What Annoys Jeff this Week?

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.

Some is better than none…

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.

An embarrassment of riches…

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.

Revisiting Katrina…

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 katrina_satellitereading 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.

Quick math…

I was going some back of the napkin calculating this morning and it looks like I’ve got about half a year’s worth of archive posts left to go. It feels like I’ve been drawing down on that source for a long, long time. I guess I have been leaning on them pretty hard to get Sunday posts up without needing to worry too much about originality. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure when the time comes, I’ll find something to fill that gap in your Sunday mornings. Maybe it’ll be time to recruit a guest blogger so I can continue to have basically one day a week off. We’ll see about that when the time comes.

Since we don’t really need to worry about any of that until closer to the end of the year, I’ll simply direct your attention to the center ring, where this week’s feature presentation highlights the joy of suburban living as well as the run up to Hurricane Dean. While Dean turned out to be a bust for the US, that week was one that opened my eyes for about the way we throw large numbers around without giving it much thought… especially when we’re talking about the budget. Trust me, it only sounds dull. If you knew how often these conversations took place throughout the District, even the most spendthrift among you would have more than a moment of pause.

Without further adue, I present you with the world that was, in mid-August 2007.

The nightmare scenario…

Here in ‘Murica, we have a tendency to think in terms of big disasters: earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemic flu, and briefcase nukes. Those are the kind of events that get big attention and the corresponding big dollars poured into planning what to do when one of those things happens. For years, the nightmare scenario has been a hurricane slamming into the Big Easy (been there, done that), a mid-west earthquake that cripples transportation across swath of the country from Chicago to Memphis, or a non-descript dirty bomb left at Union Station our outside the Smithsonian. Those are still the official nightmare scenarios, but they’re not my personal nightmare.

Compared to radiological bombs and the weather, my personal nightmare is decidedly low tech. It’s ten suicide bombers in ten separate cities walking into ten coffee shops at 8:30 in the morning of a random Tuesday and blowing themselves to hell. It’s the kind of improvised devices we saw in Boston – easy enough that just about anyone can manufacture one with stuff they already have around the house. It’s not the kind of terror that’s going to bring down entire buildings, but let them start going off in shopping malls and restaurants across downtown America, and watch how fast the public clamors for something, anything that ratchets down the body count. How long would it be before we nationally agree to be searched at any time for any reason or to having our cars inspected before being allowed into a parking garage or to give up any number of our essential freedoms?

Suicide bombs and improvised explosives have become a way of life in places like Israel, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Adopting a bunker mentality when you spend every day under threat is a perfectly natural response to those outside forces acting on you, but I don’t want that for America. I don’t want to live in a garrison town where I’ve traded a lot of personal freedom for a nominal amount of safety. That’s my real nightmare scenario and one that we can only avoid through eternal vigilance. That’s the price we’re going to have to pay – the price we’ve always paid – for liberty.

Bias Much?

I was working in a FEMA office when the first reports of levees breaking in New Orleans came across the wires. Within minutes it seemed that the federal government was useless and the administration incompetent.

Today, five days after Sandy pummeled the East Coast, residents of New York and New Jersey are in almost exactly the same situation, but the media collectively don’t seem to be pounding the same drum.

I’ve certainly got my own view on why the two stories seem to be getting different treatment. I hope there are plenty of people out there in the blogosphere noticing the same thing. And above all, I hope there are readers from coast to coast wondering why one was the “story of the century” and the other doesn’t seem to be getting much more attention than a few “human interest” stories. It would be farcical if the result wasn’t so damned important.