Ross McKim

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hurricane Relief

I found out yesterday at 5 PM that I will go to Los Cabos on hurricane relief. I leave in a couple hours with 3 other people. It is not clear what we will be doing as Hurricane Odile happened 4 days ago. Most of us have never done American Citizen Services before and none has worked in a disaster. We were told to find a way to get to Guadalajara and that a charter plane would take us to Los Cabos. The US government is hiring charter planes to ferry Americans out and they are all empty going in. I would not be surprised if we get to Guadalajara and we get sent to a different section of the country. The Matamoros consulate is supposed to have 7 adjudicating officers. I was sent here because they were down two officers. Two officers and two local staff just got sent to Tijuana to help with hurricane relief and with two more gone they will be done to three adjudicating officers. I was supposed to do a radio interview in a few hours and then a presentation to the consulate but those are not happening due to us getting the earliest flight out and due to sudden staffing no one else has the time.

My time in Matamoros

I have been here just over two weeks and the people at the consulate have been extremely friendly. The consulate seems very well run and I was given my own house. Apparently it is the smallest house in their pool but it is probably twice as big as my house in Juarez. The first weekend I was here they had a cookout, supposedly in my honor but I think it was just a reason to party.

I went to South Padre Island with a friend and swam there. My usual thing at a beach is to go out as far as feels comfortable, usually a half mile or mile out. I thought it was odd no one else was swimming away from the beach until I saw a fin ahead. I turned around and slowly back and saw another fin every few minutes. Turns out sharks are pretty regular visitors to the beach.

One day we received an invitation to go to the Festival de Tamaulipas. It is a ten day art fest held all over the state. The bigwigs in both the art and political scenes showed up and all gave speeches. Most of the performers were pretty young but the last set was spectacular. I don't who the performer was but one woman was from Tamaulipas and came back for this performance. She alternated between singing, dancing, telling racy stories, and telling jokes all in massive heels and dress covered with the symbol of the state. Most states in US lay claim to one or two songs. I think I heard at least five about the wonders of this pretty small state. Occasionally, her backup performers would give a solo or the background dancers would take center stage. The mayor is a known enemy of the cartels and you could see her guards all around. They were heavily armored and several carried grenade launchers, which may not be ideal in a crowded theater.

I had heard a lot about the security situation here before I came, mainly that it was not safe. Everything people have told me goes alone with that. The green area which we are allowed to go to is miniscule, the consulate is surrounded by heavily armed and armored federal police, and my house has something seven layers of security. In the two weeks I have been here there have been two major shootouts. At the welcoming party one guy was saying he went home to change and he six people beating the crap out of another guy with a tire iron. I asked why he didn't call the police and he said, "Why bother? The police force has been fired and the army doesn't respond to small things like this." There is much more I could say but I have to go. I plan on adjudicating a few visas and then get on a plane to go somewhere to help with hurricane relief somehow.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Monterrey Exchange

I am in Monterrey once again. This time I am here for an officer exchange. The two consulates trade officers for a few weeks with the idea that each person will learn how everything works in another place and maybe the consulates will learn something as well. Monterrey was the lowest on my list of desired places as I have already been. In my case it is with a friend of mine who I know from before. Her house is crazy nice with marble floors, a communal garden, 3 floors, 5 bathrooms, a walk in closet plus a closet room bigger than many bedrooms, etc. Out of curiosity I counted the number of light switches and came up with 65 wall switches. I live next to a really fancy mall and just about the nicest section of town. No driving as a shuttle picks me up every day. Her friends in CJ are hosting her as I do not think she wants to drive on the crazy Juarez roads or live in my house that regularly smells of sewage. 

My goal for this exchange is to learn how to do worker visas and investor visas, both of which we rarely do in Juarez. This consulate does 40% of the US worker visas and is now doing about 900 a day.

Last week I spent all my work days relearning tourist visas and clearing out my cases. It is the 1st time in several months that all my cases are cleared out. It is a good feeling.

2 weeks ago I was the control officer for the Acting Director General of the State Dept. This is a big person and I am just glad nothing went wrong. Basically his role was to give everyone the bigger picture of what is happening in the Foreign Service and to hear our complaints. He told all the recent officers that we were the "pig in the python" and that promotion and desired jobs would be a lot harder for us, which was not news to anyone. When I crossed the border with him the Chihuahua state police surrounded us and escorted us to the consulate. Same thing going back to the border. 

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Monterrey, Mexico

I have been in Monterrey for a week now. 2 other employees from CJ and I are here for a few weeks to help out. Visiting the city is a complete revelation for me. All I had heard before coming was that it is considered more dangerous than Juarez and State Dept employees are not allowed to leave the city. The city is impressive with beautiful large building, nice roads and plants. The neighborhood I am staying in is apparently the wealthiest one in Latin America. I can believe it with the Lamborghini and Porsche shops down the street.

