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Saturday, February 27, 2010

What I did for the Haitian Earthquake

I have this love-hate relationship with my Blackberry. I am old enough to remember the pleasure in receiving and reading letters (remember those?), especially when I was overseas. The Blackberry is a cascade of these little pleasures, instantly available on my hip. The content of the messages are irrelevant. What is important is that they were sent to ME.

On the other hand, every time I hear my Blackberry buzzing at an odd hour, I am reminded of the reason that the State of Florida has issued me this device: to contact me in case of a disaster. And at those odd hours, as I am pulling my Blackberry from it's case to read the message, I wonder if this will be the message that changes my life: the summons to the state emergency operations center (EOC) to respond to the Big One.

I have been summoned in some way similar many times before. In 1998, before anyone even heard of Blackberries, I was driving my daughter to school in the morning when I heard on NPR that 5 tornadoes had struck central Florida in the early morning, with widespread damage and casualties. I made a mental note to head over to the state EOC after dropping off my daughter to see what was up. Seconds later, I felt the vibration of the pager on my belt. Because I was driving I handed the pager to my daughter and asked her to read aloud the text message. "Report to the EOC," she read aloud.

On the morning of January 13, 2010 I received an email with the same instructions. I had heard about the Haitian earthquake the night before but didn't expect to be involved because it was in another country. I was wrong. I had not really read the state's Repatriation plan.

Over the next three weeks I was to learn a lot about Repatriation, and the way the federal government functions and doesn't function during a disaster. But most of all, I was to be reminded (once again!) that Florida has the best state emergency operations team in the country.

Repatriation is the return of U.S. citizens from overseas after a disaster. The Department of State is responsible for orchestrating this movement. State tasks the federal Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) to take care of these citizens as they arrive, possibly with nothing more than the clothes on their back. Within HHS the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) signs an agreement with a state agency designated by the Governor to perform the Repatriation services. In Florida, the Governor designated the Department of Children & Families (DCF).

According to the state Repatriation plan, which is based on the draft November 2008 Office of Refugee Resettlement Plan (ORR), DCF would meet the returning U.S. citizens at the designated airport in Florida and assist these citizens in moving onward to their homes, primarily by lending them money for airfare, hotel rooms and food. The recipient of the money would sign an agreement promising to pay the federal government back, receive their support, and then move on their way home. The federal plan also says that federal ORR will reimburse state DCF and all other state and local agencies for any expenses related to this federal operation.

Who pays, as in so many other things in life, is an extremely important part of the plan.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the state emergency operations center the morning of Wednesday, January 13 I was not familiar with either the federal plan or the state plan. Not very many other people at the state EOC were familiar with the plans either. I went from meeting to meeting, as we all tried to get organized to support this federal mission, leafing through the plans while trying to listen to people telling me new information. Nobody in any of these meetings had ever done this before.

That afternoon we crammed into a room at the state EOC to listen to a conference call with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and two other states. ORR told us that there would be no Repatriation from Haiti, and if there was, then they would take care of it. This was the first of several times that we received misinformation from ORR.

Fortunately for all concerned, we didn't believe her. We were watching the news along with everyone else, and we knew that the people on the island were in serious trouble and would be desperate to get out and return to the United States. The state EOC remained at a partial activation, and we returned there the next day with the expectation that something was going to happen,

And at 5 PM Thursday afternoon, January 14, something did happen, We received a phone call from ORR (the same person who assured us the previous day that there would be no Repatriation) that a planeload of U.S. citizens, some possibly with "medical issues," was bound for Miami, would arrive in two hours, and could we possibly meet the plane and provide any necessary assistance? With a shake of our heads, we sprang into action.

Within thirty minutes we had set up a conference call with federal ORR, the state EOC, Miami-Dade county emergency management and the Miami airport to begin the coordination to receive the flight. DCF had to round up a reception committee (this was after 5 PM, mind you) and get them to the airport by 7 PM. I distinctly remember, in the confusion, someone on a cell phone saying, "Everyone is meeting at baggage claim fourteen," as they struggled to get everyone linked together at the airport.

And after that, every day, at all hours, the planes kept coming: large Boeing aircraft chartered by someone, one and two engine private planes, and finally, US Air Force C-130 and C-17 aircraft. And with one or two exceptions, they were all coming to Florida. Despite numerous desperate phone calls and emails to everyone in the federal government we could think of, no one was able to tell us when these planes were coming, where in Florida they were going, and how many people were on board. I can understand this not happening the first few days, but after one week? Two weeks? Three weeks? It took three weeks before we finally received good, reliable flight information from any source other than the ones we were able to create ourselves.

