Hurricane Odile Relief
Thursday morning I went into the consulate and we raided all the emergency supplies we could find- MREs, satellite phones, med supplies and stuffed our bags full of them. Then we went to the airport and took a couple flights to get to Guadalajara, which was to be our way into Los Cabos. At the airport there was a table set up to help Americans and I met a number of friends from when I served there. We gathered the various people from the different consulates and got on an empty plane for Los Cabos. The ticket was handwritten and there were 15 of us on a plane with 160 seats.
At Los Cabos there were several planes, some commercial, some military and a few helicopters. Parts of the airport had collapsed and much of it was flooded. The US embassy had a command and control center in the functioning terminal and we had 1 person on a computer dealing with all the communications and people coming in and out trying to resolve problems or get info. Everyone in our group was sent to a hotel to rest up for the next day but there was no room in the car so I stayed behind. In a few minutes someone came in a said "We need baggage handlers." so I became a baggage handler for a couple hours and alternated between that and trying to make sure the planes had the right number of people. Too few and people are left behind, too many and they have to remove people and it slows down the whole process. The manifest can be handwritten but it has to be exact or the plane refuses to fly.
The groups were divided into Mexicans and Americans so we occasionally walked the Mexican section looking for American citizens. When I walked through it was dark so we had flashlights and called out for Americans. The line woke and people started replying "Mexico" and then everyone stood up and starting yelling the name of the city they wanted to go. It was like a game of telephone. We got out of there before there was a riot though we did find one lady in there. She had been cut everywhere with broken glass and had some tendons cut. My job for a while was taking care of her and writing out the promissory note for her because her hands were covered in bandages. The person next to her in line had been mauled by a pit bull and and had bite marks all over her.
The commercial airlines were flying everyone out for free, since they would be doing the flights anyway, and the US government chartered a few planes to deal with all the people the charters could not. The problem was that the US government charges each person $600 and everyone has to sign a promissory note saying they will do so. Many of the people were angry about and refused to sign. At one point there was a whole line of people chanting against Obama, which is a ironic as I believe this charging practice came from congress to reduce costs and has been around for a long time. People would find out it was a charging line and leave it, which really messes up your counting.
The last plane of the night was a US C-130 and it had disaster supplies and a few soldiers. We took all the stuff out and then the airmen changed it into a passenger plane and we loaded it up with bags and people. Everyone who wanted to leave had been evacuated.
After that plane there was nowhere to go. There was a curfew due to looting and violence so we couldn't go to the hotels. I tried sleeping on the floor but it was cold, then half of a couch but someone was listening to Mexican opera and it was hot and humid, so I ended up sleeping on a baggage carrier for an airline. It was metal so it was cool, it was outside so there was some wind, and it was off the ground so there were fewer bugs. The only problem was the spotlights and the sound of the generator and all the bats squeeking.
Our first flight was at 6:30 so my job was leading the people up from the holding area up to the staging area. After that, someone else had them board the planes. The Mexican line was several thousand people long and looked like it went on for a mile while the American line was only a couple hundred though people kept coming in. We would lead a hundred people up to the staging area and then add on whenever we got the seat count on the plane or people would walk away. At one point we tried letting people have a choice in where they went which kinda worked but could get ugly and made everything a lot more confusing. In general, people just wanted to know that someone was in control and that they would be taken care of.
The Mexican's tried the same thing in letting people go where they wanted but it got a lot uglier. People would refuse to board certain planes and only wanted to go where they had family. This makes sense as a family of five with little money and no income couldn't live in a strange city. The planes to Tijuana, for example, would leave with lots of seats empty while there were still thousands of people on the ground. Eventually the government gave up and said they were only sending planes to Mexico City and much of the crowd melted away at that point.
By 10 o'clock most of the Americans were cleared out and we sent out teams to all the hotels to pick up Americans or find people who had been reported to us. At that point most of our planes were basically leaving empty. Many of the families, Mexican and American, would send the wife and kids away and the men would stay to protect the house. The estimate I heard was that 8000 Americans and "friendlies" (people from visa waiver countries) were evacuated Wed and Thursday and another 1000 on Friday.
I never got far from the airport but I did not see the complete devastation people sometimes talk about. Certainly there were no buildings intact and most cars had a few windows broken and some were crushed. The hotel next to the airport had all of its outer walls taken off and just had the concrete interior. Electricity was very limited and there was little running water though the Mexican military had food and water distribution points and very few went hungry. The death toll I heard was two, one from drowning and another from a heart attack. I think they are still tallying up the costs but I heard it was the most expensive hurricane in the history of Mexico
By 12 we were making planes to get out. We tried getting a US military plane in but most governments don't appreciate other militaries flying through their territory so the Mexican government offered us the use of a plane. It turns out the plane was the official plane of the defense secretary of Mexico. It had several boardrooms where our chiefs sat, the personal office of the secretary which was also his bedroom, and the basic seat section which most of us got. I think we left around 7 PM so I was in Los Cabos a little over 24 hours in total.
The "rock star" of our operation was the consular agent based there. He has a small office, some salary, and his job is to help Americans who need help. His wife had recently given birth, his car had been largely destroyed, and the roof of his house was gone but virtually all his efforts were on helping us get people out and finding Americans who could not get out themselves. When the 1st team got there he had all the contacts and knew exactly what to do. Without him the relief effort would have gone a lot more poorly.
The one funny thing was that a friend of mine went to the hotel airport with a list of the Embassy's rooms. He went to the first four and all had families, but no one answered the last one. He went to the hotel clerk and gave the room number and got the key. He went in, got a shower, heard some voices, and walked out with just his towel on. There were four people in the room and they were pretty surprised and asked "Who are you?" and he gave them the exact same question. It turns out they were AP guys who had been at the hotel for a few days. He thanked them for the shower, got dressed, and walked out.
In Mexico City we went directly to the hotel where I ran into a coworker out of CJ. He had been on the 1st team in to Los Cabos on Tues night and, by luck, got a ride out to La Paz which was his destination. He said it was pretty scary with destruction everywhere and cars on fire. The further North he went the less destruction there was. In La Paz many of the tourists decided it really wasn't so bad, and they just decided to hang out and have a mellow time drinking. I think they evacuated a few hundred Americans. The 15 or so of us had dinner together and Saturday we headed back to our various posts. There was some question as where I would go. I could go to Hermosillo and be a week early for my assignment but that got nixed as they were probably not ready for me. The second option was going back to CJ which would have been nice but I ended up going back to Matamoros because they were so short handed and they said they really wanted me back. I got back Saturday and was told there was severe flooding and two gunfights had just happened, with at least five people killed. My house had never been cleaned out so I still had some food left.
I came into work this morning to be told I could have the day off. There was work to do so I stayed and adjudicated visas . Hopefully I will get time this week to work in the ACS- American Citizen Services section and maybe give the presentation I had written before I left.
The Hurricane Relief work was very short, just 24 hours or so on the ground but it definitely impacted me personally and I learned quite a bit about what to do and what not to do in planning disaster relief.