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.
Lawyers. I’ve been running one annually recurring project for the last six years. For five of those six years we plugged along, meeting leadership intent, and getting the job done mostly by convincing a bunch of other organizations to play nicely in this particular sandbox. The key, mainly, was in finding ways to make it easy for all of these other organizations to say yes when we asked for something. Enter the lawyers. This year, we seems bound and determined to create roadblocks where there were none before and actively seek out ways to get to “no.” It seems to me there’s a difference between cautious and diligent and being just another toad in the road. I miss the cautious and diligent advice we use to get.
Amazon. Today I talked to Amazon’s customer service line for the 3rd time about getting my account un-suspended. That’s after spending a few hours pinging tweets back and forth with their Twitter customer service team. Current status is that no one is apparently able to tell me why the people who manage charge back issues haven’t and/or aren’t able to resolve this. I’m told the issue has been elevated to the next support tier… and I should hear “something” in the next 24-48 hours. That’s all well and good, I suppose, until just after that conversation, when Amazon sent me another email claiming that I haven’t returned something they acknowledged I had already returned several weeks ago, so that will be a separate, unrelated fight with my favorite online retailer as soon as our primary issue is resolved. I’m expecting that to be some time in December based on the current rate of progress.
High water. There’s a tropical storm headed for New Orleans. The city is already flooding. Grand total of things that we have collectively learned about living on the low ground since Katrina: Zero.
1. Surprise that hurricanes cause infrastructure damage. Reports this week say that “a lack of power and phone service in the areas of Florida flattened by Hurricane Michael last week was hindering efforts” to respond to and recover from the event. Well yeah. That happens in a natural disaster. That happens when one of the strongest storms to hit the United States in all of recorded history flattens everything resembling modern infrastructure that happened to be in its immediate path. FEMA, the media, local governments and anyone who knows anything about emergency preparedness has been screaming for years that people, individuals, need to do more to be ready when the unexpected happens (not that an approaching major hurricane is an “unexpected” happening here in the 21st century). If you insist on staying in or returning to what is, by its very definition, a disaster area before even basic power and communications infrastructure is available you’d damned well better be prepared to generate your own power or rely on battery backup and understand that winds that can knock down brick and mortar buildings can surely strip the bits and pieces off of a modern cell tower while it tears hard-wired communications networks asunder. Basic infrastructure like power and telephony took generations to build out. Screaming complaints that it hasn’t all been restored in a week or two is unrealistic and makes you sound like a idiot.
2. More chicken dreams. It’s not a sure thing, but I’d estimate that close to 50% of the time I eat a chicken-based dinner, I end up with wildly realistic dreams a few hours later. They’re not quite what the reading defines as “lucid” dreams and they’re not nightmares, but these chicken-fueled dreams are wildly realistic – in a Hollywood back lot kind of way. The most recent found me walking through a storefront I knew well as a kid into an interior that had hints of what “should” have been there but that was dominated by people and things that would have no business or reason for being there at all. I think I’m going to have to stop eating chicken for dinner. It’s not that I mind these dreams as I’d just rather not spend the time from 2:00-2:10 am laying awake wondering what the actual fuck is going on in my head.
3. People. Yes, people are a perennial target of my ire, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a consistent refrain because it’s so richly deserved. This week alone I’ve observed people walking out into traffic without looking, nearly sideswipe me on the highway (again without looking), (attempt to) jump into the checkout line as if there weren’t already three people standing in it, and generally moving about in the world as if oblivious to anything outside of their own arm’s reach. I really have no idea how more people aren’t apoplectically livid about their day to day interactions with people. Maybe you’re all just better adjusted than I am… or maybe you’re just too nice to say it out loud in public.
1. Gender specific household chores. In the last week I’ve seen a literal shitload of social media posts boohooing that traditional “women’s work” is unappreciated in the household. Yes, I’m sure these posts are directed at a certain sub set of the population that largely includes households that consist of two adults and a few spawn, but honest to God my reaction is almost universally “Oh just shut the hell up.” If I don’t do the “girly” things like cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, and making of doctor’s appointments those things don’t get done. If I don’t feed the dogs, cat, and tortoise they don’t get fed. Likewise if I don’t do the “manly” things like cut the grass, change the oil, clean the gutters, and do the other household maintenance, those things don’t get done. If I don’t drag my ass out of bed and into the office 40 hours a week, there’s no money to do any of the above mentioned activities. You see, I’m an adult. I do the things because that’s what being an adult means. There are days I’d love to have the luxury of dividing it vaguely near the middle and calling some of it someone else’s responsibility. The fact that somewhere out there many pairs of grown ass adult humans apparently can’t figure out how to each do approximately half the things I somehow manage to do on my own ranks somewhere between appalling and infuriating.
2. Pet owners who shouldn’t. If you need to be told to bring your pets inside during a hurricane you are an absolute fuckwit and would do the world a considerable favor by tying yourself to a bundle of cinder blocks and letting the storm surge have you. I’m willing to accept no excuse of stupidity, poverty, or unavoidable circumstance to justify your ineptitude to provide even the most basic level of care for a creature that relies solely on you to provide for it. In the benevolent reign of King Jeff you would be drug into the street, given a fair trial, and then summarily shot and left where you fall.
