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Friday, March 11, 2011

Living in the Foreign Service: Evacuations

I have never been evacuated before.  I've lived through a few hurricanes, watched some bad thunderstorms, and once when I was in high school, we had a kitchen fire.  The kitchen fire happened right before the hurricane, and so we all got tired of eating out after awhile.  Until we joined the Foreign Service, my life has been wholly unremarkable.

When we joined the Foreign Service, I expected my life to continue being unremarkable, just in strange foreign locales.  When we were posted to Egypt, I knew that we would have a quiet, hot, dusty two years and then we'd leave.  I'm a little on the obsessive side about mentally preparing for things, and so I might blog-stalk you if you happen to live in Baku.  I have the FAM bookmarked on my computer, and just the other day I sat down and calculated the monthly amount of rent we would have available for training based on per-diem rates in the DC metro area.

But never in my time-wasting mental preparations, did I ever look up any information regarding evacuations.  Because that wasn't something I was worried about.  But, now that I have the information, I'll share it with you.  What good is information if it is not shared?

I think the first thing that I thought about when I realized that I was going to be evacuated was leaving without my husband.  I did know this about evacuations - everybody but essential personnel have to leave when there is an evacuation.  Actually I was wrong, because I didn't know that there are two types of evacuation - authorized and ordered.  And they don't call it evacuation - they call it 'departure,' so it sounds less threatening, I guess.

In authorized, people can choose to leave or stay.  I knew a lot of people who chose to stay, including our next-door neighbors.  An evacuation may never move past authorized. But when an authorized is called, it has to last at least 30 days.  We left on authorized.  I worried that we were just getting unneccesarily scared, and everything would blow over in a week and we'd be stuck for 30 days.  The next day, however, the 'departure' moved to ordered.  And then nobody had a choice.  Being a consular officer, Brandon is considered essential, and so he was left after all of the non-essential were gone.  Technically, he should still be there, but he was given a choice to stay or leave.  And so he left, knowing that I would be very disappointed if he had stayed.

After we left Cairo on the chartered flights with our slips-of-paper boarding passes, we were then routed from Athens like any other government traveler, which of course was covered by the government.  I even was able to get United mileage credit for my flights.

When we were in the US, we went to Raleigh, where my parents are, as our safehaven.  All evacuees have to have an official safehaven address, even if they decide to take a five-month road trip.  The safehaven address is where your per diem payments are based on.  I received 100% of the M&IE and 10% of the lodging (because I was at my parents') and the children each received 50%.  After the first month, mine goes down to 80% and the children's to 40%.  The lodging never goes down.

After Brandon was evacuated, we came up to DC, and so I had to change my safehaven location with the financial people in Charleston.  We are in Oakwood, a corporate stay apartment complex that direct-contracts with State for language training TDYers.  We're not TDY, however, we're evacuees, so I got to put our first months' rent on my credit card - all $5,430 of it.

As a result of this rent payment, and several thousand dollars of plane tickets I had purchased just a few days before the evacuation, I got to experience my first credit card refusal the night I moved into Oakwood while buying groceries at Safeway.  Thankfully, Charleston has been wonderfully swift, and the credit card company has appeased.

Although Oakwood is a furnished apartment, the kitchen has had to have some additions from Target to make it somewhat cook-able, but that's what all of that money is for.  Unfortunately, when I was packing my four suitcases (one per evacuee), I didn't know that I would be in an apartment, and didn't even pack a garlic press.  Brandon did, however, bring my knives with him when he left Cairo.

And so now we're in Oakwood, sitting tight.  Most of the questions I get are about how much longer we'll be here.  Evacuations are evaluated ever thirty days, and we've already had our first.  Obviously, we weren't sent home.  The evacuation is lifted based on certain defined parameters, called tripwires.  The evacuation is called on those same tripwires, and so cannot be recalled until they are satisfactorily re-established.

According to my understanding, the major tripwire that has not been re-established is residential security.  Cairo mission is one of the largest in the world, and so we rely on local Egyptian police to provide almost all residential security.  The police force has not been very popular because of the events in Tahrir Square, and so as yet has not been reconstituted.

When the evacuation is recalled, we have seventy-two hours to begin our return to post before the financial support ends.  All evacuees are technically allowed UAB both from post and returning to post, but there wasn't (and generally isn't) any time to arrange the from-post shipment.  We will, however, be able to have a to-post shipment if we like.

What I had heard earlier about the time limits returning to post evidently was incorrect, and I learned that we can return to post any time up to 30 days before our scheduled departure, which is at the very end of July.  So we'll have to see how things go.  A month ago, I would have been quite sure we would be returning in a few weeks, but now I'm not as sure.  It is an evacuation, after all, and nobody possesses a crystal ball.

And so that's my experience with evacuations.  It certainly is some trouble, but I feel that State has done everything possible to lighten that trouble as much as they can.  I've come to find out that living without most of one's worldly possessions for an undefined amount of time is certainly annoying, but definitely not the end of the world.  As long as I have my family, I have everything I actually need.


Bridget said...

This was really interesting to read, even if I had to think for a little while about all the abbreviations. I hope things work out for the best soon.

Smallbits said...

Good post! I had no idea how much money we would shell out on evac. It was insane. (Not to mention the car we had to buy or rent for an outrageous amount.) I have to agree that State tries to make it easy as they can. I was always amazed with how fast they processed the money stuff. It was a bright spot in our chaos. I hope you get to return home soon. Thinking of you.

kelley said...

I think I need a key to understand all the abbreviations. Thanks for sharing all this info. Especially with us state-siders that only get to experience this kind of stuff through CNN.

Sarah Flib said...

This was really interesting, Ashley. Thanks for explaining! I could also use an explanation of the abbreviations when you write things, since I'm not as familiar with the Foreign Service life. One question about the housing--does the FS cover all of it, or just a portion of what you are paying in rent?

UnkaDave said...

Thanks for the explanation! Just as long as you guys and my grandkids are safe and happy, I'll forgo the acronym dictionary.

Nisa said...

Knowing that James would be one of those "essentials" I did learn all about evacs, but I don't think I ever seriously considered that I would be evacuating anywhere until it happened to you.

Family is definitely all we really need. *hugs*

Sherwood family said...

Sarah, thankfully they do cover all of the rent - which is why the rent is so expensive. It's pegged to per diem rates, which are supposed to cover hotel rooms. So we're paying the same for our dingy two-bedroom as we would be for staying in the Ritz-Carlton. But they don't have a kitchen.