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Chennai cyclone: a Foreign Service moment

So I just flew from Mumbai to Chennai for a one-week work exchange. It’s the kind of thing the State Department offers (when finances allow) because it’s a quick  way to motivate and train consular officers. The more pressure-cooker consular sections we see in the world, the better we get at working in them, I guess. Plus it gives us an opportunity to exchange best practices and ideas with colleagues from a different post.

The only problem is that Chennai was hit by a cyclone yesterday and I had to “hunker down” in my hotel room. It’s a five star hotel that accepts government rate, so please don’t feel bad for me. Though I got food poisoning on my first day and on the second day the Italian restaurant closed down, but still, I’m definitely okay. My only real problem is that I worry about the people in Chennai who are not staying at the Hyatt and whose houses are probably flooded right now.

A housekeeper just told me his family is sitting on a bed to avoid the water that’s knee-deep in their apartment. He smiled as he was telling me the story, and remained as polite as he was when I first arrived, when it wasn’t clear yet how bad this cyclone was going to be. The first thing that went through my head was how strong these people are, and how unbelievably polite.

The next feeling was a bit more uncomfortable: what am I doing? Am I really going back to my hotel room to watch a movie like everything is fine? Being in the Foreign Service gets me into many situations where my instinct says: be a humanitarian. Go help people. Why else are you here? And yet I know that being a humanitarian is a profession, which is much more than a feeling. Wanting to help people is different from knowing how to do so effectively and appropriately.

As I go back to my room, feeling emotionally torn about my existence, I get a message. The consulate in Chennai is likely to remain closed for the rest of the week. Some of the staff might go to the office, but there won’t be any regular work—no visa interviews. Those interviews are largely being picked up by other posts in India. How? I have no idea. Because there are no flights out of Chennai at the moment. They’re all cancelled. Visa applicants are stuck… which means I’m stuck too.

I guess this is just another “Foreign Service Moment.” When you sign up for the FS, and go through training, this is well within what’s expected. We’re prepared for this kind of thing. And to be very honest, I get a little tickled by it every time. I feel bad, torn up even, but I’m also fascinated by it. I never wish I’d avoided it—I like to observe it and, ideally, be useful.

I saw my share of disasters before I joined the Foreign Service (I was an FS spouse and went on five postings before) but even since 2019, there have been plenty of crises I’ve been (at least marginally) involved in. Most recently, I worked on the virtual Israel-Gaza conflict task force. When I served in Berlin, before I came to India, I registered Afghan evacuees who came through Germany on U.S. military planes, and I covered for a colleague who went to Slovakia to register Ukrainian refugees crossing into Slovakia a few months later. And of course there was COVID, which everyone went through, when we provided emergency services throughout the entire period.


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