3. Internet experts. I love hurricane season because it’s when the internet experts in material acquisition and distribution logistics all come out of the woodwork with an “opinion” on how to a) get the right stuff and b) move it to the right place at the right time. I won’t go into my firm believe that these are the same experts who are personally challenged to execute their weekly trip to pick up family groceries and who’s greatest logistical achievement to date is packing the family truckster for a week long roadtrip to Wally World. My point is, it’s fine to have an opinion, you’re entitled to it… but it’s always best to try not to sound like a complete idiot while you’re having it.
Reports are that the lights are out in Puerto Rico. It’s not that some power is out or that sections of the grid are down. The whole damned island has apparently found itself relocated back to the 19th century. Let that sit with you for a minute. You can’t pilfer electricity from your neighbor. You can’t swing a few miles down the road to a motel that’s left the light on for you. You’re one a rock in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and the only places with power are the ones whose generator housings were hardened and high enough not to get flooded – and those small points of light in the darkness will only last until the fuel on hand runs out.
I’d bet that not one in 10,000 of us have a plan for what we’d do if the lights went out and didn’t come back. One night sitting in the dark was enough to convince me to run out and buy a generator – of course it only runs as long as someone is keeping the backyard fuel supply topped off. Running flat out 24/7 I might get ten or fourteen days out of it… assuming the set doesn’t need any service beyond basic maintenance.
I don’t know how long it takes to restore power to 3.5 million people living on a rock in the middle of the ocean, but I’m guessing it may take more than a week or two. Here on the continent it’s a fairly easy thing to stage thousands of men and trucks just outside the danger area and surge them in on their own wheels when the winds subside. It’s an order of magnitude more complicated when getting that support to the people who need it requires both the people and the equipment to arrive by either air or sea.
Although the coverage of our friends in the Caribbean are much on my mind this evening, the wheels are already turning on what more I can do to stave off the 1870s if the power ever well and truly goes out here at home.
1. Canned goods. The media is currently filled with pictures from Texas of shoppers with carts piled high with canned goods, cases of water, and the usual list of hurricane supplies. I’m always struck when I see these pictures that so many people who live in an area historically frequented by natural disasters don’t have a week’s supply of food and water already laid on. Keeping a few extra cans of beans around for just such an occasion feels like something you should just do automatically even if you’re not in an area prone to high winds and water. Keeping yourself and your household alive in the immediate aftermath of whatever very bad thing hits your community feels a lot like something that you should take on as a personal responsibility instead of waiting for the Weather Channel to tell you you’re going to need water… and then bitching about the government not getting to you fast enough after the storm passes.
2. Powerball. Some woman in Massachusetts won my $758.7 million jackpot.
3. Suffering fools. We live in a polite society where it’s considered inappropriate to look someone in the eyes and ask them directly if they’ve always been stupid or if they have just been struck in the head by a blunt object. The result is no matter how stupid someone is, we’re not supposed to call them out on it. Look, I’m not expecting everyone to be a rising Einstein, I’m more than aware of the moments when my brain has locked up when trying to do or comprehend things that should be simple… but honest to God when the sum total of human knowledge is available to everyone on the device they spend most of their day staring at, there’s just no excuse for so many people to be so incredibly dumb.
1. Clowns. Ok, some people have irrational fear of clowns. Got it. But I’m not entirely sure why a handful of them standing along the roadside is being covered as a national crisis. I don’t see how they’re substantively any different than anyone else just milling around. Like those other non-clown idlers, as long as they’re not standing in my back yard or at my door, I’m not sure why I should care. Here in a few weeks millions of otherwise reasonable adults are going to get dressed up for Halloween and turn themselves loose on our highways and neighborhood streets. Just because the exploding population of “evil clowns” doesn’t do it under cover of a sanctioned holiday makes very little difference in my mind.
2. The level of discourse. I generally tend to shy away from political discussion on social media. I make an occasional post that reflects my opinion and leave it be. There are a few people however, with whom I can manage to have an actual discussion without turning on one another like slobbering idiots. Today I had one of those discussions with someone who I both respect and like very much as a person. We’re miles apart on many of the big issues of the day. When it comes to politics I think she’s a bleeding heart socialist do-gooder and she probably think’s I’m a hard hearted gun-toting redneck. We still find a way to talk. We’re still friends after all these years. That’s what the discourse in this country should look like. But it doesn’t. And that’s annoying as hell.
3. Seven millions of people. Seven million is the current estimate of people who could be without power as a result of Hurricane Matthew dragging himself up the East Coast. That’s well over and above the 2 million people who have been ordered to evacuate their homes. I won’t get into a discussion about the virtue of following evacuation orders, because frankly I’m not at all sure I’d be willing to just walk away from home and hope for the best under the same circumstances. That said, I seems very unlikely that there are seven million people out there well prepared for what’s coming for them. It’s going to be a rough couple of days… and for some of them a long couple of weeks or months if we have to figure out how to turn the east coast power grid back on.
