It’s great to be back home in Hyderabad. I did some valuable work in Washington and spent a little time with family, but so many weeks, living out of suitcase is much too long.
We’ve been busy at the Consulate since I returned, but despite the press of day-to-day work, the entire staff is taking some time out for training on emergency preparedness, with the help of an expert from the U.S. The importance of this kind of training was brought home to me while I was in Washington by two unusual events, an earthquake and a hurricane. Both are rare, and both can be devastating, although this August the Washington metropolitan area suffered relatively few ill effects from the two events. What struck me, however, was that preparation made a big difference in how people responded.
When hurricane Irene was approaching, people throughout the southeastern United States used advance warning and past experience to make decisions about evacuating exposed areas and stocking up on essentials. New York and Boston had advance warning, but little past experience to call upon, and my impression was there was a lot more anxiety about what might happen there than there was in places like North Carolina, where hurricanes are more familiar and plans are detailed and regularly exercised. When the storm ultimately unleashed severe flooding in the land-locked northern state of Vermont, there was neither experience nor advance warning to mitigate the impact.
I was at work on the seventh floor of a high rise building in Washington when a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck the area. I had experienced earthquakes in California, and I assumed a quake was what had occurred, but many of my colleagues from Washington recalled 9/11, and feared that a bomb was responsible. State Department offices drill for bombs, but not for earthquakes, and people weren’t sure what they should do. It was clear that this as not something for which they were prepared.
Considering the recent damage and loss of life experienced in Sikkim and Nepal with the earthquake that hit on September 18, I’m grateful that we’re working locally to increase our preparedness. Emergencies are by definition unexpected, but at the same time, we all know that we will experience them in our lifetimes.
I’ve lived through blizzards in the U.S., the assassination of a president in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and devastating supply shortages in Zimbabwe. In every case, there were ways we had to make up our responses as we went along, because we just hadn’t been able to envision all the possibilities in advance. But preparedness pays off. For example, in Zimbabwe, the U.S. Embassy had the capacity to store large amounts of petrol and diesel, so when fuel was unavailable for months on end, we were able to keep going. Without those stocks, we probably would have had to curtail our activities and send some employees home.
I know if you’re in the Consulate applying for a visa or a new passport, it’s inconvenient to be forced to evacuate for an emergency drill. But if it happens to you one day, I hope you’ll understand and give us feedback on how well we communicate.