Hurricane stories are sad and tragic, and quite honestly, can sometimes seem pretty abstract. Everyone sees the stories on the internet or TV. We pause, we grieve, and then we might make a donation to Red Cross or some other aid organization. Our country’s generosity is remarkable and dependable. But then we move on. Sometimes, though, something happens to make it more real.
For me, it happened when I received an email at 11:08 p.m. Saturday, September 9. A State Department colleague in the Bureau of Consular Affairs asked if I could fly to Puerto Rico to help organize the evacuation of American citizens after Hurricane Irma had smashed through the Caribbean. I said yes—after checking with my wife and daughter first. I’d done similar work following the earthquake in Haiti, but it’s intimidating to jump into a crisis that’s still unfolding. Seven hours later, I was en route to the airport; 13 hours later, I was on the ground at the airport in San Juan meeting teams of U.S. consular officers from our embassies in Barbados and the Dominican Republic. They would soon be joined by officers from our embassies in Kingston and Bogota. We even had French linguists who’d flown in from Montreal. I knew what was going on thanks to a 24-hour task force that had been monitoring the hurricane for several days.
Under U.S. law, the State Department has very clear guidelines for the aid and assistance we provide American citizens in times of crisis. The Bureau of Consular Affairs is there to support and guide our response. In this crisis, U.S. consular officers spent days flying back and forth in noisy C-130 cargo planes that belonged to the U.S. Air Force and National Guard units from Puerto Rico, New York, and Kentucky. On at least 25 flights, these planes were filled with American citizens who had been through a horrible and frightening experience. We were there to help people on and off the planes, giving them water and food and earplugs. We were there to help get them to safety.
Those we were helping evacuate could see us consular officers on the front lines, but there were even more people working behind the scenes, supporting embassies that staffed the evacuation ‘fly-away’ teams. USAID and social service professionals were there, too. When the C-130 loadmasters were not getting people safely on and off the plane, they were strapping in forklifts, portable desalinization plants, and pallets of food and water.
Communicating was difficult because the islands’ infrastructure had been damaged so severely, but we found workarounds with satellite phones, international texting, and WhatsApp. We never forgot why we were there, or what we were supposed to do. We felt peoples’ anguish and frustration, and then their relief. Even though we could barely talk at the end of the day, we were proud to wake up at 5 o’clock the next morning to go out and do it again.
My fellow consular officers may look like ordinary people, but they are not. Not all heroes wear capes. These were extraordinary people who, like so many of our U.S. government employees, are deeply committed to helping American citizens in distress. These particular heroes left their homes and work, and flew to Puerto Rico to help rescue and evacuate several thousand victims of Hurricane Irma from surrounding islands like Sint Maarten, Tortola, and Anguilla. Nearly everyone we helped said thank you, even when they didn’t have to. For us, it didn’t matter. We were all in this together, doing what needed to be done. And looking back, it's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit.
About the Author: Paul Mayer is a Senior Advisor in the Bureau of Consular Affairs. He assisted in the evacuations of American citizens following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and during civil unrest in Egypt in 2012.