In the meantime, we were left to our own devices. A number of knowledgeable people put their heads together and created what we called our Flight Following cell. The cell was established at the state EOC and ran 24 hours a day. The cell had a video feed from Miami's Air Traffic Control Center. As the planes took off from Port-a-Prince their radar signature indicated their destination. As these planes were identified, the tower in Miami called them and requested information on the number of persons on board, and whether any medical or other special needs were required on arrival.

All of this information was entered by the Flight Following Cell into a spreadsheet in Google Docs. With the information "in the clouds" the people at the receiving airports in Florida could access this spreadsheet and plan on having the necessary resources available to meet the arriving flights. The establishment and continued operation of this cell enabled us to stabilize the operation and meet the needs of the survivors as they arrived from Haiti. A large number of organizations contributed people to staff this cell, but of particular note and assistance (because we so rarely worked with them) was the Federal Aviation Administration and the Customs & Border Police, two federal agencies that really helped us out.

The Department of State declared the repatriation to be over on February 19. Ultimately, over 25,000 U.S. and foreign nationals on over a thousand flights arrived in Florida for onward movement to their homes. The Department of Children and Families gave financial assistance to almost seven thousand citizens. The American Red Cross fed over 13,000 meals and 55,000 snacks. Almost 700 injured Haitians were evacuated to Florida hospitals.

I played a small part in Operation Haiti Relief, but I was proud of the part I played. And I was proud of the many people throughout the state who made this operation a success.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Repatriation from Haiti

Since the day after the Haiti earthquake January 12 I have pulled 10-12 hour shifts at Florida's State Emergency Operations Center. Why? First, its my job. Second, the state had a mission to support the repatriation of U.S. citizens from the disaster afflicted island.

Repatriation is a federal mission, initiated by the Department of State, and funded by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In the federal plan, which I read in haste for the first time last week, HHS establishes an agreement with a state agency designated by the Governor (in this case, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF)) to care for U.S. citizens returned to the United States due to war or natural disaster. When required, DCF loans these citizens the money to get some food, a hotel or an airplane ticket home.

At first, HHS told us that the State would not be required to perform this repatriation mission. That illusion ended last Thursday night when we received a phone call from HHS at 5 PM that a flight was due into Miami in 2 hours and we were needed to be on hand in case any citizens needed our help.

Since then, we have provided assistance to over a thousand citizens, and we expect to continue this mission for several more weeks.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Curtis Whiteford Sentencing

- Debra Harrison and I -

- Curtis Whiteford, at his desk in his office in the Hotel Babylon, Al Hilla, Iraq -

"Curtis Whiteford, a former colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, was sentenced today to five years in prison for his participation in a wide-ranging bribery conspiracy in Al-Hillah, Iraq." I knew Curtis Whiteford and worked with him while I was in Iraq. I have written about this wide ranging and complex incident previously, in February 2007, August 2008 and June 2009.

"Whiteford, 53, of Deweyville, Utah, was charged in a 25-count indictment unsealed on Feb. 7, 2007, along with former U.S. Army Lt. Col. Debra M. Harrison, former U.S. Army Reserves Lt. Col. Michael Wheeler, and civilians William Driver and Seymour Morris Jr., with various crimes related to a scheme to defraud the Coalition Provisional Authority-South Central Region (CPA-SC) ... According to testimony at trial, Whiteford and Wheeler conspired from December 2003 to December 2005 with at least three others--Robert Stein, at the time the comptroller and funding officer for the CPA-SC; Philip H. Bloom, a U.S. citizen who owned and operated several companies in Iraq and Romania; and U.S. Army Lt. Col. Bruce D. Hopfengardner--to rig the bids on contracts being awarded by the CPA-SC so that more than 20 contracts were awarded to Bloom. "

I worked with Whiteford, Harrison, Hopfengardner and Wheeler at CPA-SC for five months, from October 2003 to February 2004. Debra Harrison worked for me during the period that I was there. To my knowledge, her crimes were committed after I left Hillah (she remained behind in Iraq until July 2004). I had no idea Debra or any of these other people were conspiring to defraud anyone.

Debra Harrison, federal register # 60327-050, is currently residing in a minimum security federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia. Her projected release date is November 17, 2011.

There was a lot of money, cash money, being passed out all over Iraq during this period. The banking system didn't work. No one accepted credit cards. Checks were out of the question. All of the reconstruction contracts were done as drug deals, with bags of cash (American dollars) handed over, moved about and stored. I read military situation reports about the movements of truckloads and planeloads of cash.

I wasn't in on the money side of the business. My good friend Leo Rivera passed out a lot of cash during the same period while he was in Tikrit with the 4th Division. There was cash around, but I didn't see it, touch it feel it or smell it. And I didn't want to.

