Monday, October 23, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 4)

[Note: Reminder that we're trying to raise $5,000 for Team Rubicon's continuing good works, and we're a few thousand short. Please click here to donate, and remember that TR is a 501(c)(3) charity that qualifies for most companies' matching contribution programs.]

It's taken me a while to write this next piece. It's partially laziness, but it's mostly because this day, our second in the field, was emotionally wrenching for me and it's been difficult to revisit it. My apologies for taking so long.

At the end of my last post, we had just finished our first day in the field. I haven't talked much about the facilities, other than to mention sleeping dormitory-style, and this deserves a mention. We were housed in the Calvary Baptist Church, which had become the de facto headquarters for hurricane relief in Beaumont, TX. The church pretty much turned the entire facility, which encompassed a number of buildings on about three acres, over to relief agencies, particularly Team Rubicon. But they didn't just hand us the property - they were right there with us, working side-by-side. I mentioned cooking, shower and laundry facilities that various other Baptist ministries had contributed - the staff of this church, along with many others, also operated those facilities. 

For example, at the end of each day, we were all entirely soaked through. Both Sharon and I had packed very judiciously, since we had to be able to travel with everything we owned in our backpacks. This means that we didn't bring a week's worth of underwear and socks. Fortunately, one of the church teams ran a laundry facility in the parking lot. At the end of each exhausting day, I went to the shower facility, peeled off layers of drenched clothing and put them in a bag. After showering, I dropped them off at the laundry, which was conveniently located right next to the showers. By the next afternoon, they were returned, cleaned and folded. There were four relief workers doing laundry for about 120 people every day, and they did it efficiently and with smiles on their faces. And remember that they were washing clothes that had pretty much every awful thing you can imagine on them, from mold to Ebola. OK, maybe not Ebola, but you get the idea.

At the end of our first day in the field, we previewed the house we would work on the following day. The homeowners had set up some folding tables just outside their garage, where they were sorting through the very small amount of their belongings that were salvageable. The wife, who I'll call Helen, was a delightful, funny woman of about 75 years who insisted on hugging each of us when we arrived. I should note here that each of us had been mucking out a different house, in 90° heat and 90% humidity, for the previous 8 hours. I found it hard enough simply being in my own body, smelling the way I did, but Helen didn't care a whit. We had done nothing yet, but she couldn't stop telling us how grateful she was that (1) she and her husband David were still alive and (2) we were there to help. 

We spent only about two hours at her house that day. The house was a relatively small one-story with a recently-renovated kitchen and a massively-equipped workshop in the garage. This neighborhood was one of the unfortunate ones that was the victim of intentional flooding - the Army Corp of Engineers determined that they needed to release water from nearby Steinhagen Lake to prevent catastrophic damage to the dams. We quickly realized that this house had been almost completely submerged as a result. We spent most of our time organizing and planning a strategy for removing the remaining furniture and stripping the rest of the interior. We assured Helen and David that we would return bright and early the following morning, and headed back to our FOB (forward operating base).

Closing out each day was more than just a matter of returning a truck. We made a pretty massive mess of everything we worked with - trucks, equipment and people - and in military fashion, the day wasn't over until everything was in pristene condition for the next day. When we returned to the FOB, we removed all of our considerable equipment from the truck and power-washed both the equipment and the truck. We then power-washed and disinfected everyone's boots, which were left outside to dry, and headed for the aforementioned showers.

I mentioned in Part 3 that each day ended with a debriefing and campfire. This took place after dinner, which was typically a high-carbohydrate, mass-produced meal. There were a handful of fast-food places nearby that had reopened (at this point, 11 days after the waters receded, only about 25% of businesses were open), but no one had the energy to do much of anything but drag ourselves to dinner and the debrief.

