On that one time when the job mattered…

There aren’t many days from my distant past I can point to and tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing. August 29th is one of the rarities. 

Right around this time 16 years ago, I was sitting in a back room on the mezzanine level of FEMA headquarters. I was on loan from Uncle’s big green machine and there wasn’t space in the old National Response Coordination Center for all of us, so the logistics cell had been shuffled over to adjacent office space. I didn’t realize then that I’d spend most of my waking hours for the next 75 days huddled up in those offices. 

It was mid-morning, August 29, 2005. Katrina had made landfall earlier and the initial reports, what we were seeing on television, looked like we’d dodged a proverbial bullet. Back there and back then, a direct hit on New Orleans was always one of the nightmare scenarios emergency managers talked about in hushed tones. We let out a sigh of relief and talked about where to get lunch. 

Then the levees broke – or “overtopped” – depending on how technically correct you want to be. There’s an image of a huge barge slammed hard against a widening breach as canal water pours through that’s going to stick with me forever.

I’ve got definite opinions about the now infamous failures in the initial response to Katrina. The federal government – and FEMA in particular – makes a big juicy target for news organizations. We weren’t guiltless, but there’s a shit ton of blame to also spread around on New Orleans’ mayor and Louisiana’s governor. Under our federal system, at least back then and maybe still for all I know, it’s important to remember that states have to ask for federal assistance before the resources flow. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s all I’ll say on that particular sore topic.

Watching the news this morning has brought back swarms of memories from sixteen years ago. Mostly it’s memories of the people I was working with at the time – some of the best I’ve ever known. More than a few of those thoughts, though, are of being young and just a little bit arrogant, of too much coffee and not nearly enough sleep, and of one of the handful of times in my entire career that doing the job meant making a tangible difference rather than just making the PowerPoint slides a bit more spiffy.

Lots of people are keeping a good though for those in harm’s way today. Me? I’ll keep mine for those sitting in the mezzanine trying their hardest to do the right things. I’m proud of the work I did 16 years ago, but sweet little baby Jesus am I glad someone else is sitting in that seat this morning.

Feeling a little nostalgic…

It’s been a minute since the last time I spent a day glued to NOAA weather briefings, memorizing Department of Transportation route plans, and casting a professional eye towards America’s excess bottled water and ice production and storage capacity. It was a gig that required finding ways to say yes as often as possible, but also offering definitive “no’s” when there was no way to get there from here. I mostly enjoyed the work… and I was good at it.

On days when the storm flags are up, I almost miss it. Working hurricanes was one of the few times in my career I could draw a straight line between the work and the outcome. It was more than editing version 26 of the next set of PowerPoint slides. Getting personnel and supplies marshaled and delivered to the people and places where they were needed was possibly the only time in my long career I’ve felt like I was legitimately accomplishing something.

Now, the TV screens are flickering between cabinet secretaries resigning under fire and the arrival of what should be a routine, if not trivial, tropical storm along the Gulf Coast. With unseasonably high water on the Mississippi, a few feet of storm surge, and the potential to drop ten or more inches of rain in a few hours, Barry isn’t an unusual storm… but he does does arrive bring an unusual confluence of factors that probably don’t bode well for New Orleans and southern Louisiana.

My armchair professional best guess is that the levees will hold this time, but the bigger factor will be the city’s pump capacity. Not even the vaunted pumps installed after Karina are sized to de-water that much sustained rainfall over a period of hours.

I know tonight over at 500 C Street, SW there’s a small army of FEMA personnel and an array of planners from the federal partner agencies making educated guesses on what’s needed, when it needs to get there, and how to deliver it effectively. On days like this, I miss the urgency of that kind of work… but lord, I don’t miss the 16 hour days.

The dawn’s early light…

It’s just after 7:30 AM and there’s just enough light now to start seeing the world beyond the four apparently study walls of Rental Casa de Jeff. I’m happy to say that a quick check of the perimeter, accompanied by two less than enthusiastic dogs, shows no real damage to the structure. The only thing that is out of place is a lilac bush that seems to be leaning an at unnatural angle against the fence. I have no intention of really looking at that until this damnable cold rain lets off. With the sound of the wind last night, I was expecting much, much worse in the dawn’s early light. Once again my general pessimism about the way of things has paid off by letting me be pleasantly surprised this morning. Even so, I have to confess that I’d rather experience storms from video wall on the 2nd floor of FEMA’s office downtown than listening to it happen around me in real time.

For now, the coffee is on, I’ve got a propane wall heater taking the chill off the 61 degree kitchen, and everything is watertight. With the number of friends who have taken on water or had other damage, I realize how fortunate I’ve been. Once I’ve got some caffein back in my system, I’ll get the computer equipment back out of it’s watertight storage and start getting everything back online.

