When Superstorm Sandy's surge swept up on the shores of Manhattan's east side on Monday, Oct. 29, the United Nations went off the grid.
A 14-foot wall of salty floodwater poured from the East River into the landmark building's basement, disabling the electrical and cooling system, and shutting down the computer server that links the U.N. Secretariat staff with diplomats, foreign missions, and the press.
A backup database in New Jersey was unable to reconnect the U.N.'s nerve center in New York with the outside world.
The result was that the United Nations, the world's premier humanitarian relief organization, was largely invisible as a punishing storm inflicted significant pain on a wide swath of America, just outside its own front door.
"Disaster preparedness is one of the planks of the United Nations.... We try to walk the talk," Denmark's U.N. ambassador, Carsten Staur, said in a budget committee that turned into a forum for blasting the U.N.'s response in the days following the storm. "It is clear that this has been a blow to any kind of U.N. authority in that field that we can't even manage our own business when it comes to a situation like this."
Governments' criticisms of the U.N. response to Hurricane Sandy reflected a deeper discontent over the fading public role of the United Nations in the world, highlighted by the almost total lack of coverage by the media during the storm.
Turtle Bay, which reported the breakdown following the storm, was unable to secure an answer to even simple question: whether the U.N. General Assembly, which had a cover of plastic sheeting torn off by the hurricane, had any leaks. It would more than two and a half days before senior U.N. officials briefed the press on the matter.
The vacuum was highlighted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's absence, and his spokesman's almost total lack of public outreach during the first days of the storm. (Ban issued his first statement on the storm on late Thursday afternoon, almost three days after the center of the storm punched through lower New York City.
"We all feel that the United Nations has disappeared from the screen for quite a long time," said Algeria's U.N. envoy, Mourad Benmehidi, who was speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 developing countries. "I still have the sentiment that we were out of touch: no mention of the United Nations for six, seven days."
Some officials said one of the reasons the foreign diplomatic community was so angry was that they blamed U.N. management for the destruction of dozens of diplomatic vehicles inside the compound.
A Singaporean diplomat said that the U.N. Office of Central Support Services had sent U.N. delegations an email on Ocobter 24 instructing them to park their cars in the U.N.'s lower basement area, because construction was going on above them. "A subsequent email advising missions to move their cars from the basement there was only received on Monday, at which time it was impossible or hazardous for our mission staff to travel to the United Nations," said the diplomat.
Germany's deputy U.N. ambassador, Miguel Berger, said that the U.N. had sent the email to the wrong email address. "We lost two cars in the garage and afterward we found out the mail address, the mail which was direct to the German mission was a mail address that is non-existent."
Yukio Takasu, a former Japanese diplomat who serves as the U.N.'s undersecretary general for management, and Gregory Starr, the former State Department security chief who serves as U.N. undersecretary for safety and security, defended the U.N.'s handling of the crisis, while acknowledging that some mistakes had been made.
But their fairly upbeat briefing yesterday, which highlighted the sacrifices of U.N. staff in getting the building back and running, only angered the delegates. "I don't agree with the self-congratulatory assessment of Mr. Gregory Starr," Benmehidi said. "Let's be more humble in addressing this situation."
"Today, is the time for anger management," he said.
Benmehidi said that the U.N. had not only been cut off from the world, but from the diplomatic community in New York. "The only email my mission received is from Marjorie Tivens, in charge of relations with the missions in the city of New York." Tivens, who happens to be Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sister, is an employee of the city, not the United Nations.
Staur sought to reinforce the Algerian delegation's point, saying that the U.N. secretariat had made no effort to harness the support of the U.N.'s 192 governments to relay communications to the diplomatic community on behalf of the organization. "That that didn't happen was basically, I think, a total breakdown of communication."
He said the U.N.'s leadership had also utterly failed in using the storm as an opportunity to show the institution's compassion to its victims. He said the U.N. headquarters itself -- which has just completed a $1billion-plus renovation intended to be a model of sustainable design -- "was supposed to be a state-of-the-art example of how to build, because we wanted the U.N. to display how to do things. That basically has not been the case."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.