The daily debriefing consisted mostly of our command updating us on our progess thus far - how many homes we had worked on, how many our assessment teams had evaluated and what was expected for the following day. Staff provided a small amount of beer, rationing everyone to two beers maximum. At the end of the debrief, our unit commander said, "Tell me a story." After a long pause, someone raised a hand, which opened the floodgates. For the next 90 minutes, many of my co-volunteers told stories of destruction and hope. As exhausted as I was, I still wanted to hear every single one. When we ran out of stories, Sharon and I dragged ourselves up to our cots. I looked at my phone and realized that it was 9.15pm. I'm pretty sure the last time I went to sleep at 9.15pm was never; Sharon agreed.

The next morning came far too quickly for all of us. We were all up by 6.15am - since about 50 of us were sharing 3 sinks, we needed plenty of time so we could get on the road by 7.30am. I had awakened at around 3 convinced that I would have to take the day off - my shoulder, which has been a lifetime problem, was in very bad shape as a result of my holding a 10 lb. crowbar over my head for 8 hours. But by 6 I was OK, so I took some ibuprofen and decided I could at least make it until lunch.

After some surprisingly good sausage and biscuits and a half-gallon of coffee, I was ready to get moving. Team Charlie piled into our truck and drove the 10 minutes to Helen and David's house, who were waiting for us along with their daughter. "What do y'all feel like for lunch today?" she asked. I told her that we had brought lunch along, and she asked what we had. "Mostly military MREs, and some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," I responded. She made a little motion with her hand, as though she were gently brushing the MREs off her work table. "We'd like to buy you lunch. What do you want?" There was some discussion, but no one wanted to volunteer an idea. Helen knew I used to live in Houston, and asked me what my favorite fast food was when I lived there. Before I could stop the words from escaping, "Church's fried chicken!" came out. Helen nodded and said that was also her favorite, especially with the squeeze of jalapeno juice (if you've had Church's, you know what I mean).

The first two hours consisted of deciding exactly how much of the sheetrock we needed to remove. After some debate, we decided that cutting the sheetrock didn't make much sense - the room that fared the best had water damage up to 7 feet. We decided to strip the whole house, except for the ceilings, down to the studs.

One of the other volunteers and I decided to take on the kitchen. Everything needed to go, including built-in cabinets and all of the appliances. Most of it was awful but pretty straightforward until we got to the range. We muscled it out away from the wall, no simple feat as it was shockingly heavy. But we got it positioned to move, and I got a hand cart from the truck. We slid it into place. I was pretty sure I could handle the weight, but one of the other volunteers came over to help. My work partner gave us a little boost and we tilted the range back onto the hand cart.

This was when we learned why the range was so heavy. It was an almost-new Kenmore range/oven combination, and apparently one of its features is its airtight seal. Water had somehow gotten into the oven opening and was unable to escape. In the next few seconds, my helper and I were drenched from the chest down with two-week-old dirty flood water. The smell was indescribable - I was sure something had died in that oven. Unfortunately, there was really nothing we could do at that point other than return to base for a change of clothes, which we opted not to do. We already smelled pretty bad; how much worse would another hew hours be?

We moved along to the cabinets, which were an experience in themselves for a different reason. Helen had several drawers in the kitchen that contained photos, documents and bundles of letters. These were almost all beyond salvage, but we took our time and went through everything to see if there were anything worth keeping. We did find a few things, and both Helen and David treated each like Christmas gifts. I found it hard to understand how they could keep a positive outlook when they had lost almost everything. Helen explained it very simply: "We already thought everything was gone. Anything you find is a gift."

Next: It finally all gets to me.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 3)

[Note: Reminder that we're trying to raise $5,000 for Team Rubicon's continuing good works. Click here to donate, and remember that TR is a 501(c)(3) charity that qualifies for most companies' matching contribution programs.]

Our first day in the field was Sunday, September 10. I had a pretty terrible night's sleep. I'm spoiled - I am accustomed to sleeping in a king-size, soft bed with Sharon, a pillow and some dogs. I woke about every hour or so, owing to nothing in particular except the fact that I was sleeping on an army cot in a sleeping bag in a huge room with 25 other people, most of whom snored. The snoring itself didn't bother me all that much - I usually wear earphones - but when you've already been awakened and are pretty sure there's no more sleep in store for you, snoring is just one more thing.