The US consulate is definitely showing its age but the employees are very welcoming and appreciative that we came. Our objective is reduce the backlog of interviews and allow the consulate employees a bit of time to work on their own projects. There is a lot more work to do but it is in some ways easier- visa interviews are quicker and a lot more black and white.

The consulate employees are very active- in the week I have been here I did 5 activities with them. One day was watching Pariah, a powerful movie about a lesbian black teenager growing up in a dysfunctional home. Another night was an Asian-American Heritage gathering featuring art by Mexicans about the Asian American relationship, good Korean food, and a famous Japanese American ballerina performing.

Yesterday we had the annual softball game between the consulate and the Ciudad de los Ninos (City of Children). It is a very successful school which gives education to low income students and their families. Last year the school spent months preparing for the event and stacked the team. This year it was a lot more laid back with children taking our positions after a few innings.

One thing I haven't quite gotten over here is that there is water. In the 2 and a half months I have lived in CJ I have not seen rain. In the week I have been here it has rained three times. Today 4 of us received permission to go out of the safe area and go a park called La Estanzuela. It is part of the run up to a green race the consulate is helping to sponsor. We did a walk in the park with guides and a naturalist from the university. Afterwards we did yoga in the middle of the park with a instructor who has traveled all over the world studying yoga.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Bought Car
This Monday I went with a friend to check out used cars in El Paso. I checked out a bunch on SUVs but decided to buy a coworker's car. The options seemed to be $25,000 for a new Rav4 or $4000 for a used Honda Accord. The SUV would probably be helpful with all the potholes and flooding but most people seem to get by with the smaller cars. We also went to a health food store called sprouts which has every food you could imagine for those allergic to glutein. Afterwards we went to an excellent Palestinian restaurant.

Yesterday I bought the. The color is a little boring but it seems to run well and the coworker I bought it from as taken good care of it. The mechanic who inspected it was impressed with how well it runs. We did all the paper work in Texas and I had to buy American insurance just to register the car.

Earlier this evening I went over to El Paso to pick up some medications. El Paso is an OK town. It's pretty spread out so everything takes longer to get anywhere and it doesn't seem to have a center. I have been in no hurry to get a car and tonight I realized why. It is frustrating driving around a city you don't know. It was even worse on the Mexican side. In Juarez there are people waving flashlights around in the middle of the road trying to direct you to their parking places. The GPS on my phone barely works on the Mexican side and Juarez has the largest speed bumps I have ever seen. No roads go in straight lines for any length of time.

Work is frustrating and slow, but that seems to be the standard starting point for everyone. If anything strange comes up the answer to the problem is always: "There's an SOP for that." SOP is standard operating procedure and most of these are 25 pages long. A person who knows what they're doing can deal with a problem in 2 minutes while I might take me an hour to figure out the process. I wouldn't mind if I learned one thing at a time and did it several times to understand the process but most of the time it is in response to some strange issue with a particular person.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Celiac's and/or Crohn's

My Situation
I am feeling much better now. The clot has not returned. Every day that it does not return is one day closer to the promised land of being a healthy person. I don’t know exactly what they did differently to stop it from clotting again but the surgery was more aggressive in several ways so something worked. I am still very weak and get lightheaded if I move around much but these are all common effects of just being in bed so long. I still walk funny because the entry point was my ankle so I can not put pressure on it. My leg was all kinds of swollen but now looks relatively normal. I think I have a small clot in my calf but that is not surprising. The doctors are not concerned with small clots.

I will have a procedure done tomorrow, hopefully recover on Wed, and maybe leave the hospital on Thurs. I hope to be at work on Mon but my hopes and predictions have been wrong so far and I am not putting much weight behind them.

Celiac Disease and/or Crohn’s Disease and/ or something else?
I had occasional GI issues when I lived in Kenya and Tanzania and they mostly went away when I came back to the US. I also have anemia which has shown up pretty regularly over the last decade or so. I figured since I had decent insurance I should resolve all my health issues before I went to a new country. I eventually went to a GI doctor who suggested a number of tests. I did all of these before Christmas and got the results back a couple weeks ago. I phoned the doctor’s office and the secretary said “Oh, you have Crohn’s Disease.” She faxed the results and I had one sheet that had a big check mark next to Celiac’s Disease and another with a big check mark next to Crohn’s Disease. The Crohn’s sheet had “probability of complications chart” with 45% chance of complications in the 1st year and the probability going up every year. I have no idea what complications they mean but it sounds bad. It was pretty bad to go from thinking you are a generally healthy person to now knowing you have 3 lifetime diseases- some autoimmune disease that causes me to clot like crazy, Celiac Disease, and Crohn’s Disease.

