Alum Leading Disaster Response After Deadly Cyclone Hits Africa
Just days after Cyclone Idai ravaged parts of Southeast Africa, Sureka Khandagle ’92 was on the ground in Mozambique directing a 17-member team from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The government and politics major, raised in Takoma Park, Md., has worked since 1997 for the agency’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is on point for the U.S. government after a natural disaster.
She’s been based in Senegal since 2015, and is now the office’s senior regional advisor for western and southern Africa. She took time to talk to Maryland Today about her work helping to orchestrate the United States’ response to the disaster.
What’s the situation in Mozambique now?
We’re about three weeks after the cyclone. Currently, there are nearly 132,000 people displaced in accommodation centers in Mozambique. You have houses that were destroyed, schools destroyed, businesses destroyed, and the death toll is still being tallied. To date, it’s estimated 598 people were killed. Early on, our biggest challenge was access, because areas remained flooded for so long and roads were destroyed. So the organizations working here had to use boats or airlift to reach areas in need. In addition, we’re now seeing cholera. The good news on that is that a vaccination campaign has started here in Mozambique, and will be vaccinating up to 900,000 people for cholera in about five days.
What are you and the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) members doing on a daily basis?
Most of what we are doing is trying to get out as much as possible to the affected areas to really see what the situation on the ground is. Getting eyes on is the best way for us to assess the situation and then determine what the response should be. We’re participating in all of the coordination meetings that are taking place here, covering a broad range of sectors, and having our technical experts plug in and lead on determining what the direction of the response should be for each of them. We also work very closely with the U.S. embassy here, so they can help us with advocacy either with Washington or the local government. We also partner with the Department of Defense’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, which is bringing logistics and assets to this response.
What’s it like? What will stick with you from this assignment?
A week afterward, driving around in Beira [much of which was destroyed by storm surge], looking at the town, people were out and about and life was just getting on—there were trees down everywhere, there was debris, and they were out with their axes chopping up trees and clearing the area. Based on their attitudes, you wouldn’t know that a cyclone had just come through. And that has been my experience on most of the disasters that I have worked on—the resilience of people to just kind of get on with life is what stays with me.
Is it psychologically draining to repeatedly parachute into this kind of devastation over the years?
It can be extremely stressful on a number of levels. The fact that you are dealing with disasters of this magnitude and having to see the effect these kind of events have on people's lives—on children, on women—can be really hard. Second, there’s also a lot of pressure on our office and staff when disaster of this magnitude happens to do something and to do it fast. As well, this kind of assistance can also be very political, and that can be difficult at times when you have to balance a humanitarian imperative against a political agenda.
At the end of the day, what I love about this job is really the opportunity that we have to make a difference in people's lives. And I have to say that I work with some of the most amazing, dedicated and smart people that you will ever find.