We had been told in our briefing the previous night that breakfast was served beginning at 6.00am, and that we had a mandatory morning briefing at 7.30am. I had unnecessarily set the alarm on my phone for 6.00am. When it went off, I was already awake and considered briefly letting Sharon sleep for a bit longer, but then realized that she was awake and reading. We both did an awkward in-sleeping-bag shuffle to put underwear and pants on. This is funny to look back on now, as five days' hence we pretty much just jumped out of bed with no regard for who was looking (which was no one). By 6.30am, we had our gear on and were, more or less, ready to greet day 1.

We left the building that served as our dormitory and walked to the hastily-constructed chow hall, which serves as a basketball court in brighter days. We hadn't really noticed the night before, but there were no less than 20 trailers spotted around the parking lot. The vast majority were emblazoned with other church organizations' logos (the Chicago Baptist Ministry, the Baptist Ministry of Alabama and the Southern Baptist Convention are three I recall). These were dedicated disaster relief trailers of one sort or another. Over the next week, I learned that two of these were shower facilities (one had eiight showers, one had four), several housed cooking facilities for large groups and one contained washers and dryers. At least five others held field equipment, water and food.

We got styrofoam box trays (so we could take food with us if needed) and lined up. The first day's breakfast was Southern standard - biscuits, gravy, sausage and cheesy grits. This was an ongoing theme - breakfasts were heavily carb-laden. We found a few people we had met the night before, wolfed down food, orange juice and coffee with them and made our way back over to the arena where the prior night's briefing had taken place. The morning briefing was much more structured than the prior night's - each key department (planning, logistics, safety, equipment) reported on their status and each had their own first-timer lecture (more than half of us were first-time TR volunteers). They stressed that we were heading for an eye-opening experience, and that safety was paramount. 

We divided into six strike teams of six people each. The strike teams are the groups that actually do the physical labor in the field - the rest of the team is there to support the strike teams. Sharon was assigned to Strike Team Delta; I was on Team Charlie. We found our assigned Ford F-250, which was already fully loaded with our gear for the day - tools of various kinds, safety gear, wheelbarrows and hand carts. We drove around to the food supply truck, where we picked up lunch for the group - this day, lunch was an assortment of sandwiches plus a mind-boggling array of chips, energy bars, nuts, fruit, gum, cookies and, incomprehensibly, chocolate bars (remember we're in east Texas in early September - daytime temperatures are high 80s to mid 90s). We also loaded 120 water bottles and 40 bottles of Gatorade. I incorrectly believed that this was about twice what we needed - we ran out before day's end.

The teams piled into the trucks and took off for our first house. For the first four miles or so, things really didn't look all that bad. There was a lot of debris on the road, but it wasn't until we got off the main highways that we began to get some sense of just how tragic the situation was. Here's an example of a very typical house in Bevil Oaks, a little town abutting Beaumont on the east. [Note: we were told on several occasions each day that we weren't 'disaster tourists,' and were cautioned against taking photos and putting them on social media, making a terrible problem even worse. This is one of only a small number I took, and in each case I got permission from the owners after agreeing to remove anything that might identify them.]
One of hundreds of piles we saw in front of almost all houses.
Most of this pile is in a drainage culvert that you can't see in this picture, so it actually represents a pile about eight feet high. Nothing that you see here is salvageable. Just to be clear - in this neighborhood, every single house had a pile at least this big in front of it. Well, that's not entirely true - some of the residents hadn't returned yet, so relief crews hadn't processed them yet. 

We arrived at our first house just before 8.00am. The house was in what used to be a lovely neighborhood, with almost every home sitting on a half-acre or more of dense woods. From the outside, if you ignored the mountain of furniture, appliances and personal goods, it looked pretty much like a house. It wasn't until we got inside that we had our first look at the real disaster Harvey had wreaked.


The house was a two-story, somewhat unusual for east Texas, with living areas and bedrooms downstairs and the kitchen, dining room and master upstairs. The homeowners, a Beaumont police officer, his wife and two children, had taken much of the moveable stuff out to the street already. This included wall-to-wall carpet that they had cut into small pieces because it was all still drenched, moldy and too heavy to carry in larger pieces. 

