Escape from Lebanon

As Beirut was bombed, stranded Americans waited for their government to get them out.

Kristen Trotter and Claire Elisabeth Thomas spent the night of Wednesday, July 12, 2006, staying up late in Thomas' Beirut apartment, watching Israeli fighter jets fly in low over the city. Trotter, a senior at the University of Alabama, and Thomas, a junior at Mount Holyoke College, were about seven weeks into their internships at The Daily Star, an English language newspaper that covers the Middle East. That day, Israel had bombed southern Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, a militant Islamic group.

"We went to bed wondering what they were going to bomb," Trotter later recalled. Thomas already had decided to go home as soon as possible, mostly to allay the fears of her mother. She planned to exchange her ticket for an earlier flight at the Beirut airport the next day.

At 7 a.m. on July 13, Thomas' cell phone rang. It was her mom calling from outside Kansas City, Kansas, with news that the Israelis had just bombed the airport, making it impossible to fly out. Thomas rushed into the living room to wake Trotter, who was sleeping on the couch. They turned on CNN and saw images of smoke and fire on the runways. As they waited to hear the embassy's evacuation plans for Americans, they went to work at The Daily Star to cover the bombings.

They didn't yet know how hard it was going to be to get out, or that the challenge of evacuating Americans soon would make headlines back home.

When Americans are in danger abroad, it's up to the State Department to get them to safety. State often asks the Defense Department for help. Both coordinate with the Health and Human Services Department, which takes responsibility for evacuees once they land on American soil.

Even before Thomas and Trotter heard the news of the bombed airport, State already was making evacuation plans. By 6:30 a.m. in Washington, State had formed a task force to arrange the evacuation and to communicate with worried family members. The task force had to gather information fast: How many Americans were in Lebanon? How many needed help leaving? What kinds of people were they-mostly young, healthy students or elderly people with special needs? Initial estimates varied widely; State thought there could be as many as 25,000.

"Normally these things build slowly. . . . With this one, all of the sudden, within a day, there was no commercial transportation," says Steven J. Hartman, director of the Office of Logistics Operations within State's Bureau of Administration. In most evacuations, State helps stranded Americans schedule flights on commercial airlines. In Lebanon, that wasn't an option.

By week's end, State officially requested help from the Defense Department. Until that formal request is made, State takes sole responsibility for evacuating Americans, but Catherine Barry, deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services within State's Bureau of Consular Affairs, describes the relationship as more fluid. "They're not dumb. They're alerting people from their own institution to help State . . . before we make the formal call," she says.

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a rapid response force that was conducting training exercises in Jordan off the Red Sea, immediately started moving five of its seven vessels northwest through the Suez Canal. It sent CH-53 transport helicopters ahead to begin ferrying small groups of people-about two dozen at a time-from the Beirut embassy to Cyprus. The first evacuees were rescued on Sunday, July 16, four days after bombing began. But large numbers of Americans couldn't be rescued until ships with carrying capacity arrived. The MEU ships weren't due for another four days.

To get help more quickly, Defense turned to U.S. Transportation Command, which delegated contracting responsibilities to the Navy's Military Sealift Command and the Air Force's Air Mobility Command. "The secret is the ability to reach out to commercial partners . . . to increase our capacity through commercial contracts," says Col. Mark McLeod, chief of the contingency division within the operations directorate at TRANSCOM.

Ken Allen, branch head for chartering operations at the Military Sealift Command, already had begun checking out passenger ship availability before getting TRANSCOM's call. MSC frequently relies on ship brokers to charter passenger ships. Allen had helped charter cruise ships for victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. On Friday, July 14, he started calling brokers, telling them to watch for a soon-to-be-released request for proposals. Even though it was an emergency, Allen still wanted the award to be competitive, if possible.

On Saturday, MSC released the request for proposals on its Web site, with a deadline of Monday. Meanwhile, over the weekend, pressure grew to evacuate Americans more quickly. Allen got a call from the director of MSC contracts at 2:30 a.m. Monday, telling him to sole-source the contract to the

Orient Queen, a Lebanese-flagged luxury cruise ship. It would arrive Tuesday. MSC officials worried that if they didn't make the award quickly, another country would grab the ship for its own citizens. Over the next few days, Allen also made two competitive awards to the MF Rahmah and the Vittoria M, passenger ships that would make multiple round-trips from Lebanon to Cyprus during the coming week.

