Sunday, September 4, 2016

POTUS @ Midway

If the title of this post leaves you a little confused, don’t worry, I didn’t know what POTUS meant until a week or so ago. Before I left the atoll in late July rumors of a possible visit by the President of the United States (acronym = POTUS) were pretty thick among the residents of Midway, triggered perhaps by a group of 30 or so White House staff and interns under somewhat mysterious circumstances the week before.  At least I think they were staff and interns, no one really seemed to know who exactly they were and all they did for their day here was walk around, eat, and go out on to the reef to snorkel.

But shortly after I returned to the atoll in late August, it became official: POTUS was planning a visit on his way from the World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, where he would announce the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, to an economic summit in China. In fact, flying with me on the plane were some key staff of the Fish and Wildlife Service who would be representing the agency during the White House visit and leading preparations.  This would be only the second time POTUS visited Midway, the first being Richard Nixon when he held a secret meeting here President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam.  Evidence that preparations had already begun were everywhere upon my re-entry. Not a single albatross carcass did I see on my first day back and the musty smell of dead birds had been supplanted with the fragrant aroma of flowering trees. New park benches sat alongside the roads as Chugach staff, redeployed from their normal duties, were busy cleaning nearly everything that could possibly be cleaned and grooming the normally disheveled vegetation. The island’s only pub, Captain Brooks Tavern, was renovated in anticipation of a swarm of thirsty visitors.

A week of intense preparation preceded President Obama's visit to Midway. Clockwise from upper left: Chugach staff mow the "lawn" at the historic Midway House; Yuki Takahashi helps hang new materials in the Visitors Center; Ann Humphrey works on the landscaping at the Midway Harbor Memorial; Savanna Jade and Nai Degracia take a short break after working on new visitor displays.

Within a couple of days more personnel from a variety of agencies and equipment started arriving.  [Redacted] teams, [Redacted][Redacted], and a [Redacted] occupied the officer’s quarters that formerly housed our volunteers. The Midway House, which was in the midst of a substantial renovation, was readied for visiting White House Staff. The population on the island doubled during the week prior to the POTUS visit and was expected continue swelling up until September 1st, the day of the expected visit, when 150 people or so people would occupy this little island. Large cargo aircraft, C-17s, landed at the normally sleepy Henderson Field regularly carrying both people and supplies. Meal hours at the Clipper House were extended to accommodate the extra visitors and Chef Pong and his crew worked long hours to meet the demands.

With exception of the refuge manager, the roles that I and the Fish and Wildlife Service staff and volunteers that I work with were to play on the big day were vague and uncertain, although we all hoped that we’d have at least some contact with the POTUS. What was clear was that we would be asked to help out with the preparations in a big way and each day we met with the organizers to get the latest news on how many planes might be arriving that day and what things we could do to help. We were tasked with a variety of menial duties which included everything from landscaping to cleaning to creating signs for educating visitors on proper wildlife etiquette. After a day of shoveling sand and rearranging large paving stones at the Midway Harbor Memorial with co-worker Ann Humphrey, I worried that I had done some damage to my lower back. The tone of the island had changed from being relaxed and lighthearted to somewhat tense and very serious. Maybe it was learning that everyone was being investigated by the Secret Service and that our phones might be tapped? Or having our usual Friday afternoon social in the community garden shut down? Or perhaps it was announcement of the curfew? It probably didn’t help that during the three days preceding the visit, Midway was hit by a series of sky-darkening storms producing torrential rainfall and flooding roads and low-lying areas. Word spread that if Hurricane Madeline took a turn towards Honolulu or if storms continued to batter Midway, the POTUS visit might even be cancelled. What humor there was on the island was mostly of the dark variety. While helping to hang new posters in the Visitors Center, I stretched to hold the two ends of a poster as high as I could against the wall, a posture which prompted a flashback to the fall of 2015 when I was being frisked by Border Patrol agents during a difficult crossing back into the states from Mexico.