Had I known that there was any criminal activity I would have reported it immediately. But I didn't know about it. By virtue of the rank Curtis Whiteford held, the oath that he took and the daily interactions that I had with him over a five month period, I had faith and confidence that Curt was executing his job as Chief of Staff properly.

Boy was I wrong.
(Debra Harrison giving bottled water to some Iraqi children)


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Babylon stories

I spent ten months of my life living on or adjacent to the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon, so when an editorial on that topic appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, I took an interest. Entitled Myths of Babylon, by Melik Kaylan, the article made the case that the American and Coalition forces had not damaged the ruins of the ancient city, as had been widely reported in the media.

I remember reading these newspaper accounts when they appeared. I thought that these media reports were inconsistent with my own observations at the time. I went to the area in and around the ruins many times, and I don't recall that they looked any different when I left than when I had arrived. In fact, as the article points out, upon arriving in Babylon in April 2003, the Marines extended their perimeter in order to protect the ruins from looters, who were hauling donkey cart loads of artifacts away daily.

The man most instrumental in encouraging the Marine Commander to preserve the ruins from the looters was Emilio Marrero, a Navy Captain and the Chaplain for the First Marine Expeditionary Force. Chaplain Marero recounts these events in his memoir, A Quiet Reality, which was just published last April. Drawing on the Chaplain's book, and an interview with the author, Mr Kaylan casts doubt on the media accusations that the U.S. and Coalition forces had damaged the site.

I remember the Chaplain very well. He hosted a very moving Memorial Day ceremony in our mess hall on the banks of the Shatt-al-Hillah canal, recounted in my own memoir of the events of that time, Messages from Babylon. A Marine helicopter had crashed into the canal a few days before, killing the crew. Worse, a Marine infantryman on guard duty nearby had jumped into the canal in an effort to save the crew, and drowned himself. It was probably one of the most moving ceremonies I had ever attended, and Chaplain Marrero deserves some of the credit for that.

I intend to put the Chaplain's book on my Xmas list.


Friday, October 30, 2009

International Association of Emergency Managers

On Monday I will be attending and speaking at the International Association of Emergency Managers 57th Annual Conference, held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. I will be presenting with a friend from the Salvation Army, Jeff Jellets. The title of the program is "Introducing the New Road Map for mass feeding operations."

Sound exciting? It is. What has happened is almost a revolutionary change in the area of emergency management that I work in, and I am proud to have played a part in making it happen.

One would think that the responsibility for feeding and sheltering (mass care) the survivors of a disaster would be a top priority for emergency managers. It isn't. At the local level, the city and county government level, this task is handed over to voluntary agencies like the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross. At the state level, little emphasis is given is given to mass care coordination.

And as long as the disasters aren't big, this way of doing business doesn't cause any obvious problems. Not knowing anything different, no one complains. But when the disaster gets big, this way of doing business breaks down, and the problems float into public view, like something old and rotten dislodged from the bottom of the lake.

The best example of this was Katrina. Yes, I know, the media have continually told us that it was all Bush's fault. Multiple volumes have been published detailing the mistakes that were made. I know, I read them all. But an important systemic problem that was revealed by Katrina, but one that was little discussed in the aftermath, was the lack of adequate coordination at the state level between the government and the mass care voluntary agencies.

The Red Cross and Salvation Army deal with hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny disasters nationwide every day. Unless you were affected by the disaster, you don't notice that these agencies are even there. Untill your apartment complex catches on fire, and you find yourself standing in the parking lot in your pajamas, a blanket around your shivering shoulders. If you have family to call to help you out you're okay. If you don't, you must rely on the Red Cross, who arrive with hot coffee, some toiletries, a change of clothes, and a voucher for a hotel.

In a flood, a tornado, or even a wildfire, things get more complicated, but the voluntary agencies have the organizational skills and experience (you should talk to some of these people; you would be amazed at what they can do) to pull in resources from out-of-state or across the country. But what happens if the Red Cross and the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptists and the Adventists send everything they have and it's still not enough? Then you have what happened in Katrina. And the Red Cross got blamed because they didn't send enough, even though it wasn't their fault.

Who's fault was it? I happen to believe that not everything that happens in this world is some body's "fault." What bothers me is that I saw this mass care coordination problem before Katrina, I saw it from the inside of the disaster during Katrina, and I am distressed to say that the problem still has not been totally resolved nationwide since Katrina.

On Monday, Jeff Jellets and I will explain to whoever wants to listen a first big, and important step that has been made to resolving this coordination problem. Hopefully, somebody will be there to listen.