I should note here that the worst of the hurricane had passed nine days earlier, but the water was so high in many areas that residents couldn't return for as long as two weeks. This was one of those homes - it had taken on six feet of water and then stewed in 90° heat and 100% humidity for seven days. The stench was hard to describe, and I won't try. We all knew there was bad stuff in the air.

Our strike team leader collected us outside and gave us a rundown of what he believed we could accomplish. Since the homeowners had already do a lot of the work, most of our job was to get the house to the point where, once everything dried out, construction could start. Since this place had been under so much water, the assessment team (who precedes us at every house - more on this later) determined that we needed to strip the ground floor down to the studs up to a height of 6.5 feet. We broke into two-person teams, and I got my first lesson in demolition - the gentle art of removing sopping wet drywall in as few pieces as possible.

I say this last somewhat facetiously, but there is in fact an art to this process. One of our team leads came through the house with a Sawzall (if you don't know what this is but like destroying things, I suggest you buy one right now) and cut the sheetrock at 6.5'. This allowed us to come through with prybars and gently pull the sheetrock away from the wall. In many cases, the sheetrock was still so drenched that it was impossible to remove it in pieces bigger than about a foot square. But we did find at least a few spots where, with the proper soft touch, we were able to remove drywall segments almost intact. It became a sort of game, albeit one that was highly frustrating most of the time.

The foundation of the house, like most in Texas, is a slab of concrete. Drywall is really just gypsum plaster between sheets of paper. In very little time, every room we were in developed a dangerously slippery coating of wet plaster, requiring us to stop and scrape the floors every few minutes to prevent falls. We began to realize that the way we were organized was actually standing in the way of getting the job done, so we switched to 3-person teams. This allowed us to assign one person to scrape up the wet plaster while the other two took down the drywall. We each found at the end of the day that we were about 1" taller, owing entirely to the collected, hardened plaster on our work boots.

Since the damage in this house was limited to less than half of the living space (because of the second story and the garage), things moved along pretty quickly. We had found black mold in several of the walls, so everyone on the team wore masks - this in addition to work pants, hardhats, rubber gloves and work gloves. The result was that we were all literally soaked through with perspiration, in addition to the various other liquids we slogged through or had splashed on us. We stopped every 30 minutes or so to chug water or Gatorade. 

We began to see something that took us by surprise. On a regular basis, someone would drive by - sometimes the Red Cross, sometimes church volunteers, sometimes just neighbors - and ask if we were hungry. Inevitably, someone said yes, and we were treated to fried chicken, cold cut sandwiches, sometimes just fruit or cookies. The last time this happened on this first day, it was a neighbor who had gone to a relief center set up by his church and had taken too many sandwiches. He dropped off the five he knew he couldn't eat.

I thought this first house was pretty grim. The mother had collected Christmas ornaments all her life, and about 90% of them were ruined. Not gone, mind you - that would have been easier. They were there, and in some cases intact, but were covered in mold and other unmentionable stuff. I found a box in a closet crawlspace, and when I opened it I found about fifty of those old yellow Kodak photograph folders. There were about a thousand photos in the box. I found one of the kids (they were teenagers) and suggested that he separate as many as he could before they dried together. By the time we were ready to leave, he had rescued a few dozen; my guess is that about 10% of them could be saved.

By about 3.00pm, we had done all we could. We pulled our equipment outside and back to the truck, loaded up and each guzzled another water before heading out. The homeowners came out to thank us. Our team leader mentioned that their house was unusually well-constructed (more on this later, also - we got to see a lot of the shortcuts that unscrupulous builders take), and that this meant that rebuilding was entirely reasonable. They were surprised - they had been under the impression that they would need to get lucky not to have to tear it down. 

We decided to do a quick preview of our next house - we knew we couldn't get anything substantial done in the two hours we had left. What I said before about this first house being grim was wrong. The first house had minor damage compared to the next one, which had been almost completely submerged. We also met the homeowners, two of the most delightful and unique people I've ever met. Much more on them in the next entry.

