Thursday, June 12, 2008

St. Charles native details effort to rebuild a nation

St. Charles native details effort to rebuild a nation

Rachel Baruch Yackley
Posted Daily Herald, Saturday, August 13, 2005

During a trip from Thailand to the United States last winter, Michael Newbill’s job duties dramatically changed.

The St. Charles native had been working on the Thai-U.S. Free Trade Agreement negotiations. However, his attentions were redirected toward tsunami recovery after the disaster hit Thailand in late December.

“My job was to coordinate relief and reconstruction efforts,” he said during a recent visit to the states. “I would either go out and see what needed to be done, or people brought problems to me. I’d then go and compare this information with other organizations and the military, and contact the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Newbill already knew the territory and spoke the language, and was the ideal officer to connect people with problems to the people with solutions.

He worked with American tourists trying to get home, nonprofit groups, U.S. Marines and even two former U.S. presidents.

Throughout these initial days and weeks after the tsunami, Newbill’s wife, Angeline, also worked fervently and gathered donations from family and friends. She linked up with an ad hoc group of people who were providing supplies to victims affected by the disaster.

“Immediately after the disaster, Thais from all walks of life donated clothing, toiletries, food, water and blood to help all people affected by the tsunami, Thai or foreign,” he said. “Hundreds of volunteers from universities, vocational schools and other civic associations came down to care for the injured, clear wreckage and recover bodies.”

Newbill said he also learned the U.S. Marine Corps is an amazingly effective and efficient organization.

Once the tsunami relief efforts were under way, Newbill coordinated a visit for former presidents Bush and Clinton, who came to Thailand to tour the tsunami effected areas, “so they could see how far along things were.

“The military and the government were rebuilding houses. A U.S. project with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) was providing boats or helped repair boats so people could return to their livelihood,” said Newbill. “The former presidents spent about 40 minutes talking with the army and the villagers. We took them on a tour of the boats and we explained what was going on. We set up a plan for their visit, right down to the minute,”

In an e-mail interview after he went back to Thailand, Newbill conveyed the bleak picture of destruction he observed.

“In some places, the Thai government had cleared the debris from the beaches, and around the hardest-hit resort areas. These areas, such as ground zero in Khao Lak, now look like a 1,000-acre strip mine, devoid of trees and vegetation, access roads, and any other reminders of its former beauty. The skeletons of some five-star hotels are still standing, many with the paint and mortar blown off by the force of the water. Dozens of dead bodies were still coming in to the main mortuary on the grounds of a Buddhist temple; lacking space and refrigeration for the thousands of victims, many of these bodies — now beyond recognition — were being interred for later processing.

“At the newly opened Anantara Spa and Resort, little had changed since the tsunami hit. We forged a path through grounds strewn with deck chairs, pizza delivery containers, bathtubs, room safes, up-ended pickup trucks, clothes, and appliances. Several roofless concrete bungalows had tipped on their sides into a pond, giving a dollhouse view of its contents. At the end of the trail, we found a debris-filled beach and a powerful sight reminiscent of apocalyptic ending of Planet of the Apes; an upside down car, back end up, buried half way up in the surf.

“In the coastal fishing village of Baan Nam Khem, I met with the stunned village headman who, by sheer luck, had left the village to visit his son in another town on that morning. He showed me where his house once stood — now only a small pile of rocks — calmly noting that he had lost his wife and two other children. He told me that of the town’s 1500 residences, 900 were destroyed in the tsunami (the town’s population was 5,000).”

Rebuilding will take a long time, Newbill said, especially in areas where entire coastlines were destroyed and the flora and fauna were heavily damaged.

Tourism, a large part of Thailand’s economy, has still not recovered, partly due to areas like the formerly popular island of Phi Phi, where almost 1,000 people were killed.

“Surprisingly, some international tourists have come back, but domestic tourism hasn’t returned because (Asian) people are still scared,” Newbill said.

Newbill, a 1990 St. Charles High School graduate, received his master’s degree in South Asian history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and spent a year at Jawarharlal Nehru University on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship. He was a Research Associate at The Henry L. Stimson Center, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., where he worked on a project on confidence-building measures in South Asia.

He worked in the Philippines from 2000 to 2002, and then in Thailand from 2003 to recently.

Newbill’s next job will be back in Washington, managing U.S.-India relations, from an economic standpoint.

“In the State Department they have regional bureaus. Within the bureaus are different countries,” Newbill said. “I’ll be in charge of the India desk (from Washington), specifically economic relations between India and the U.S.”

This change in jobs was something Newbill both applied for and was then assigned.

“I wanted this job because I wanted to work on economic relations with India. Because it’s been underdeveloped so long, it shows the greatest potential. India has decided to make so many economic reforms, it’s a good time to be involved in it,” said Newbill, who also views this job as a way of returning to his area of expertise.

“Generally speaking, the foreign service protects economic growth, globally. We are the eyes and ears of the U.S. government on the ground, globally. We look for ways we can promote global prosperity and security,” Newbill explained.

“We make sure foreign markets are open to the U.S., and safe for U.S. investors. And we ensure foreign markets are open to our services and products.

“The tsunami was just a really strange break from what we normally do. So many different countries were affected by it. In terms of providing tremendous resources at a rapid pace, I believe (America’s) involvement was unprecedented,” Newbill said.

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