Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Glamorous World of the Disaster Relief Worker

Yup. Media attention. Dining with celebrities at the best places. You know – the fun stuff.


To update our tales a bit, Deb and I dashed from Jacksonville, FL to New Orleans, LA in order to work Hurricane Gustav. Upon our arrival in Louisiana we were immediately shanghaied for an assignment other than what we trained for during the last year or so.

Rather than doing housing inspections – which is what we had expected to do – we’ve been registering folks for FEMA assistance. A job’s a job and one has to go where there is a need, right?

Deb got immediately sent to a Red Cross shelter in one of the southernmost and hardest hit areas of Louisiana. She wound up spending the first night sleeping in her car.

I got sent to another Red Cross shelter, which meant that I got to crawl back to the RV and at least got to sleep in my own bed at night.

The next day I managed to swap assignments and took some clothing down to Deb. She and I would continue to work together in that Red Cross shelter, commuting to and from New Orleans, until the end of the week when high winds and rising waters from Hurricane Ike drove us out.
With “intake” work in Louisiana at an end we turned in our registration computers and picked up inspectors’ touch screen tablet computers. We were ready to rock and roll! Oh, and there was a show of hands to see who was foolish enough to volunteer to go to Texas if there was a need. Deb and I both volunteered. Big deal, we thought.

The next morning we were told to stand by to go to Texas.

And to stand by.

And to stand by some more.

The second day we were told that we should expect an official announcement in “about” 30 minutes.

Finally, a number of hours later, we were excitedly given the word to head to Texas ASAP and the new command center in Sugarland, TX. The team manager made that call from the road – he was already in transit. Of course, by then it was almost dark and there didn’t seem like a lot of sense in leaving New Orleans in the middle of the night in a motor home.

So we loaded the Land Rover on the trailer and got everything ready for an early AM departure. Deb and a friend drove their cars to Texas in a mini-caravan, leaving at 4AM. Yours Truly left at sunup and headed west.

Let me tell you that driving a motor home/bus is a lot slower and a lot more tiring than driving an auto. Particularly through Louisiana, where the roads are notoriously bad, and the traffic into Houston was very heavy as folks were returning from an evacuation due to Hurricane Ike.
Deb drove to the Houston center and picked up our new registration computers. Not one computer this time, but a pair for each of us.

And she got our assignments, which were to go to Austin, TX immediately.

Houston in general and eastern Texas in particular looked pretty hard hit from Hurricane Ike. Truckers were saying on the radio that it was wise to fuel up in Louisiana. There were few restaurants or other services open on I-10 and the few places that were open were very crowded.

I drove on through Houston and met up with Deb in a small Texas town in the boondocks somewhere off of the Interstate . The town consisted of a bar-b-que restaurant, two small truck stops, and I managed to get the satellite antenna set up. Ye-hah!

A few hours of sleep and we were back on the road. Deb ran into Austin and went around to several Red Cross shelters to see if there was a need for our services, and ol’ John found an RV park nearby, unloaded the Land Rover, and tracked Deb down.

We settled in a shelter in Austin but advised our management that buses were already taking the affected back to Houston, and that we were likely needed elsewhere. So on the second day, at around 1PM, the word came down. And you guessed it: load up and head to Houston.
So it was back on the road and head to a KOA (Kampgrounds of America) in Houston that had neither electrical power nor running water. We pulled in well after dark.

When we signed up for this work we agreed to commit to a 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 3 weeks schedule. The day that we left Austin for Houston ol’ John logged a 14 hour workday.
Since then we have been staying on the northern side of Houston and commuting to an airbase on the southern side of town every day. We expect this to continue for another day or two. The power came back on at the campground a few days ago (until then we were running our generator at night). The frickin’ mosquitoes at the park at night are unreal. We are literally the first to arrive in the morning and among the last to leave in the evening, and are logging 13.5 hour days, including our commuting times.

We’ve experienced unreal bugs (trust me, the Louisiana black flies would have eaten those Texas mosquitoes for lunch), torrential rain, dust, heat, cold (“Can’t anyone turn down the f’ing air conditioning?”), lack of sleep, lousy food (try eating shelter MRE’s, or meals-ready-to-eat, for a few days in a row), high winds, REALLY scary tall bridges, high winds combined with scary tall bridges, run out of smokes, run out of money (there were some payroll screw-up’s – thankfully generally resolved this morning), come down with summer colds (I always seem to be among the first to catch colds but on this assignment EVERYONE on our team came down with a cold), and met our share of humanity that were getting on our nerves.

At the same time we have experienced some of the best of humanity under some really trying circumstances. We have been hanging with folks from Louisiana and Texas who have lost their homes or who could not return to their homes because of mandatory evacuations, and by and large there is a certain dignity that I wish that I saw more of elsewhere. Like online, but that’s beside the point.

And despite some of the moaning and bitchin’ I see a lot of folks, from FEMA and from other organizations, doing their best to bring help to people as quickly as possible. Yes, there are shortages and yes, there were some miscalculations. But everyone in the field is working long hours to bring as much help to as many people as possible. Prima donnas are few and far between.

All in all, this has been a great experience. While Ike and Gustav have broken a lot of hearts, it’s great to see good people pulling together to get back on their feet.

And those celebrities and good meals?

So far the politicians haven’t shown up although there have been rumors.

And the media is banned from the shelters for privacy reasons. So other than a reporter or two in the parking lot, we see them but NEVER talk to them.

And fine dining? Deb and I make a habit of eating well each night if possible. After all, hitting the restaurants is about the only break that we get. In New Orleans we were fortunate enough to be able to have some great meals in the French Quarter. But trust me; if you’ve been eating the infamous shelter MRE’s on a regular basis then you begin to have renewed sympathy for anyone stuck in a disaster relief shelter. As a little lady in Louisiana whispered to me in warning about the MREs, “Don’t touch the chewing gum – that’s a laxative.” That pretty well sums up the ups and downs of disaster relief work – at least the food is free, even if the contents are a bit of a mystery.

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