Thursday, November 15, 2012

I Just Met the Freaking President

I just met the President of the United States.

Yeah, that high isn’t going away for a while.

Out of all 21 FEMA Corps teams in New York and all 42 responding to Sandy, out of the thousands of emergency responders and volunteers and FEMA Reservists and staff, somehow Summit Five found its way into a receiving line for the 44th U.S. President as he visited a Disaster Recovery Center on Staten Island this morning.

The funny thing was, we didn't even really find out we were going until this morning. Three days ago, Unit Leader Brendan was running around at dinner like his hair was on fire, tearing around the mess deck asking for Summit Five's birthdates and social security numbers. No explanation was given. Naturally, everyone went nuts wondering what it was all about, and most of us--knowing that the President was visiting New York on Thursday, and knowing that no other team had been asked for their info--jumped straight to “oh my God, we're going to meet Obama!” I tried to stay realistic about it, which was difficult because my friend and bunkmate Joe went stir-crazy wondering if it was indeed the President. For three days we had almost no word. Last night, Brendan told us to meet him in the mess deck at 7 AM, dressed normally. That was it. Everyone, of course, went nuts again. And this morning, dressed in overcoat, khakis and comfy running shoes, I finally learned that we were in fact going to be there for Obama’s visit.
From there, it was a blur. We drove out to Staten Island and were shown around the Disaster Recovery Center there. A FEMA Congressional Affairs man named Dana and a pair of White House staffers showed us where we'd stand and told us precisely where the President would be, when he'd come out and what we should expect. We threw anecdotes and jokes and terrible puns back and forth, grinning like loons and waiting for Obama in a rush of excitement and adrenaline and affected calm. The whole thing blurs together in my mind, so I'm going to try and knock out some of the most important bits in this post. Here goes nothing...

There was an immense flock of geese wandering around the area. I swear there were at least two hundred birds, and I was having nightmares of them flying over and pooping on the President while we were shaking hands. They did fly over right before he came out of a tent and most of the press corps ducked. Nobody got hit, but a few geese bombarded the area about ten feet to my right. As fate would have it, a Secret Service agent shortly walked over there and stepped on two separate goose turds, one right after the other. I tried to warn her, but it was too late.

We waited in the receiving line for what felt like decades before the President, all broad grin and bluish windbreaker and hiking shoes, strode out of the big white tent to our right. A small army of telephoto lenses, set up in the last minute or two, clicked and clattered like magpies as he walked over to us. I was second in line to be greeted, and it sounds stupid, but one second Joe was getting thumped on the shoulder and the next second Barack Hussein Obama was right there in front of me, shaking my hand. I've never felt so overpowered in my life. He just radiated charisma and easy confidence. He asked my name, where I was from, thanked me for choosing to serve in FEMA Corps and moved on to Katrina next door. I am honestly not sure what he or I said; it could very well have been in Tagalog and I wouldn't really know.

Fun fact: Joe is from Iowa, I'm a Wisconsinite and Katrina is a true-blue Ohioan, and the President noticed. The first thing he said to Katrina after finding out her home was “Oh, you’re all from battleground states!” I gamely offered back “That’s why you picked us, right?” but I don’t think he heard. Shingarai broke down crying when the President went up to her, and instead of doing a spiel at that point, he just went in for a hug instead. Chelsea was next to him in line, and when he got to her, she asked—bright-eyed and puppydog-hopeful—“Can I get a hug too?” He happily obliged.

After everyone had gotten their individual moments with him, Obama walked back to the center of our little semicircle and told us how glad he was to see us signing up for this program and doing the work we were doing; he said that it spoke well not just of what we were doing now, but the good we had a chance to do in the future. My clearest visual memories of the President will be him standing and speaking in the center of all of us, pausing--those famous pauses--to look down at his hand, and then looking back up and delivering his next line. I had a strong sense of TV-aided deja vu; he had the same diction, the same pauses to gather his thoughts, the same famous tone from the speeches I'd seen.

Obama was the highlight, but we met other dignitaries as well. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan was there, and he spoke to us briefly. (I missed him the first time around—was busy writing a note—but I managed to catch up with him later on.) Secretary Neapolitano was there as well, and we got a round of questions and thanks from Mayor Bloomberg. Away from the group, I got to grill the New York Federal Coordinating Officer and chat at length with Dana. Apparently the latter owns two graduate degrees (International Relation and Public Administration), has worked for the Peace Corps and interned at the White House, and spent the past 12 years on and off with FEMA. I marvelled at his career, and he told me that he hadn't planned for it to go that way. He said it was about just rolling with the opportunities you were given and enjoying the ride.

Speaking of which, I also randomly got interviewed by Reuters. Here’s how it went: I was among the first out of the van when we arrived, but remembered too late that there was a no-cameras rule and I had one hiding in my pants pocket. So I went back, threw that in the van, shut the doors and went after my teammates, now the last in a straggling line. A man walking the other way spotted me and asked who I was with, so I explained the program, thinking he was just a random survivor. He said “I’m a journalist with Reuters,” and our conversation mushroomed into an interview about FEMA Corps and how in the world I'd ended up here. He said it might be used in a story, so I’ll post the link if that ends up happening. It was so cool, though. I wasn’t flustered, gave clear answers and generally carried it off just the way I wanted. I’m glad to know I can do that off the cuff.

File that under "Just another day in FEMA Corps". It sounds like a canned spiel, but it really is true: this program can take you to places you never imagined, doing things you didn't believe you were capable of doing, having experiences that you'll never forget. Who else gets to work with disaster survivors on a daily basis? Who else lives on a ship, works seven days a week and loves every minute of it? In how many other jobs do you get to meet the President when he stops by to see a disaster, and be personally congratulated by him for the work you and your compatriots are doing? My team and I owe W. Craig Fugate a big, fat bouquet for even being allowed to come here. As I told the assembled Vicksburg class the other night, this truly is a privilege.

1 comment:

Korinthia Klein said...

Amazing! Thanks for sharing your story.

Post a Comment