Should’ve known better… 

State and local officials in Florida are catching three kinds of hell for not issuing evacuation orders earlier last week in advance of Hurricane Ian. The buck has to stop somewhere, I suppose, but I’ve got a slightly different take on where that particular responsibility lies. As much as I want to jump aboard the smack Ron DeSantis around train, I’m just not there.

Let’s say for purposes of argument that I’m a resident of Sanibel Island. It’s late September and a large hurricane is gathering strength in in the Caribbean. About the time it has taken a bite out of Cuba and starts tracking towards the west coast of Florida, I’m paying very focused attention and going through my own checklist of what needs to happen before I get the hell out of Dodge. When I’ve completed my personal risk assessment, knowing full well that I’m on a barrier island, there’s limited accessibility under the best conditions, and that the big one could cut off communications, water, electricity, and access to pretty much all modern services. At some point in assessing that reality, I’m going to make the decision to flee or ride it out.

It’s the same thing I do on a different scale when there’s snow falling on a weekday. I know that both routes from the outside world to my little homestead here involve negotiating both up and down hills that tend to ice over and get treacherous after a few inches of snow. Even with 4-wheel drive getting in or out can get a little problematic – more often than not because of other area residents who have already tried and failed to negotiate those trouble spots. That’s why I make my own decision about whether it’s safe to go to the office, whether I need to leave early to head home, or whether it needs to be a working from home kind of day. Waiting around for the bureaucracy to make an official decision just means conditions will already be shit by the time I get on the road, so I take the decision into my own hands – because no one is more concerned about me than I am myself.

The problem we run into is a really an issue of what we mean by “mandatory” evacuation. It’s hard to imagine (or expect) that even in the face of an incredibly destructive hurricane your state or local government is going to walk into your house, physically restrain you, and haul you out of your home against your will. They’ll certainly advise. They’ll caution. They may even warn, but ultimately the go/no-go decision is on your own head. The “I didn’t know it was going to be so bad” excuse only goes so far. Even here in north eastern Maryland plenty of reports were cutting through the static about Ian and all the potential damage he carried along. Living on a barrier island in south Florida during hurricane seasons kind puts a lot of the onus on each individual to have a bit of heightened awareness.

Sure, you’ll tell me that some people had no choice. In every natural disaster there’s always some subset of the impacted population that can’t afford to evacuate, or don’t have a car, or have some other extenuating circumstance. Those don’t seem to be the ones raising three kinds of hell during television interviews or in the print media. Then again, there’s a world of difference between “can’t” evacuate and “won’t” evacuate. For the former, it’s a tragedy. For the latter, it feels a lot more like a case of should’ve known better.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Things from the Before Time. People are returning to the office. What I’ve noticed, particularly among a certain set of semi-senior or management types, is a quiet, unspoken determination to do things the way they were done in the Before Time. There’s a willful effort at suspending disbelief and denying the reality of the Great Plague. The fact that people aren’t quietly going along with their fervent wish to roll the clock back to February 2020 almost hits them as a surprise… as if they want to wish away the fact that over the last 30 months, the people didn’t find a better way to work and arguably a more rewarding way to live. But here they are, shocked and surprised that most of their colleagues aren’t thrilled and excited to commute, spend eight hours a day siting in florescent hell, or pile into a charter bus packed elbow to asshole with 53 of their new closest friends to take a two-hour ride. The powers at echelons higher than reality can make people return to cubicle land, but their expectation that anyone will do it with a smile in their heart is going to be sorely disappointed. 

Hurricane coverage. I’ve never really understood why networks make their anchors stand in the rain looking like drowned rats for their newscast. I know television is a visual medium, but I think everyone watching has had enough experience with rain to know what it looks like when you get caught in a downpour. Sure, show the aftermath. That’s probably newsworthy at some level. During the storm itself, though, there’s honestly just not that much to see that can’t be caught through a window or from under some minimal level of shelter. Sending grown ass adults to stand outside to demonstrate that it’s raining and windy, doesn’t feel particularly useful to my understanding of the coverage.

Being a dollar short and three months late. The plumbing company I had originally planned to use to install and new and improved water filtration system (more than two months ago) called rather sheepishly on Monday morning. The voicemail went a little something like “Oh, hey Mr. Tharp… We, uh, have a plan here for your filter system… We, uh, must have put it in someone else’s file and, uh, wanted to schedule a time to come out and get started on that work.” I appreciate the level of audacity it must take to make that call, particularly after I spent a month calling weekly to see where the plan was and when they were going to get started, before giving up and handing the project to a company that came out, drafted the plan, and did the work all within a week’s time. Mistakes, I’m told, happen. This, however, is one that could have been avoided at any of five or six points along the way if they had responded to a customer’s efforts to make contact. I encourage this company to go, and I can’t emphasize this enough, fuck themselves. 