Severe storms flooded the islands in the days before the President's visit.
The day before the big event, during an “all island meeting” it was confirmed that everyone on island, including the incredibly hardworking Thai guys that keep this place running, would have the chance to greet the POTUS as he stepped off of Air Force One to begin his tour.  Exciting news for sure, although we also learned that preliminary plans to involve the volunteers in the president’s tour (feeding white terns and planting a native shrub) had been nixed after White House review. Not being a “big wig” and not an employee of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (I work for the partner group National Wildlife Refuge Association), I don’t know what I'd expected but I will admit to being a little surprised and disappointed when I learned that, once the meet and greet was over, I would have to return to my house and stay there the whole day until Air Force One departed (something akin to "house arrest"). Why does my president need to be protected from me? Hell, I even voted for the guy (twice) and helped clean up the island so he’d have a pleasant visit!  I briefly considered not even going to the meet and greet as a sort of protest.

A National Geographic Team, which included marine conservationist Sylvia Earl, were invited by the White House to be part of the event. Earl announced to Obama that a deep ocean fish would be named after him.

The night before the big day the storms began to clear and I went out with oceanographer and marine conservationist Sylvia Earl and a couple of National Geographic photographers to get some footage of Bonin Petrels at what turned out to be one of the most amazing sunsets I’ve witnessed here. Clearly, things were looking up for the POTUS’ visit and by next morning skies were blue again and the island looked and smelled about as fresh as it probably has since Captain Brooks landed his ship here over a hundred years ago. All of the islands residents gathered shortly before Air Force One was scheduled to arrive. Seeing the excitement of my co-workers – and especially the Thai guys – during these moments made me realize how stupid I would have been to boycott this event.

Storms exited the area the evening before the big day producing an extraordinary sunset. 
Anticipation continued to build as we were led to the greeting area, a small patch of pavement enclosed by sawhorses and dozens of photos were taken before Air Force One even began its decent to Henderson Field.  When the plane finally landed, a few dozen members of the press exited the rear door and took up strategic positions. After not too much delay the front door opened, a staircase was extended and, after a half dozen or so guards of some sort walked off, down came Barack Obama, looking casual, relaxed, and decidedly cool. No need to wear a suit at Midway, some high level wonk had clearly decided! Within moments he was shaking hands and greeting folks. He even made it a point to ask people their names, something that seemed pretty down to earth for the POTUS, and then graciously posed for a photo with all of us. And then he was off in a motorcade of golf carts flanked by black SUVs (he was in a golf cart) to begin his tour which included a stop at the Midway Harbor Memorial, the Cargo Pier, Turtle Beach, and then a trip by boat to go snorkeling at the reef. I went home to read, sew, clean the house and drink beer. On the way I walked alongside Kidjarom Wongwei, one of the cooks at the Clipper House, and he was so incredibly jazzed by the event (he also met First Lady Laura Bush when she visited here in 2007) that whatever residual bad feelings that I may have still had vanished.

Arrival at Midway. From top to bottom: Air Force One just after landing; Obama heads to meet the crowd; POTUS heads off to tour the island in a golf course motorcade.

By all accounts the trip was a success.  Fish and Wildlife staff felt like they got a positive message across, the White House was rewarded by positive depictions of the president in the media, and Chugach succeeded in having run what could be considered a “preparation marathon” in record time. When the POTUS departed, the mood on the island immediately relaxed and folks began taking down all the things that went up.  Last night Chugach generously hosted an “appreciation party” for the residents and the few remaining visitors and it was a real celebration as guys I’d never seen there before joined in singing Thai songs and dancing to the karaoke machine. Today, the last C17 took off and with it the last of the crew stationed here for the visit and things are finally back to normal.  Midway normal that is!

President Obama with US Fish and Wildlife staff and the residents of Midway (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Links to a few news stories about POTUS’ visit:


  1. Thank you for this. I totally missed the significance of POTUS; didn't even note that Obama was front and center in the group photo. And I can relate perfectly to your range of feelings, from annoyance and resentment to getting caught up in the charisma. I remember some of the same shifts in emotion when I got close to the campaigning-for-POTUS Obama during a Richmond visit in 2007.

  2. How many people actually stayed on the island overnight/multiple days as part of his advance team?

    1. Not sure of exact number but population of island probably doubled

  3. Sounds just like the cleanup that preceded President Nixon's meeting with President Thieu of S. Vietnam in July 1969! Wish more people could visit Midway - especially those of us who once lived there!

  4. Congratulations Rob! Great piece and glad POTUS didn't have to suffer rotting albatross wafting through the ceremony. Mike Dennis

  5. Did they really redact this blog post?!

    1. Original post contained some potentially sensitive info so has been modified (one sentence deleted).

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