When the coronavirus pandemic led to international border closures, flight cancellations and lockdowns in early 2020, tens of thousands of Americans were stranded throughout the world in major cities and small towns, on cruise ships and in remote locations from the Amazon jungle to the Sahara Desert.
The State Department, responsible for helping Americans overseas while facing this extraordinary challenge, set up a multi-agency task force led by Ian Brownlee, now the acting assistant secretary for consular affairs, that worked for almost six months to repatriate more than 100,000 U.S. citizens from nearly150 countries.
“We had an unprecedented disaster with a disease shutting down global borders all at once and stranding Americans who needed to get home. We have never dealt with the repatriation of Americans at this scale,” said Hugo Yon, acting principal deputy assistant secretary of state for business and economic affairs. “Ian Brownlee was the linchpin, the leader who pulled everyone together and orchestrated the entire operation.”
Brownlee organized the task force comprised of more than 400 State Department staff as well as colleagues from other agencies, including the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The multi-agency team held conference calls every morning and evening, seven days a week, on which representatives from each agency provided updates and relayed accomplishments and concerns.
Members of the task force, often working from home because of the pandemic, were in contact with U.S. embassies and foreign governments. They kept track of Americans needing help, worked with commercial and charter airlines, and sought solutions for Americans stuck on dozens of cruise ships worldwide, all the while acutely aware of the dangers posed by the highly contagious and deadly virus.
“On a daily basis, Ian Brownlee managed a team navigating complex international regulations and procedures, gaining flight clearances and maneuvering through locked-down borders, coordinating transport out of remote locations and keeping track of fluid travel restrictions in coordination with colleagues from around the world,” said Karin King, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
King said Brownlee relied on the expertise of the task force members, found solutions to difficult problems and “ensured everyone was focused on the singular goal of bringing every American home safely.” She said Brownlee also regularly briefed the media and members of Congress who were vigorously advocating on behalf of their constituents.
Kevin O’Reilly, deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said Brownlee was in effect the “head of mission control” who had to deal with “different rules for each sovereign government and balance competing interests from multiple agencies, Congress and the public.”
“He was exceptionally good at getting people from no to maybe to yes,” O’Reilly said. “He was effective and spoke with authority. He gave folks the space to be effective and when help was needed, he jumped in.”
Typically, State Department repatriations occur in one country or a local region, and involve helping U.S. citizens return home during wars and civil unrest or after disasters like typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The 2020 repatriations were massive in scope and more complicated.
Throughout the harrowing months, the State Department team arranged for special flights from South America, Africa, South and Central Asia, and, initially, Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
In Peru, more than 1,000 Americans were stranded as the government shut down the airports and borders, with military police patrolling the streets. Many of those Americans were in the hard-to-reach city of Cusco, the 15th century Incan citadel set high in the Andes mountains.
The State Department literally recreated the civil aviation system to evacuate Americans from Peru, while relying on Immigration and Customs Enforcement planes ordinarily used for deporting illegal immigrants to bring Americans back home from Central America. A number of complicated arrangements also had to be made for Americans stuck in nations that have strained relations with the U.S.
In another instance, the Air Force was enlisted to airlift a 55-member U.S. women’s tackle football team out of Honduras to Charleston, South Carolina, while the State Department rented boats for Americans marooned on the Amazon and sent a bus to the edge of the Sahara to rescue American campers.
All told, the task force arranged well over 1,000 flights and many other modes of transportation to bring Americans home under the safest conditions possible. Brownlee said the task was arduous but gratifying, as the team of “competent, capable people came together to successfully address an unprecedented situation.”
“In a very short order, we had a smoothly running operation pulling people out of difficult circumstances all around the world,” Brownlee said. “Our government worked, expertise paid off, and people stepped up and did things outside their normal duties and got the job done. A lot of people made it home safely.”