Ice, gas, and appreciation…

Early last week there was rumbling of an impending ice storm. Having been seasoned by 21 winters in Western Maryland, most versions of frozen precipitation don’t phase me. I mean if I have the option, I don’t want to drive around in any of it, but with snow or sleet, you’d need to see some pretty biblical amounts before I’d be concerned about not being able to get the Jeep through it if I absolutely needed to leave the house for some reason.

Freezing rain, in my estimation, has always been something of a different animal. Good 4-wheel drive and all the torque in the world might let you get going, but with one little slip it’s hard to tell exactly where you might end up. 

Fortunately, my schedule last week called for me to mostly be home, so driving around in anything wasn’t going to be an issue. The catch for me was the propane tank buried in the back yard being only just a hair north of 25% full. Under most circumstances that wouldn’t be low enough to worry about. 100 gallons is plenty to run the furnace and water heater for a good long while. 

What it isn’t enough to do, however, is keep the generator running for more than a day without manually powering it on and off to conserve fuel. The whole point of putting the genny in was to avoid needing to do that sort of thing during a power failure. I want the heat on. I want George’s sun lamps on. I want the well and sump pumps running. I want light in every room. What I told the guy who calculated the size generator I needed was that I wanted to be able to still host Thanksgiving dinner even Delmarva Power suddenly went out of business. 

All the utility cables in my neighborhood are underground. It means we don’t get too many local outages. The outages we do get, though, tend to be because the larger transmission lines stretching through wood and dale have somehow gotten smacked. When they go down, they tend to stay down for half a day or longer.

All of the long power outages I’ve experienced since moving in here have been the result of freezing rain. Since it looked like there was a good chance we’d be getting iced over, I called my propane delivery company hoping they could pull me ahead on the delivery schedule. Sure enough, the next day Tri-Gas and Oil backed up the driveway and pumped off 300 more gallons for me. The ice ended up bypassing us here at Fortress Jeff, but it’s a decided comfort knowing that our local run time is now measured in days rather than in hours.

As much as my teeth grind when it comes time to pay the fuel bill, it’s hard to be too mad at a company that makes an effort to come when you call rather than making excuses about why it’s too hard to do. I appreciate the hell out of them for that.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Right wing outrage. Should the president call a reporter a stupid son of a bitch? Probably not… but watching the right wing clutching their pearls over Joe Biden’s calling out Pete Doocy is the operative definition of a tempest in a teapot, particularly considering Don Trumps regular pronouncements from the podium that the media were collectively “enemies of the state.” The same people fainting from fits of the vapors now are the ones who cheered it on 18 months ago. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I don’t pretend their outrage is in any way sincere or worthy of consideration. A president should be above such comments (in public at least). Joe Biden recognized this and personally apologized, which is something his predecessor never had the personal fortitude or desire to do.

2. Sleep. Whatever I’ve been getting between the hours of 10:00 PM and 4:30 AM these last couple of days is probably technically sleep, but it hasn’t been restful. I know this from how many twists the sheets and covers have in them by the time I wake up. I’m not known for having the sunniest of dispositions on my better days, so I’ll leave you to imagine the full foulness of my mood just now. 

3. The weather. For the last four or five days, the possibility of a “winter weather event” has been tracked by the local professional (and amateur) forecasters. I’ve seen regional predictions of everything from just some wind to 30 inches of snow within an hour’s drive of where I sit writing this. Some have opted to make no prediction at all, continuing to report that they’re monitoring possible adverse weather. Hey, look, the atmosphere is the very definition of a dynamic system. It’s complicated… but this deep into the 21st century it feels like we should have a pretty good grasp on what the prevailing conditions will be a scant 24-36 hours into the future.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The office. Days I have to schlep over to the actual office to do things I’ve been successfully doing from my living room for a year are annoying. And not just for the usual reasons surrounding spending a day locked in cubicle hell. A not minor part of the annoyance package on those days is the fact that right out of the gate it means I’m losing 80-90 minutes of quality reading time just to get over there. It just adds insult to injury.

2. Emotional responses. It seems that Ted Cruz flew to Cancun while the power was out in Texas. Sure, the optics aren’t ideal, but if Ted stayed in Texas, do you really think he’d be sitting in the dark just waiting for the lights to come back on? Unless your senator moonlights as a power plant operator, electric lineman, oil well repairman, or LP gas tanker captain, there’s very little role for him beyond making phone calls and prodding the people who run the grid to get their act together, which could be done from Houston, Washington, Cancun, or the International Space Station. Honestly the last thing anyone needs in a disaster situation is one more politician wandering around getting in the way of emergency responders. Having worked a fair amount of my early career in emergency management, I can’t remember a single thing that was improved when the politicians showed up in the room for their photo op. 