We’ve been through two nights of what could generously be called torrential downpours since the landscapers called the job finished and moved on. So far I’m exceedingly pleased to say that the basement has remained bone dry. No sign of hydraulic pressure coming from below the slab or through the block – and more importantly no magically overflowing window well/aquarium. I’m well pleased and cautiously optimistic that at least on this one thing, we’ve possibly cracked the code. Now I can move on to giving the front crawlspace the same treatment and chasing the damp out of there… or maybe I’ll tackle something else on my long list of projects.
Until I bought this place, I’ve always lived in neighborhoods within easy reach of city water and without water-prone basements. The rental place up the road had a sump pit in the crawl space that stayed bone dry the whole time I was there. I’d really never given much thought to it until this spring’s week after week of rain and semi-regular power failures. While watching the water level rise in the window well I had a moment of utter horror that my standing in the dark also meant that the sump pit was filling inch by inch, there was plenty of water in the well, but none I could use, and that generally life in this nice, heavily wooded part of the world could quickly become problematic if I stayed off the power grid longer than an hour or two.
The power’s gone off here enough since I moved in that I’ve realized that an outage lasting longer than I’m going to want to hand carry water from the sump is not just possible, but also likely. There are plenty enough people around with a generator to borrow short term, but the iffy projections coming out of the National Hurricane Center today were enough to convince me it was time to stop living on “borrowed” power. Judging from the number of people milling around the generator aisle at the local Lowe’s tonight I wasn’t the only one who had come to the same conclusion.
At some point I’ll slap a standby generator on this place and really do it up right, but in the meantime once I get it assembled and tested, I’ll have 5.5kW of portable power. That should be enough to keep the basement dry, have a few lights on, charge up the electronics, enjoy indoor plumbing, and maybe even run the furnace fan… not all at the same time, of course, but under dire circumstances, having some of the comforts of the 21st century is far better than having none of them.
If you checked in tonight hoping to find something witty or controversial, boy did you come to the wrong place. As much as I enjoy a good rant, I just don’t feel like I have one in me this evening. I wonder if that’s because there seems to be an embarrassment of riches lately when it comes to the vast number of issues loitering around that need a good calling out.
Just from my handy dandy notepad app, I’ve listed the following contenders in no particular order:
1. The southern border of the United States is being overrun while we’re busy watching the world cup.
2. The world medical community is racing to contain the largest-in-history ebola outbreak in Africa but is being chased out of “hot spots” by the local indigenous population who apparently aren’t keen on modern medicine.
3. The approval ratings for all three branches of the federal government are at or near all time lows again… and again… and again.
4. The media are acting surprised that there’s a hurricane forming in the Atlantic during hurricane season.
5. The great state of Maryland has a number of new laws that went into effect this week, among them an increase in the gas tax and grain alcohol prohibition… Because higher gas prices and banning one version of an otherwise widely available substance are clearly two of the most important things Annapolis needs to focus on.
These are just a couple of the notes I jotted down so far this week – not the items that have been specifically reserved for What Annoys Jeff this Week. Maybe my brain is too addled by the recent heat, but I don’t even know where to start ranting about this mess.
The 50% of my job that doesn’t deal with PowerPoint is almost exclusively taken up by reading and writing. (We’re going to pretend for purposes of this discussion that good productive time isn’t serially wasted by the requirement to attend meetings.) This week I’ve been reading up on some rather elderly documents that led me all the way back to late August 2005. To set the stage, it was hot and humid in Washington, DC and all hell was breaking loose along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana.
My memories from Katrina differ pretty significantly from what most people remember seeing on the news. I remember a federal response effort that practically pleaded and begged state and local leaders in Louisiana to ask for assistance and that staged people, equipment, and mountains of “stuff” as close to the Louisiana border as possible when it became obvious to everyone but those officials that Katrina was going to overwhelm their capacity to respond. The Louisiana governor and New Orleans mayor had a different perspective, of course. All I know is the information showing up hourly on my desk in stacks of reports didn’t jive with the story they were telling in front of the camera. The real truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
I’d be hard pressed to reveal myself to be a bigger geek than you already think I am, but for me it was fascinating combing through the files of a different organization with a wholly different mission and reading their take on what was going on in Louisiana that summer. Reading accounts that weren’t filled with statistics of water, ice, temporary roofing material, and body bags on hand or tons of debris removed gave me a little fresh appreciation for what we were trying to do that summer. I guess that’s not all that surprising. With a degree in history I’ve always had a penchant for looking to the past to make informed guesses about what the future may hold.
Katrina was what one might call a significant emotional event for many and I’m not trying to make light of that in any way. At the same time, for me, Katrina started 60 days of some of the best professional work I’ve ever done. It was equal parts rewarding and exhausting – often simultaneously. Eight years after the fact, I won’t deny that I’m finding myself looking back on it with a bit of fond nostalgia. I suppose that’s fairly easy to do when you rode out the storm and its aftermath hunkered down in DC with electricity, running water, and a Starbucks in the lobby.