Stuck

Back in Washington, the State Department task force had been overwhelmed by a deluge of calls from anxious relatives. Calls so clogged the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that many Americans in Lebanon couldn't get through. As a result, the burden of communicating with evacuees and their families fell on Washington task force members. They tried to provide firm information about air strikes and evacuation plans. "When people have something concrete that they can wrap their minds around, it seems to help them," says Barry.

But many Americans in Lebanon still were frustrated by what they perceived as inaction on the part of the State Department, especially as they watched Europeans evacuate on cargo ships. "All the other countries evacuated their citizens and we were still sitting there with an e-mail every other day. . . . We didn't know what to do, how, or when," says Trotter.

Evacuation came frustratingly slowly for Raba Letteri, a Lebanese-American who was visiting her family with her husband and two young children for the first time in 11 years. When the bombs began falling, she and her family were staying with relatives. Letteri didn't feel safe. On Sunday, July 16, she piled her family into a cab and paid $100 for a ride that normally costs $10 to get to the U.S. Embassy. An embassy employee told her to stay in a Christian neighborhood near the embassy. Letteri could only find space in a five-star hotel, but she stayed, hoping the embassy soon would call with information about how to get out.

With no word on Monday, she moved her family into a cheaper hotel and continued to wait. Her youngest son, Aaron, 2, had a fever and started vomiting. Meanwhile, she saw French and other European citizens being evacuated. "Here is America. I feel I'm in the safest, most powerful country in the world. Where is the help here?" she remembers thinking.

On Tuesday, she went again to the embassy, and this time found a sympathetic employee. He told her to return at noon with diapers, food and one outfit of clothing per person-no bulky suitcases. The family came back as instructed and, after waiting six hours, flew to Cyprus on a military helicopter after signing a promissory note that pledged they would reimburse the United States for the costs of their evacuation. (After protests from Congress and the public, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later waived those fees.) Their four-bedroom house on a quiet cul-de-sac in Reston, Va., still was far away.

Meanwhile, Trotter and Thomas had taken matters into their own hands by relying on personal connections. Each knew an administrator at the American University of Beirut, which was making its own arrangements to send students out of Lebanon. After repeatedly failing to get through to the U.S. embassy, the women moved into the university's dorms on Saturday. Initially, the university planned to bus the students through Syria to Jordan, but then decided it was too dangerous. Israel already had bombed several major highways. On Tuesday, Thomas got on a bus with students and rode to Beirut's harbor. Working with the U.S. Embassy, university administrators had arranged for students to travel on a Norwegian cargo ship.

About 1,000 evacuees boarded. The ship was built to hold 30. It had only three bathrooms. Thomas managed to avoid using them for the entire 12-hour trip. People crammed onto the hot and fly-infested cargo decks. "For me, being young, it wasn't a big deal . . . but I felt bad for the families and older people," Thomas says. She spent the night lying on deck looking up at the stars.

Trotter, who stayed behind to finish a story for The Daily Star, boarded the USS Whidbey Island, one of the Marine Expeditionary Unit ships, on Saturday, July 22. The sailors and Marines gave up their showers and beds so evacuees could use the hot water and get some sleep. The evacuees also had free rein in the mess halls, which were serving fried chicken, vegetables and plenty of coffee. Trotter spent the night on the deck with a few Marines, smoking cigarettes and talking.

Safety vs. Speed

In addition to being crowded, the Norwegian cargo ship that Thomas boarded lacked sufficient food, water, toilets and life vests. "It really wasn't an appropriate conveyance for people and they're lucky somebody didn't get hurt," says Hartman. Barry adds: "We were not simply moving people, but we were trying to move people safely."

To explain the relative slowness of American evacuations, Defense officials refer to the "sheer physics" of moving Marine Expeditionary Unit ships from the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal and into the Beirut port, a journey that takes several days. The United States had no commercial or military vessels closer to Lebanon at the time. In addition, McLeod says TRANSCOM had to get Israeli forces to agree not to bomb the harbor while Americans were being evacuated, and that the Cypriot government required all ships arriving at Larnaca to get approval.

On July 20, two days after the Orient Queen pulled into Beirut to begin ferrying more than 5,000 Americans to Cyprus, the first vessel from the Marine Expeditionary Unit pulled up to the coast of Lebanon. The USS Nashville was the first of the U.S. ships to launch landing gear and begin carrying thousands of Americans to Cyprus.