3. Prediction. Let me start by saying that I recognize that “the weather” is a ludicrously complicated system. Predicting how it’s going to behave at one particular spot on the globe at any given time involves huge assumptions and massive amounts of computing power. With that said, three weeks ago the experts were calling for 4-6 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Last week the experts called for 4-8 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Today, the experts called for another 4-8 inches of snow. Thus far, the results have been less than an inch of sleet, freezing rain, and snow. I’m not saying the daily weather forecast is absolute hokum, but maybe instead of trying to project exact details, we focus more on whether the storm will produce liquid or frozen precipitation and leave it at that since nailing the details seems awfully problematic.

Lessons from Texas…

There are lots of lessons about the debacle of the Texas electric grid.

The biggest, for me at least, is the confirmation that energy independence isn’t just about making the fuel we consume right here in the good ol’ U S of A, but also in having a bare minimum ability to produce some power or heat separate and apart from whatever grid happens to service your region.

For the average homeowner or renter, even a tiny, portable generator could power a modest electric heater – enough to keep a room warm and a lamp on as a shelter of last resort. For an apartment dweller the calculus is a bit different. Even so, there are indoor use options powered by propane or denatured alcohol that would provide welcome heating in a survival situation. The catch to all of those alternatives, though, if you need to have thought them through a bit before the “oh shit” moment arrives.

I’ll be the first to tell you that even the best generators aren’t foolproof. They need regular service and rely on a steady supply of your fuel of choice. Here at Fortress Jeff, that fuel source is a 500 gallon propane tank buried in the backyard. At best, on the day it’s filled, that tank will contain 400 gallons of propane – or a little more than six days of 24/7 run time for the average sized generator. Since most days that tank is sitting somewhere between full and “empty,” I work from the assumption that I can keep things fully up and running for half that time and maybe even less since the water heater and furnace both draw from the same tank. If it looks like a long duration outage, off and on cycling will buy me a few more days of keeping the place at least habitable.

Beyond that point, we’re at the mercy of the delivery service and the expectation that both the generator and HVAC systems keep working as advertised. That is to say, it’s not a zero risk plan that I put together. There are certainly scenarios where a deep snow or ice, and downed trees could prevent delivery or repair should an event drag into multiple days or some component fail. I assess the relative risk of that happening as being fairly low based on the historical record for the geographic area I currently occupy.

Even feeling fairly secure in my ability to operate independently from the grid for days if necessary, when the time comes to replace the current 21 years old tank, I’m planning to upgrade to a 1000 gallon model. When it comes to fuel on hand, I firmly believe the old logistician’s motto that “more is better.” On days I’m feeling particularly aggressive about my own personal energy independence, the thought of adding a wood stove also sounds awfully appealing. Without a fireplace of any kind in the house, it’s more of an undertaking than I’d really like to get involved with just now, but it’s on the radar for sure.

As for Texas, well, it’s just one more reminder than when shit really gets dicey, you’d better have a plan to get yourself through the worst of it, because the cavalry isn’t always going to ride over the hill and rescue you in the nick of time.

Vestigial snow day…

The home office over in Aberdeen was closed today to all but “essential” business. What essential means, of course, has never been described the same way twice in the nine years I’ve been working there. Every winter they try out two or three new definitions that never quite seem to stick.

Technically today was a “snow day,” one of those random, unexpected, weather related holidays that are scattered about the yearly calendar like birdshot. Snow days in the plague era ain’t what they use to be. Honestly, if it weren’t for the occasional pitter patter of sleet falling on the skylights, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between today and any other Monday over the last ten months. 

Losing the traditional snow day has always been the bitter catch of having a telework agreement. It’s still a trade I’ve always considered well worth making, but sitting looking at the snow-covered woods, I have to admit that I miss the old ways just a little bit on days like this. 

Before the plague, these working snow days were mostly alright. There were so few of us with agreements stipulating that we’d work through adverse weather that it mostly felt like a real snow day interrupted by an occasional email. It might have been an official work day on the books, but when the boss isn’t around to assign work and everyone you need to talk to in order to get anything done is “on holiday,” not much real work was happening anyway. 

Now that the vast majority of us are “telework ready” to cope with the plague, of course, it’s a brave new world. I like to think the ability to have the whole mass of us “work through the storm,” would be major points in favor of a greatly liberalized telework program… but I’m in no way expecting that to be the case. The opposite, reconsolidating central control and management, is always the more likely course of action. 

