Cara Christie checked the forecasts first thing every morning, logging onto a computer in her small government cubicle, culling data and consulting maps. For the disaster relief specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development, it became an obsession back in 2010, given her zone of responsibility — Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.
The countries depend heavily on rain, but they had had two years of drought. Christie, 35, watched as crops failed, malnutrition spiked and disease spread.
“You see, the poorest and most vulnerable people, they are depending on those raining seasons to perform well,” she said.
She had been monitoring climate, rainfall, crops and livestock in the Horn of Africa for more than 10 years and knew a third year of drought would spell disaster for millions of people.
Thus began a $1.3 billion USAID relief effort in 2011 that sent food, water, primary health care and food vouchers to the three parched nations. For their effort, Christie and the agency’s Horn Drought Humanitarian Response Team have been named a finalist for the 2013 National Security and International Affairs Medal. It is one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals awarded every September to federal workers by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
“She is someone who doesn’t raise issues unnecessarily,” said Kasey Channel, Africa division chief for the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. “People listen to her.”
Channel said Christie worked to raise awareness of the crisis inside and outside the agency, urging officials to act, then led the relief effort. During the 18 months of intense work during the crisis, he said, her ability to keep members focused for an extended periods was exceptional.
“It’s hard to keep people connected,” she said, but Christie did a great job helping them “understand that their roles are important to save lives.”
Christie, a native of Santa Clara, Calif., who now lives in the District’s Bloomingdale section, said in a recent interview that she didn’t initially picture herself doing this type of humanitarian work.
As an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and later as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, she was more interested in solving conflict at the policy level as a government adviser.
“I wanted to understand how the terrible things happened,” she said.
But then she realized, she said, that her perspective would be limited by her status as an outsider. “If I was trying to advice, I was going to be shooting in the dark,” she said.
So she took a job at USAID, which she saw at the beginning as a way to learn more about communities and understand the daily issues people are facing. She has spent most of her career working in Africa but also worked to provide crisis relief after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
The $1.3 billion relief effort she led in the Horn of Africa helped more than 13 million people. The funds were used to provide food, water, primary health care and improve hygiene conditions. They also gave people vouchers to buy food produced in their countries.
In providing the vouchers, she said, USAID wanted to go beyond emergency assistance and push for longer term relief.
“People often think drought means hunger and that you need to ship food and water,” Christie said. But after the crisis is over, she said, agrarian economies need to get going again.
“The problem is that people don’t have any more money to purchase food,” she said.
Christie was also able to coordinate humanitarian help from other countries’ governments, international agencies and non-governmental agencies. By facilitating the international efforts, Christie said, her team helped speed up the relief response times and slowed the spread of the crisis.
“The U.S. is one of the biggest players in the humanitarian arena,” she said. “I feel like I have a great job with a big humanitarian hand.”