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.

Times change…

Once upon a time a category four bruiser churning up the Gulf would have been just the thing to get my juices flowing.  I’d have had a bag packed a week before the thing even got in sight of landfall. Being seconded over to FEMA during these big storms was one of the few times in my career I could see an immediate impact of whatever I happened to be doing. In retrospect, turning loose a 25-year-old with a blank check and a sense of purpose may not have been the most well thought out idea anyone ever had, but it all seemed to turn out for the best.

Maybe it’s the years I’ve picked up since then… or the deep joy of sleeping in my own bed after not working a fourteen-hour day for the 45th day in a row, but the big storms don’t seem to get my heart rate up anymore. Oh, I’ll still keep an eye on the Weather Channel this week, but that’ll be purely for the fun of armchair quarterbacking how the response is handled – and how we’d have done it better way back when.

If you’d have asked me fifteen years ago what I wanted to do with my time working for Uncle, I’d have immediately said I wanted to live that emergency manager life. Now I’m not sure it would rank in the top twenty answers. At this point, the only things I want to do are those that can be safely bookended in an eight-hour day, with further preference given to those I can accomplish while wearing shorts and fuzzy slippers at the house.

My how times have changed.

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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

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.

Lights out…

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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

IMG_7893.JPG1. 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.

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.