In any case, I’ve enjoyed my vestigial snow day and would happily welcome more of them.

Who failed who?

I’ve had a Jeep in my garage for a pretty sizable part of my adult life. The one constant in all that time is that wherever I pointed my tires, it went without complaint. Snow, mud, washed out roads, none of them ever required more than maybe shifting from high range to low.

This past Friday morning, for the first time, I pointed the Jeep’s nose in the direction of an obstacle it couldn’t surmount. Of the two ways out of the neighborhood, the one I most commonly follow involves a quick right turn directly up a short, but steep hill. This hill, on the day in question, was, at least partially, a sheet of ice. 

All other things being equal, I’d have been sorely tempted to put her in 4-low and crawl up and over this stretch of ice. Such is my confidence in the Jeep’s almost universal sure-footedness. The hill, though, had already claimed at least two vehicles in their attempt to reach the promise of flat ground and dry pavement at the top. One was tantalizingly close to the top, though stuck awkwardly sideways straddling a travel lane and the ditch. The other was stopped dead on the steepest portion of the hill, the driver seemingly unsure how to extract themself from the situation.

As sure as I’m sitting here typing, I believe the Jeep could have carried the hill – although that would have meant swinging into the oncoming traffic lane and putting her perilously close to the two earlier vehicles who’d blown their chance. The margin of error would have been measured somewhere between inches and feet. 

I decided the better part of valor was looking for an alternate route, which involved an extra twenty minutes and two more bits of backtracking before finding a path that hadn’t already claimed victims that morning.

I’ll never know for sure if the Jeep failed me or I failed the Jeep. In my overabundance of caution, it feels a lot like the latter.

Bookshelves and gin…

The wind is absolutely screaming through my woods this morning. The sky is the kind of blue you only find on fall mornings and the sun, after days of gray overcast, is dazzling. It would be a beautiful day, but that wind, though. 

The wind is the game changer for today. I’d planned on trekking south through the plague lands to secure the first couple of bookcases I need to start the long toyed-with idea of bastardizing the formal dining room into a proper library that just happens to have a dining table in it. Getting the bookcases here today was prelude to moving other furniture, doing assembly, and starting to reorient the room next week during another long stretch of days off. 

I’ve got about a year’s worth of open shelf space with my current set up. That’s room for about 60 mid-sized books. Although the shelves have been filling faster than normal thanks to the Great Plague leaving loads of extra time for reading. I don’t quite need the extra shelf space yet, but I’ll need it soon enough. 

I want to get the new flat packs on hand and ready mostly to ensure I’d have something to do during the coming nine-day weekend. I’m also enough of a forward looker to see that there’s a time in the not too distant future when I might not be able to get them in a timely manner. A time when we could find ourselves once again faced with the closure of all but essential businesses. It’s not far from the realm of the possible that we’ll follow Europe’s lead in the fall and winter as we did this past spring. I’m increasingly a fan of having anything I might need already on hand instead of hoping a beleaguered supply chain can keep up.

The wind itself isn’t the problem with today’s plan. The issue really is not wanting to find myself on the wrong side of the Susquehanna during a “wind event.” Should the windspeed touch the numbers that trigger restrictions or a closure there’s simply no good way to get back from the other side of the river. Driving deep into Pennsylvania to find a low bridge crossing simply isn’t part of today’s plan. Better to let the wind blow itself out and try again tomorrow.

It’s election eve here in America anyway. I have enough of almost everything to ride out the election and its aftermath in comfort, but I find I’m running dangerously low on good gin. Today I’ll focus on correcting that shortcoming and get back to my relentless pursuit of more bookcases tomorrow while everyone else is holding their breath. At least this way I’ll be putting both vacation days to good use.

A minor concession…

Today was the first of many concessions made to the changing season. Putting on jeans instead of shorts isn’t exactly abject surrender, but it does mark the day as the tipping point of the long slide into hibernation weather.

I’m ready for a bit of a break from schlepping hoses all over the yard, keeping the grass in check, and keeping up with the long list of other items on the summer maintenance list. Even though I’ve largely been home this summer, the indoor “stuff” always takes a back seat when it’s nice enough to be outside. With the extra traffic in here for the last six months it’s probably well past time to shift focus.

I’ll be in love with these days of coffee on the porch during these increasingly crisp morning… right up to the point where crisp gives way to cold. After that, of course, I’ll spend a few months pondering the virtue of those creatures that head south for the winter.

For now, I’ll appreciate the minor concessions… and hope that we catch a last few days of Indian summer in the coming weeks that will make such minor concessions briefly unnecessary.