I started getting calls about the terrible earthquake in Christchurch almost immediately after it happened. It was clear that the devastation was great.  My heart went out to those who lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods, and I couldn’t help but wonder if USAID would send a team to help those searching for survivors.

The office I work for at USAID is one most Americans have not heard of.  With a staff of 250 people based around the world, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) is smaller than many of the bands of the U.S. Military, but with an important mandate, to save lives and alleviate suffering.  We are charged with leading the U.S. government’s response to international disasters, maybe 70 or so natural disasters and complex emergencies each year, on behalf of the American people.

So when information on the quake in Christchurch began to filter in, we immediately started discussing possible international assistance and what we could provide if needed. USAID has agreements with two of the most skilled Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams in the world — Fairfax County Virginia Fire and Rescue Department and Los Angeles County Fire Department — who are always ready to deploy in the aftermath of an earthquake or other catastrophic disaster.  We reviewed the options through the night and stood ready to respond should it be needed.

Knowing there is significant search and rescue capacity in the region that is best placed to assist in Christchurch, I went to work Tuesday morning thinking it would be another busy day in the office.  It is a good thing I am always packed and ready to deploy because I, along with five of my OFDA colleagues, was headed to Christchurch just after noon.

We are meeting up with the Los Angeles County Urban Search and Rescue team and then heading directly into Christchurch.  Once on the ground, we will immediately go into rescue mode. Our USAR team will join forces with the USAR personnel from New Zealand and other international teams they train with all year to assure that every place a survivor might be found is thoroughly searched.

Our USAR team will have more than 70 highly trained technical experts and a cargo aircraft full of equipment to aid in making rescues in collapsed buildings and structures.  Most of the team members were part of the international effort that rescued more than 130 people from the rubble in Haiti, and we hope to save some lives in Christchurch.

So when you see the awful pictures coming out of New Zealand, and you wish you could do something to help — know that you already are. USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance is fully funded by the American taxpayer, and we are going to do our best to make a difference in Christchurch and wherever else our help is needed.

If you want to further assist those in Christchurch, please make a cash donation to a reputable organization working in the disaster zone.

To get up to the minute updates on the US search and rescue efforts in Christchurch, follow me on Twitter @DARTgirl and @USAID

** UPDATE Feb. 24, 2011 1:50 p.m.**

U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner welcomes the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) on their arrival in Christchurch, New Zealand, to engage in search and rescue activities following the recent earthquake.