We dragged out a few of the larger items and then needed to pack up to get back in time for dinner and our evening briefing. Once we returned, we power-washed every piece of equipment, inventoried it, washed out the truck, scraped plaster off our boots, were sprayed with disinfectant and were then off to the showers. I can honestly say that I have never had a more satisfying shower, despite it being five minutes' duration and mostly cold. 

The rest of the evening consisted of an unmemorable but welcome dinner, followed by an evening debriefing around a small campfire. Once business was done, the Beer Flag was raised, meaning that we could each partake of our allotment of two beers. There's more to tell on this topic, but I am nearly as exhausted telling this story as I was working this day, so it will wait until the next entry.

Next up: The worst of times, and the best of people.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 2)

[Note 1: This post will make a lot more sense if you read Part 1 first.]
[Note 2: Team Rubicon could really use your help to keep doing good works. Please consider donating to our Team Rubicon fundraising page.]

It's 4.15am on Saturday, September 9. If you've ever met either Sharon or me, you know that 4.15am is a time for going to sleep, not one for waking up. The absurd hour is made considerably worse by our having had a few too many drinks with our closest friends the night before.

My phone alarm pipes up with a gentle yet profoundly annoying four bars of jazz music. Sharon hates this ringtone, and frankly I don't care much for it either, so it makes for an effective awakening. I snooze it for five minutes and prod Sharon gently. She mumbles something that sounded like "luck cough." I may have heard this incorrectly.

We're at the Crowne Plaza at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). While absolutely nothing, either in the hotel or nearby, is open at this unseemly hour, our room comes equipped with a coffee machine of sorts and Pike Place blend. I drag my entirely unprepared 62-year-old self out of bed, put coffee on, perform my morning ablutions and start to get organized. Fortunately, we had done most of the organizing yesterday, so this consists mostly of making sure I haven't dropped anything. 

The smell of coffee rouses Sharon slightly. "Dime zit" probably means "What time is it?" to which I respond, "It's twenty after four." This was followed by more incomprehensible likely obscenities, which I opt not to attempt to translate. Sharon stumbles to the bathroom. I turn on the lights, since even the sun has the good sense not to make an appearance yet.

After our excursions to REI, et al, on Thursday, Sharon and I washed all of our new gear and packed our full camping packs and day packs. We were, in fact, ready to go on Friday afternoon, which is more than I can say for us in our current state. We are supposed to meet up with other Team Rubicon members at 5.00am at the Team Rubicon headquarters, which is less than a block from the hotel (and also less than a block from the building in which I worked from 1988-1992, but that's another story). 

Once we've each had a cup of coffee, we're more or less functional. We strap on our camping packs, which turn out to be considerably more unwieldy than expected, especially for me. After a few minutes of strapping and restrapping some of the several thousand straps, catches, ropes and fasteners on this highly complex piece of equipment, Sharon points out that my pack has a waist strap. This makes all the difference, and I go from a 105° angle to nearly perpendicular with the ground. We both totter a bit on the way to the elevator, but by the time we reach the lobby we're relatively stable.

The Team Rubicon office is as close as advertised, although it isn't terribly obvious where it is. We stand on Century Boulevard, in the dark, looking a little confused at not seeing a sign that said 6171, when some people working on a nearby construction site ask if we needed help. They tell us that the TR offices are right where we are standing, more or less, and point us to a side entrance. A few people with similar packs are just emerging, and they point us around the corner to the spot where we are to be picked up. A few minutes later, a shuttle bus arrives. We stow our gear and hop aboard. 

