Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thanksgiving 2003, Al Hillah, Iraq

“From: Whitehead, Michael (USA)
Sent: Thursday, November 27, 2003 9:28 AM
Subject: The end of Ramadan and Thanksgiving.

Ramadan ended Tuesday night according to one Najaf cleric and Monday night according to another. Evidently, Ramadan starts on the full moon and ends on the new moon. The leading cleric is supposed to make this determination. Confusion reigns because they cannot decide which cleric is the lead.

Pre-convoy briefing, All Hillah, Iraq in 2003.

It has been overcast and rainy for two days. This has turned desert dust into desert mud. Since it seems like EVERY vehicle in Iraq either leaks or spews oil, the introduction of water on the roads has sent some of us spinning. One SUV slid into a ditch and we had to call a Humvee to winch it out.

By order of the Combined & Joint Task Force today is Thanksgiving and everyone will be served turkey, even if they are a Pole, Brit or Ukrainian and didn't ask for it. Today we will have a Continental breakfast from 0630 to 0900 and then a Holiday meal from two to 6 in the afternoon. The Packers against the Lions on TV in the evening. The Pakistani cooks have been busy smoking the turkeys.”

“The Iraqis have definitely not been standing around, but have been celebrating the end of a month of fasting. There are similarities and differences between how we Americans celebrate a holiday and how the Iraqis celebrate. From my observations of Hillah, Karbala and Al Kut the last few days, the Iraqis appear to have combined our Easter and July 4th. Like Easter, there are lots of families out in their best attire, little boys in suits and ties and little girls in adorable dresses and hats. While on the 4th we use firecrackers, bottle rockets and fireworks, the Iraqis use AK's, RPG's and hand grenades. I walked to breakfast to what sounded like a gun battle, but what I knew to be the famous or infamous Iraqi "celebratory" fire.

Other Iraqis walked through the streets beating a large drum or playing a horn in a decidedly off tune non-medley rendition of something. Yet, as I stood on the roof of a building in our compound in Al Kut, inspecting the line of Texas barriers and barbed wire we had erected in the last two weeks, I could see Iraqi families promenading in the park, enjoying their holiday in peace and without fear. As we left the children ran up to us shouting, "Thank you" in English. I had never heard them say that before. We waved back.”

Michael Whitehead
Colonel, Civil Affairs”

Excerpt From
Messages from Babylon
Michael Whitehead
This material may be protected by copyright.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Review of Jose Andres’ book on Puerto Rico after Maria

Jose Andres is a Big Time Chef in Washington, D.C. and he wrote a book about his participation in the response in Puerto Rico to the impact of Hurricane Maria. The book is called We Fed an Island: the True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, by Jose Andres with (a mediocre performance by) Richard Wolffe.

I saw this book in a bookstore and picked it up because I thought that there was an excellent possibility that my name was in it. I went to Puerto Rico to respond to the storm. I arrived on the Saturday after the storm hit and worked at the State/Federal Operations Center in the San Juan Convention Center for 3 weeks.

San Juan Convention Center, P.R., early in the response to Hurricane Maria
I was involved in a lot of the events and even was present in some of the scenes that Jose depicted in his book. He named a lot of people from many different organizations, but, for whatever reason, he left a few people out. Spoiler: I didn’t make the book.

He spends a lot of time ridiculing Trump’s comments about Puerto Rico, equivalent to shooting fish in a barrel. He also spent a lot of words and pages complaining about how the federal government is large, and bureaucratic.  And slow. Well, duh. Congress made it that way.

The way these disasters work, the media and the politicians spend the first month complaining about how the federal government is failing to get the $$ out to the poor citizenry fast enough. Six months later, they have the FEMA Administrator answering questions before Congress, on national television, about why Joe Schmo got some precious federal taxpayer dollars that he didn’t deserve.

Craig Fugate, former FEMA Administrator, former Director of Emergency Manager for the State of Florida, and former Alachua County Emergency Manager, said it best: there are 3 ways to respond to a disaster - fast, efficient or cheap. You have to pick one. The citizenry demand FAST, which is inefficient and expensive.

Jose made a lot of what he considered to be brilliant and simple suggestions about improving the feeding response in Puerto Rico after Maria. One suggestion that he made, multiple times, is that FEMA should have put him in charge of feeding the island. When his suggestion wasn’t followed, he literally fell on the floor of the San Juan Convention Center and pitched a fit. And I’m not exaggerating.

Jose and his organization made a lot of sandwiches. They made pots of chicken and rice. They gave it all away. A lot they put in cars and trucks and people drove up to 4 hours to places and gave it away.  The disaster food production and distribution system that he created and described in his book did not meet the customary food safety standards. I kept thinking about those ham and cheese and mayonnaise sandwiches in the back of a vehicle for hours in the tropics. 

The problem with putting Jose in charge of feeding on the island (the problem with putting any individual in charge of feeding the island, unless it was the Governor of PR, who was otherwise occupied) would be that such an act would be in violation of federal law. 

The Stafford Act specifies how the federal government will respond to disasters. The local government executes the response. The state manages the response, The federal government supports the response. Despite the criticism of President Bush after Katrina, and now President Trump after Maria, the President actually has .00001% to do with the actual response to a disaster.

Think about it. If we were waiting for the President to make a decision (and really, what the hell is he going to know about the disaster response, sitting in the White House), we would never get anything done.

To be honest, what is INFURIATING to those of us who were working ourselves to exhaustion at the San Juan Convention Center during the response, was the snide remarks made in the book that the response was less than average because the survivors were “only” Puerto Ricans.

I’m going to count to 10 and not give those comments the derision that they deserve.

I’m sure that Jose Andres is a fine cook and businessman. Despite what he presents in this book, and the long list of his claimed accomplishments, he doesn’t, and still doesn’t, know a lot about emergency management, disaster response and mass care.

I’m not sure how many hurricanes that Jose has worked, but Maria was the 24th hurricane that I have worked. Jose expressed a lot of opinions, and he is entitled to those opinions. He’s even entitled to put those opinions in a book and sell them. But he doesn’t really know much about emergency management, disaster response and mass care.

And he still doesn’t.