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1. The Crisis
One villager reported the building simply collapsed without warning. The woman and her three children and the two old people on the tin roof vanished under the fast-moving brown floodwaters and were swept away.
Marerey was one of the villages on the banks of the southern stretch of the Webbi Jubba. It was disappearing fast, ripped apart by the rising river that had broken its banks and was sweeping away everything in its path.
Its people were a strong lot, used to hardship. They had weathered searing droughts and previous floods, the pestilence of locusts and mysterious diseases. They were more fortunate than others.
One time not so long ago, there had been a sugar factory on the other side of the airstrip, where many worked, and so the villagers could afford tin roofs instead of thatch, could afford to build their homes of mud bricks instead of wattle. There had even been a school. But the fighting had come and families fought families and the area had been divvied up by the warlords and their clans. The sugar factory had been destroyed in one of the many seesaw battles for turf and was now no more than a skeletal ruin. There had been things to salvage, however, and the youths who remained in the village, who had not left to join the fighting, had scavenged wood and cement blocks, slabs of Styrofoam, wire and rope, furniture and vessels, poles and plastic.
Marerey was in the breadbasket of Somalia, a land of cultivated fields and grazing plains, veined with a complex network of irrigation canals and roads; those who had not worked at the factory had raised cattle and goats, sugarcane, bananas, maize, and sorghum. Although they lived on the river, they were not fisher- men and they seldom ate fish. They were pastoralists. The Jubba, one of Somalia’s only two perennial streams, existed in their eyes mainly to provide the water for the fields and to carry away the effluence. The muddy river originating in Ethiopia to the north was not very polluted; there had been few pesticides in use and little industry and it was still pretty clean by the time it got this far, tainted only by the raw sewage from the communities on the river. The men usually quit their homes around dawn and took their places in a row, lifted their sarongs or dropped their trousers, squatted over the river, and performed their ablutions. The women performed theirs on the bend downriver where the Jubba took a turn.
The rains that were causing the floods had started suddenly. They say that one day, one month, it was normally dry and plans were made for the harvest. Then the next day the black clouds rolled in off the ocean to the east, merging with storms that drifted down from the north, and the skies opened up. And still it rained.
There were not many left in Marerey. Most of the residents had fled earlier to the narrow earthen dike about a half mile downriver, taking what little they could; the dike was bigger then and it had looked solid and safe and indestructible. They were, however, only a little safer there than had they taken refuge on the roofs of their homes, for the fast-moving river was steadily eating away at the dike; sections of earth peeled away, broke off, and tumbled into the flood.
Those who decided to stay in Marerey huddled together for warmth on top of their roofs under the pelting rains that never seemed to end. Some had tucked themselves under plastic sheeting; others had only cotton cloth as cover, and that only deadened the sting from the deluge.
The waters were rising steadily, two to three inches an hour. The night before, the river had climbed over the embankment and crept through the village, slowly, like a serpent searching, covering, consuming everything in its path. By daybreak, the roads, the town center, and finally the floors of the homes had disappeared under the flood. Those who took to their roofs watched the water below reach ever higher and spread out over the plains nearby, through the fields of maize that had been nearly ready to harvest, and vanish in the distance toward the untilled savanna. In this gray and dismal afternoon, this was a landscape without definition. In days—perhaps in hours if the rains didn’t let up—the entire region would be just one large lake with only a mound of dry land here and there isolated as islands.
As the floodwater continued to rise, it no longer extended gradually as spillover but picked up the swiftly moving current and became the river itself. It tore at the foundations and sucked away the ground from under the heavier homes. Those on the roofs grasped the sharp edges of the corrugated iron, fearing, sensing, that these were their last moments on something solid before falling into the turgid waters below.
The buildings under them swayed from the pressure of the current; the mud-daub houses with thatched roofs were surprisingly solid, but they could never be expected to withstand the force of the flood. They stood defiantly against the rising waters until finally, one by one, they loosened their hold on the land and began to move slowly with the river. They broke apart and became just so much unidentified flotsam.
There was a grand old mango tree on the submerged embankment on the other side. One witness told of an old man who balanced on a thick bough on the second level. He clasped two small children in one arm and circled the tree with the other. He stared in frozen disbelief, too afraid for panic, at the water pressing against the trunk on its passage down to the sea. The bloated, whitening carcass of something bigger than a cow, a camel perhaps, broke the surface just below as if emerging from some depth; it floated briefly, then vanished, pulled under the swirl of the furious river. He felt the force of the raging stream as tight vibrations. Occasionally there was a shudder as the current changed and a more massive wall of water challenged the tree.