For my readers, friends, and family, I hope all is well. Stay warm, stay safe, and I’ll see you when all this finally blows over.

Any way the wind blows…

I haven’t chased a hurricane since Dean in 2007, but there’s something about seeing the storm warnings go up that still gets in my head. It’s a twitchy feeling that I should pack a bag, clear my schedule, and track down an overtime request form.

Emergency managers usually get a bad name for being unprepared, unresponsive, or just plain out of their depth in planning how to respond to something like a hurricane or an earthquake. The truth is that even though I’m sitting here looking at a forecast track that is eerily similar to Katrina’s, Isaac will behave completely differently. Even when they hit the same place, no two natural disasters are exactly the same… and no amount of pre-planning will overcome the natural tendency of large groups of people to do exactly the wrong thing in an emergency (like staying in a city that’s only kept dry when the levees work and the pumps keep running).

I could tell you stories of horrifyingly bad judgment from everyone from FEMA Administrators, to state governors, to local elected leaders, to average schleps on the ground working under the misguided assumption that they were doing the right things. When you have a bird’s eye view of the event, it’s surprisingly easy to see where things are going wrong. It’s incredibly frustrating and harder than hell to get them going in the right direction, though. In all likelihood I’ll never work another day in emergency management, but after a five year absence, I can honestly say that I’d do it again in a heartbeat if the circumstances every presented themselves.

For now I suppose I’ll follow along on TV like everyone else and just be glad it’s not me on the hook to find millions of gallons of water, tons of ice, and wheels to put under all of it.

What Annoys Jeff This Week?

1. Fall. It’s not fall specifically, but I do hate that by 2:30 this afternoon there wasn’t even a hint of sun shining in the courtyard at work. I am so not ready for it to be dark when I leave for work and dark when I get home. And fall only serves as reminder of this upcoming unpleasantness.

2. Apple. Again. This week you officially announced that next week you’ll be making an official announcement about the next iPhone. You guys are killing me. Just let me plunk down my money and order the damned thing already. And for the love of God, will you please bring back pre-ordering? I’ll get up hours before the ass crack of dawn to drive 60 miles to the Apple Store if I have to, but please don’t make me.

3. The Federal Hiring Process. I got an email this afternoon letting me know I’d be was in the running for a position I applied for in February. Seriously? It took you seven months to get around to putting the list together, FEMA?

4. Facebook. Your new changes have crushed the number of clicks I’m getting from Facebook to my blog. I hate you for that, but since I’m way too cheap to pay for ads, I’ll eventually figure out a way around you.

5. People who ask for a read receipt on every email. You know who you are and you suck. That is all.

Higher ground…

With the Mississippi on the way up, I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily abandoning our position in West Tennessee, but we are making preparations for a tactical retrograde to positions on higher ground. If flooding along the Mississippi and its tributaries gets somewhere in the vicinity of the worst case scenario, my office will be at least partially underwater, roads and bridges leading to the base will be impassable, and there’s some disagreement about whether entire swaths of the county could see their power turned off for 1-2 weeks. That last part begs the question, who in their right mind builds the main electrical distribution panel for a city on the wrong side of the levee? Yes, I’m looking at you MLGW.

Looking at the FEMA flood maps, I can’t foresee any circumstances where the house would be in any direct danger from flooding, aside from the possibility of stormdrain and sewer backup – there’s a happy thought. The biggest risk for me seems to be the possibility of multiple days with no electricity. In the grand scheme of bad things than can happen, I know that being without power isn’t even close to the worst of it. However, if you’re a dedicated technophile, being without the juice even for a few hours can be cause for developing nervous tics. A week or more? That’s enough to fill your heart with dread.

Being forewarned, as they say, is being forearmed and plans are being put in place that would give me the opportunity to pull up stakes temporarily until something approaching a civilized level of public services have been restored. Assuming that the word is going to come down making this a reality the real questions then becomes – When and for how long? If it looks like a situation that will last more than a few days, the logical answer is to pack up the truck and head east. Sure, I could get a hotel alot closer, but the thought of spending an indeterminate amount of time in a hotel room with two 80 pound dogs doesn’t seem ideal. Then again, leaving the house undefended in a city like Memphis, with no electricity (and therefore no alarm), and hoping it hasn’t been looted and pillaged while I’ve been away doesn’t sound appealing either. For some reason, I don’t think the fine citizens of Memphis would respond to natural disaster any better than those of New Orleans did.

I plan to stay in place as long as I have two things: electricity and an open escape route to the east. When either one of those things seem to be in danger of going away, then I’ll be in the wind and headed for high ground.