Waves of Relief

Class of ’68 | Richard Walden C’68 L’72 was sitting in the Malibu Beach Inn with his wife and young son, watching the waves roll in, when he first heard the news about the tsunami that convulsed the Indian Ocean, killing more than 250,000 people in a dozen countries and destroying countless villages and communities.

“The more I watched it [on TV], the more it was clear that this was going to be big enough that there would be something for us to do usefully over there,” he said recently from the Los Angeles headquarters of Operation USA, the rapid-response relief organization that he founded in 1979. “We spent the night there, and then I got up in the morning and said, ‘We’re cutting this short. I have to go back. This is insane.’”

So he checked out, drove back to the office—which
was almost empty, since he had already given his small staff the week between Christmas and New Year’s off—and fired off a press advisory to Interaction, a coalition of 160 international relief and development agencies that Operation USA had helped organize.

“We were in the first group of agencies listed in The New York Times and in the Associated Press,” he says. “And that was very helpful, because it started to galvanize an incredible reaction, and we started getting phone calls.” The ball was now rolling, fast.

When the Gazette spoke with Walden in January, Operation USA had budgeted upwards of $1.5 million in carefully targeted relief—essential materials, training and advocacy, and financial support—to the affected regions, mainly Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia. Its website (www.operationusa.org) provides daily updates, including field reports from board members who were there from the beginning, as well as contact information for potential contributors. (The Penn Alumni Club of Southwest Florida, for example, recently donated $3,000.)

“We have an Atlas Air 747 cargo jet filled with 50 tons of medical and shelter supplies leaving for Indonesia via Malaysia,” noted one January post, which also mentioned that a team of post-traumatic-stress experts was on its way to Sri Lanka, along with shipments of medicines, water-purification systems, vitamins, and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Operation USA had already made $125,000 in direct grants to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in India and Sri Lanka, and had provided a mobile medical clinic on the east coast of India run by its “long-time partner,” Vivekanand Medical Research Society.

“We’re the smallest of the major players in the relief field,” Walden says, noting that the Red Cross’ relief budget, by comparison, is $1.5 billion, and CARE’s budget is almost half that much. But Operation USA is also among the most nimble and efficient, which is one reason it was named one of America’s 100 Best Charities by Worth magazine. Its small staff—eight, complemented by volunteers—keeps the overhead down to between 1 and 3 percent of the income from donations. And since its board of directors has pledged to cover all administrative costs related to the tsunami-relief effort, every penny of a tsunami donation will go directly to that effort.

Walden is an old hand at bucking the odds. After setting up a federally funded health center in Philadelphia while still a law student, he was appointed to a commission exploring prison-reform by Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp. He moved to California, spearheaded a lawsuit over the unexplained deaths of mental patients in state hospitals, and was appointed commissioner of hospitals in 1977 by Governor Jerry Brown.

Three years later Walden founded Operation California (as Operation USA was then called) when he and another Brown appointee read an article about the plight of the Vietnamese Boat People, which coincided with the grounding of the world’s DC-10 airplanes in the wake of a crash. “With a couple of phone calls, the duo ended up with a jumbo jet and a planeload of critical medical supplies,” noted The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Good Morning America came calling; an avalanche of checks from the public followed.”

Among the check-writers were film star Julie Andrews and her husband, director Blake Edwards, who had adopted two Vietnamese girls during the fall of Saigon. Now on Operation USA’s board of directors, they and other celebrities continue to support the organization with money and publicity. Walden has also gratefully accepted materials and expertise from corporations.

A partial list of places aided by Operation USA’s emergency airlifts is a potent reminder of disasters past: Somalia (1980). Honduras (1981). Lebanon (1982). Nicaragua (1983). Ethiopia (1984). Mexico (1985). Jamaica (1986). The Phillipines (1987). Bosnia-Herzogovina (1992). Bangladesh (1992). Rwanda (1994). Cuba (1998). Turkey (1999). El Salvador (2001). Iraq (2002-2003). Iran (2004). The tsunami, he says, is the biggest natural disaster they’ve dealt with since the East African famine of 1984, which begat USA Africa (“We spent the first $17 million for them,” he notes; “we had a bunch of celebrities in the music business,”) and Live Aid. But unlike the African famine, the tsunami hit with no warning whatsoever.

“These things have phases,” says Walden, who traveled to Sri Lanka in late January to assess the situation. “The first phase is the relief phase,” and once the rescue efforts are called off, “it’s just cleaning up and trying to prevent disease and dealing with where people are going to live when their towns have been flattened.”

The second phase is the “recovery phase,” which involves rebuilding the shattered societies. “Usually you have the full cooperation of governments,” though in the case of Indonesia, that’s not always true. Sri Lanka, he notes realistically, “is a more natural fit for a small agency” like Operation USA.

Though he didn’t get into the disaster-relief business for the glory, Walden and Operation USA have received some pretty impressive plaudits. In addition to the President’s Volunteer Action Award in 1983, the Nobel Committee awarded its 1997 Peace Prize to Operation USA and several other organizations for their work on the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines.

Operation USA does not accept government funding, and as a result the organization is able to “maintain its total independence from the unfortunate ups and downs of U.S. government policies towards various countries,” in the words of its website.

“We don’t do mass feeding or mass medical,” says Walden. “In order to do that, you’re stuck taking government funds. And if you go down that road, with the State Department and the foreign-aid program, you basically become a government contractor, like a defense contractor. You need an army of clerks in your office instead of an army of passionate relief people.”

Asked for the secret of his success in that business, Walden replies quickly: “Never take No for an answer. And when it really is No, just call someone else.”—S.H.


©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/05/05


Profiles : Events :
Notes : Obituaries

Rapid responder Richard Walden
Evocative architect Lyman Perry
DUMBO developer Jed Walentas
Rare collector Jay Kislak
Lawyer and activist Donyale Reavis



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