By Mira Olson, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO— Matthew Garrett, a Junior Consular Officer at the US Consulate in Rio, recently returned to Brazil after a twelve-day volunteer mission to help evacuate American citizens from Haiti in the aftermath of the January 12th earthquake.
Having learned French during his previous tour in Burundi (Eastern Africa), Garrett felt it was his duty to offer to help in the crisis. “As soon as I heard about the earthquake I reached out to some people in Consular Affairs . . . and said I’m ready and willing and can leave at a moment’s notice if you need some French speakers in Haiti,” he recalls.
Garrett arrived at the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti at 9:30 AM on January 17th. He was the only Foreign Service officer from Brazil, but was joined by other US diplomats stationed in various countries around the world, including Canada, Mexico, Argentina, India, Trinidad, and Tobago.
Following the earthquake, US aid mobilized quickly to help with search and rescue, aid, and evacuation missions. By the time Garrett arrived in Haiti, there was already significant US presence on the ground. “FEMA was there . . . the New York Fire Department was there, going out on search and rescue missions. There were just tons and tons of people at the Embassy itself,” he describes.
Garrett recalls that the influx of help actually exceeded the Embassy’s capacity and strained its resources: “there were people camping is the grass, there were people using the pool as the shower, the Embassy was just overflowing with people there, wanting to help.” Most nights Garrett slept on the floor in the Consulate; for three days in which he worked the night shift, he slept in a supply closet. All meals were military MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat).
Garrett worked between the Embassy and the airport to facilitate evacuations of American citizens. According to the US State Department, at any given time 45,000 American citizens, many of whom have dual citizenship, are living in Haiti. Relatively speaking, this number is enormous and exceeds the number of Americans living in Brazil.
Initially Garrett and his colleagues were processing 1,600 to 1,800 evacuations per day. “If you had a valid travel document . . . you could go straight to the airport,” says Garrett. “No American citizen was turned down.” Military cargo planes bringing emergency supplies into Haiti would take passengers back to military bases in Miami and Orlando every forty-five to ninety minutes.
According to Garrett, few people arrived for evacuation with suitcases. “The majority of people came with a backpack and the clothes on their back . . . Some people came with absolutely nothing but their travel documents and the clothes they were wearing.”
Thousands of people, however, either did not have valid travel documents or their documents had been lost or destroyed in the earthquake. In order to evacuate these individuals, the Consulate used a database called PIERS, which is a database of all passport records used to verify citizenship. American minors accompanied by non-American citizens required the most work, as the Consulate had to issue a visa to the guardian traveling with the child.
After receiving their emergency travel documents, the individuals were transported to the airport, where the Embassy was providing food, water and medical supplies for all passengers.
While the US Embassy suffered no visible damage and still had electricity and drinkable water, according to Garrett, “the airport was completely useless.” The building had collapsed, and thus evacuation efforts were being staged outside.
“It was really difficult,” states Garrett. “There were dozens and dozens of cases of children that hadn’t seen their parents since the earthquake . . . There wasn’t a single person that wasn’t affected.”
As of Friday, February 12th, over 16,200 Americans had been evacuated. Regarding the Americans that remain to be evacuated, “we’re going to keep taking them as long as them come,” says Garrett.