RUSS Ulrey, the regional logistics officer of the UN’s World Food Program, stood beside his desk staring out the window at the steady rain and tried to suppress his frustration. He had just left the meeting of diplomats, agency heads, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, donor groups, and donor nations. He shouldn’t have expected anything different for this crisis: The competition, the gentlemanly infighting, the need for public approbation, the breast-beating—these were the negative elements that bothered him the most during these emergencies. There were already signs that the same conflicts were cropping up again. Despite it all, however, the job always did get done: Many of the malnourished and starving were fed, some of the refugees relocated and housed, many of the sick and dying treated and saved. Yet he damn well regretted that there was such competition on the way to saving lives.
The rain outside his office swept across the manicured lawn of the UN compound in Nairobi like a moving wall. The cement walks were almost underwater and he watched two women pause under an overhang, slip off their shoes, and sprint across to the next building. The steady heavy rains were an irritant to the office workers.
The crisis on the Horn of Africa had come suddenly. Last year, the Deyr, Somalia’s secondary rainy season, had been unseasonably sparse, and the expectations had been that this year the drought would be more severe. This was an El Niño year, however, and it had been anybody’s guess what the season would bring. Local farm knowledge didn’t help: The mangoes were hanging heavily on the trees as usual and the sugarcane was a little stunted, but that didn’t mean much (it was not like looking at woolly-bear caterpillars in Russ’ native Michigan and measuring the black stripe to determine how severe the winter would be). Nothing, according to the locals on the Jubba, heralded the disaster that was to come.
Among the papers on his desk were the reports from the U.S. State Department’s Agency for International Development Famine Early Warning System:
Unusually heavy and sustained rains have fallen in the Jubba Valley during October. Many homes in Gedo and Middle Jubba regions have been destroyed by floods and possessions swept away, prompting a new wave of displaced people in need of food, medicine, drinking water, blankets, and shelter. Floodwaters are moving downriver to Lower Jubba. Water-borne diseases are a threat. Hundreds of underground grain storage pits have been flooded.
A low-pressure trough had dropped from northern Europe to the Horn of Africa and had collided with the retreating Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, the band of permanent low pressure that circles the planet near the equator. The combination of the two systems created a low-pressure belt over the Horn that pulled in moisture off the Indian Ocean. Unusually heavy rains in the north began falling in the Ethiopian highlands on the Great Rift Valley in October. There were some breaks in the weather, but in early November another wave of storms charged in from the ocean and the rain never stopped. Above-average sea temperatures fed the drifting storm clouds, and meteorologists predicted that until those temperatures fell, the rains would only become more frequent and more intense. The swollen streams poured into the Ganale River, and in Ethiopia thousands were left homeless. The Ganale fed the Webbi Jubba and the Webbi Shabeelle, and the normally arid Ogaden region had been flooded. While Ethiopia faced a crisis, it paled compared to that which was to strike downriver in the fertile midsection of Somalia.
Russ had flown over the region the day before. Keeping just above gunshot range, the small airplane followed what he guessed was the original course of the Jubba to the ocean port of Kismayo. Many of the dikes already had been breached. He saw, felt the panic of those massed tightly on the small patches of bare land, on their roofs, on the few remaining raised roads, even in the trees as they waited for help.
There were a half million people stranded on the high ground, and most of them had no access to shelter, food, drinking water, medicine. How was he going to deliver hundreds of tons of food out to these remote and isolated communities? Airdrops into the floodwaters were not an option. Trucks could go only so far be- fore running out of land. Helicopters could deliver to distribu- tion bases, but only small boats could get the supplies to those huddled on islands near their flimsy shelters, surrounded by the rising water. That was his priority—boats and people to drive them.
Russ was not unaccustomed to the challenges of putting together a lifesaving mission: delivering emergency supplies, coordinating with other often-competing agencies within the UN and assisting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like the Red Cross, Médecins sans Frontières, Oxfam, CARE, and dozens of others. As WFP regional logistics officer, Russ handled humanitarian operations for the entire Horn—parts of Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan—an area as large as the landmass from New York to the Mississippi. Until now his primary task had been Operation Lifeline Sudan, a WFP mission that provided food for more than two and a half million people displaced by the civil war or suffering from massive crop losses. He had been responsible for putting together the largest humanitarian airlift in history in terms of tons per day delivered, he was proud to say.