I know what Celiac’s Disease is. A friend of mine has it and basically you can’t eat gluten or wheat products. The big things verboten are all bread products though there are a bunch of foods with preservatives that have gluten. If you don’t eat them your stomach is happier, you absorb all the right nutrients, and you are generally healthier. I am pretty flexible in general and can switch my diet if it makes me healthier. The thing that bothers me most is that I hate to refuse food. I believe food is one of the great connectors of people. Accepting and eating food from someone is a sign of friendship, love, and companionship. To refuse food is to refuse all of these things and to, at a basic level, reject a person and their culture. I also like to be low maintenance, not asking for special things or to make waves. Now, if I have this disease, people will have to make other arrangements whenever I eat at their house or we talk about going out to lunch. I also have never worried about food. I generally eat healthy food but have never calorie counted or had to worry about food. Now, my life is slightly more complicated in that I need to pay attention to labels and learn a whole new gamut of information. I am told that the assay I took is 95% accurate and that it would explain my anemia.

I have never quite figured out what Crohn’s Disease is. I have read all kinds of literature but it never seems to add up to something understandable. The definition is something meaningless like “inflammation of the GI tract”. The symptoms seem to vary quite a bit. A fellow grad student had it and my memory was that he had incredible pain in his stomach. The Wikipedia page told of people becoming retarded and had pictures of people with disturbing skin rashes. My brother told me of his neighbor with it who, because of it, leads a painful and useless life and cannot leave his apartment. Everything about it sounds horrible with painful and debilitating long term consequences. The GI doctor left a voicemail saying I have the disease and the results printout looks very definite with positive results and big check marks. The GI doctors at GW didn’t seem to think the assay is very accurate and that nothing in my history suggested that I have Crohn’s Disease. They did a CAT scan looking at my stomach which showed my stomach linings have not hardened which means there is a at least nothing exceptionally advanced.

When I received these results and talked to the GI team they said there was only one way to tell if either of these results was accurate. The test is called an endoscopy/ colonoscopy and involves a camera checking out your whole GI tract as well as some machine which takes bits of your stomach for later analysis. I was supposed to do the test last Monday but the GI team balked because I had an occasional high temperatures and my heart rate was high, both of which are side effects of clots. They are used to doing the test as out-patients and commonly delay the test if someone doesn’t feel 100%. This delay frustrated the hell out of me and my blood doctors, who are looking for a possible cause of my inflammation. My main doctor found a more senior GI doctor who is more used to working with non-traditional patients and I will receive the test tomorrow. The test will also say yes or no to a whole variety of other GI issues and things like parasites or other leftovers from Africa.

When I got the blood tests about Crohn's and Celiac's I showed them to one of the residents on my hematology team and he got very excited, photocopied the pages, and disappeared for several days. I found out that they were excited because this could explain everything that is going on. GI diseases like these can cause massive inflammation which can lead to both autoimmune disorders and cause clotting. They were especially excited about Crohn’s, as it often causes pretty severe inflammation, which my body was showing. The GI doctors on the other hand were saying- Don’t blame this on GI issues. His history is pretty mild and shouldn’t cause massive clots like this.

I was put on a very sensitive blood thinner two weeks ago in anticipation of this endoscopy but my blood has to be checked every 6 hours to be sure it is in “therapeutic” range. The situation is not ideal as my arms are like pin cushions with people often trying twice before giving up and finding the local blood drawing expert. The normal goal for the drug is 60-70 but for me it is 80-90 and my level regularly alternates from 30s to 120s in the course of a few hours. Even with the blood thinner my blood usually clots immediately so there is no bleeding from the blood draws. The hope is that with the endoscopy over I can go on a normal blood thinner by tomorrow night. There is considerable debate as to whether to take me off the blood thinner. It is dangerous to have thin blood while chunks of your stomach are taken out but my leg can also clot up again within hours. I never heard what the results of the debate are.

Being in a hospital you see all the misfortunates of the world. Theoretically, I like to know that unfortunate people exist because it gives me something to work for and a reason to live and improve the world. Life is not just people getting bigger houses or snappier cars. I have had maybe 10 roommates who represent about as diverse a group of people as you can imagine. Generally people don’t affect me emotionally but the latest roommate gets me close to crying at times and other times I just want to yell at him to shut up and stop whining. He is blind, hard of hearing, can’t do anything, and is confused about the world. He still thinks JFK is prez. Every time anyone does anything too or for him he yells out constantly “Please don’t hurt me!” It must be tough to live in a state where you don’t know what is going to happen to you and to have no control over what is going on. Not that it was lacking before but I have much more respect for nurses now. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Possible Success

The procedure was done on Tues and Wed so I did virtually nothing after both of the surgeries. Yesterday (Thurs) I started using crutches and doing exercises and my leg is doing far better than I expected. I have been doing leg exercises in my bed and walking around on crutches whenever I have the energy and nurses are available. So far I feel much better than I have since entering the hospital. I just talked to the radiologist. They added 4 new stints to my veins and they added some medications for now to reduce my clotting. It seems no matter what drug I have my blood can still clot very easily. I will have a procedure done on Tues and therefore will wait in the hospital until then. When I get the energy I will explain what the procedure will be about.