The arrival of nearly 15,000 Americans quickly overwhelmed Larnaca, and TRANSCOM was faced with its next big challenge: getting Americans safely out of Cyprus.

Pressure was mounting to move evacuees quickly back to the United States, says McLeod. In fact, he says, the U.S. Embassy in Cyprus was warned that the Cypriot government would no longer aid the evacuation unless Americans could leave more quickly. Air Mobility Command found 30 commercial aircraft and 19 C-17 cargo planes to fly almost 9,000 passengers to airports on the East Coast of the United States. Once Americans land in the United States, the Administration for Children and Families within the Health and Human Services Department coordinates food and medical assistance and helps them get to their final destinations.

Martha E. Newton, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at ACF, relied on federal employees at regional offices who had volunteered to help. "I was calling people at 3 o'clock in the morning and saying, 'Could you pack a suitcase and get to McGuire Air Force Base in four hours?' And they did," she says.

In Maryland, where 4,492 Americans landed at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, state officials set up federal loans for those who lacked access to cash and helped them find lodging. The American Red Cross provided meals, later submitting requests for reimbursement to ACF, and the International Social Service, a nonprofit organization that contracts with ACF to assist with repatriations, staffed meet-and-greet tables at the airports to help evacuees arrange connecting flights, book temporary lodging and fill out required paperwork.

The Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, a statewide network of health care professionals, summoned first responders to help the 78 evacuees who were in need of medical assistance, largely for minor problems such as dehydration and nausea.

Because it was a federal emergency, HHS covered the costs of the repatriation, which Newton estimates as close to $2 million. (Maryland alone was reimbursed about $440,000).

As the evacuations were ongoing, ACF chief Wade Horn realized the $1 million that was appropriated to the program was not going to be enough. He called Congress for more.

Horn had to assure lawmakers that the program did not give away money freely or pay for commercial flights. Evacuees are required to pay for their own flights. If they don't have access to money, HHS could fund short-term loans, but in the case of the Lebanon evacuations, only 75 out of 12,500 repatriates asked for such assistance, Horn says. To keep track of expenditures, he also instituted financial reporting every 12 hours to make sure he didn't commit HHS to reimbursing to the states money the department didn't have. Before the evacuations ended, President Bush had signed the bill granting ACF the money it needed.

The State Department, on the other hand, says it cannot yet estimate the cost of the evacuations or the cost of Secretary Rice's decision to waive the reimbursement requirement for evacuees.

The Defense Department pays for much of its assistance with operations and maintenance funds, but some sealift and airlift costs eventually will be charged to State.

The State Department also pays for contracts with airlines and passenger ships. According to the Military Sealift Command, the three passenger ships cost just over $3.5 million.

Getting Home

While Thomas was waiting to get on the ship that would take her to Cyprus, she made reservations on hotels.com for a room in Larnaca, so she didn't have to stay in the crowded fairground arranged by the State Department. After being greeted by officials from the U.S. Embassy, who gave evacuees food and helped them exchange money, she took a cab to her beachside hotel, where she slept and enjoyed a long, luxurious breakfast of eggs, fruit, croissants and multiple cups of tea. At home outside Kansas City, her mom booked her on a flight home, through London and Chicago. Her college later reimbursed her for the $3,000 ticket.

Once Trotter got off the USS Whidbey Island on Sunday, July 23, she took a bus along with other evacuees to the fairground in Larnaca. She slept on a cot and ate bread, cereal, milk and juice provided by the Marines. Trotter boarded an Air Force cargo plane early the next morning with about 100 other evacuees. After a short stop in Germany for refueling, they landed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Her fiancé flew to meet her in Newark and they returned to Alabama together. In less than a month, they were married.

Letteri had a rougher time. After landing in Cyprus, she felt abandoned in an unfamiliar country. The fairground had not yet been set up and the food and hotels were expensive; she remembers a cup of coffee going for $7. She bought plane tickets for her family to France, where they stayed in a cheap hotel and waited for their original plane tickets home on Friday, July 21.

She and her family were greeted warmly in Reston. Neighbors met them with bouquets of flowers, welcome home signs and a basket of homemade cookies and fruit. "I'm so grateful for my neighbors," she says, reflecting on the ordeal four months later. She helps Aaron, now 3, eat a spoonful of Nutella hazelnut chocolate spread, his stomach infection long behind him.

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