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. He pens What I Saw in Haiti for DipNote. It’s not every day that you read such luminous writing on the pages of the Department’s official blog. This piece gives a window to the pressure, the stress and strain, the emotional toll and the difficult work that go with a large scale evacuation in a disaster zone. It is an authentic and personal voice that captures the work as it is and the demands on our men and women on the ground; no airbrushing needed, just a well-told story.
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.[…]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.