The low ceiling and the din of voices made it hard to hear as the Dutch woman told me about her trek out from the flood zone into the mountains above Leh, Ladakh in Indian Kashmir. I took her name and passport number; she then unfolded a square of paper that had the names of three other U.K. citizens who had hiked out with her.
Over a dozen countries dispatched representatives to Leh, forming an international task force to account for their citizens and to assess the flood and mudslide damage that left hundreds of trekkers and other tourists stranded in the mountains. Most of the task force's members -- including the United States, the U.K., Austria, Demark, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, among others -- arrived on the same early morning flight. By 9:00 the same night, we had collected and shared with each other over 500 names, established the locations where foreigners were trapped, and spread word about the successful "town hall" meeting.
It quickly became clear that while using our collective manpower to gather names of people already safe in the town of Leh was helpful, what we really needed was to find out the status of people stuck on trekking trails spread out over a sprawling area of rugged mountainous terrain with uncertain supplies of fresh water and food. The Indian government already had a lot on its hands, grappling with a search for over 800 missing Indians and having suffered significant loss of life and property among its local police and military. The task force's unified approach reduced the burden on the Indian government by consolidating and prioritizing our requests, which helped them respond more quickly to us than if they replied to each mission individually.
Each mission had a "go-to" source. The team from the U.S. Embassy consulted regularly with a longstanding contact in the local police; others learned about the military's evacuation plans or gathered detailed descriptions of the terrain from tourism officials and local guides. Acquiring credible information helped us quash rumors during the town hall meetings, and provide rational advice that greatly lessened the stress for travelers now forced to make new plans and cope with reduced transportation options.
This cooperative approach to citizen services work makes perfect sense in India, where host government officials can be deluged by requests for information, and where distances between places are so great that not every mission can always put boots on the ground. Our experience in Leh made us realize that we can benefit from and trust in the professionalism of our counterparts and this type of team effort should serve as a model for future crises.