The bus takes us to the American Airlines terminal at LAX, which is unsurprisingly abandoned at this early hour. American has already ticketed all of us for the charter, and their staff people wander through our group, asking for identification and providing us with tickets. They gather us together, show us where to check our luggage (with a counter dedicated to us, a nice touch even though there are exactly zero other travelers) and pack us off to security. We pass through without incident, and are delighted to discover that Starbucks is open. 300mg of caffeine later, we are as ready as we're going to be.
Just in case you are unclear on Sharon's feelings about our 4.15am wakeup call.
The next few hours are uneventful. As it turns out, our flight isn't scheduled to depart until 9.00am; the 5.00am meet time is fairly typical military planning. We drink coffee, find a place that is open for breakfast, meet a few people and even doze off for a few minutes. We weren't sure exactly what was going to be happening when we arrived, so we wore our work gear, plus our brand-new Team Rubicon shirts.
They will never look like this again.
We depart promptly at 9.00am. Once we reach altitude, the captain comes on, but doesn't deliver the typical "We know you have choices, thanks for flying American" blah blah. Instead, he thanks us profusely for taking time out of our schedules to help with the disaster in Houston. He then tells us that his wife is an elementary school teacher who has told her class about Team Rubicon's mission, and that her husband is flying the first-ever Team Rubicon charter. The class of 6- and 7-year-olds decided to make cards to send along with the pilot.



I've gotten something in my eye that I'm having some trouble dealing with. I look around and realize it's not just me. Even the normally stoic Sharon chokes up a little. One after another, these little gems circulate, each one different and each one very personal.

The next few hours pass uneventfully. At one point, our Incident Commander (the big boss), Mike, reads off names of who is going where once we land. We learn that Sharon has been assigned to Friendswood, a city about 30 miles south of Houston, and I have been assigned to Beaumont, a city about 90 miles east (near the Louisiana border). We mention this to Mike, who doesn't ask what our preference is - he just says, "Handled."

We both nod off, and at around 2.30pm Central Daylight Time we land in Houston. After some taxiing delays and a few publicity shots (there was a local news crew and a 60 Minutes crew awaiting us), we are loaded on a bus and taken to a hangar that has been donated by Southwest Airlines. 

Team Rubicon's first charter
We are surprised and delighted to find a crew of kids from a local church there to greet us with cheers and signs. We unload our gear and file into the hangar, and learn to our delight that this group of kids (with some help, presumably) have packed a few hundred sack lunches of chicken and burgers. We each grab one.
The welcoming committee.
We're asked to check in at the desk for the area to which we've been assigned. Sharon goes to the Friendswood desk, I head for the Beaumont desk. We quickly learn that, just as Mike said, our issue had been handled - we were both assigned to Beaumont.

The next few hours are all organizational stuff. We have to sign waivers, get security badges and organize the gear they are providing for us (hardhats, gloves, caps). It's all organized with unsurprisingly military precision - after all, this group is about 75% current or ex-military. Finally, around 6.00pm, we split into groups of six and head for our work vehicles (donated by several rental car companies). We meet a few members of our team and start out on the 2.5 hour drive to Beaumont.

We arrive at our home for the next eight days, the Calvary Baptist Church in Beaumont. I will be saying a lot more about this church, their people and their parent organization in future posts, but for now, all you need to know is that they turned their entire church property (about five buildings on three acres) over to us and then provided extraordinary help to us throughout. We are directed to one of a half-dozen large dormitory-style rooms (there are also some classrooms that were converted into smaller living spaces). 
Our double accommodations, complete with nightstand.
Once we drop off our gear, we are all herded to a small arena that has been set up outside as our meeting space/launch point. Mike (Incident Commander) and the rest of the Team Rubicon crew gives us a short briefing on what we should expect beginning at 6.00am the next day (reminder: that's 4.00am Sharon time). They strongly suggest we go to bed. It's 9.45pm, 7.45pm body time, and we've slept several times already. We stay up and meet a lot of our new team members, including an absolutely delightful group of Israeli volunteers from an amazing organization called IsraAid (more about them tomorrow).

By 11.30, we know the wise choice is to go to sleep. We, so used to real beds on real mattresses, attempt to do so.

Tomorrow: Our wildest imagination proves inadequate. 
(yes, I know I said this yesterday. I forgot how much more there was to say.)

Monday, September 25, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 1)

[Note: many people have called, emailed and texted asking how to donate to the amazing organization with which we volunteered - Team Rubicon. We have set up a fundraising page, and would truly appreciate any and all donations of any amount. We've set a goal of $5,000.]


It's been 12 years since the US was hit with a truly disastrous hurricane. As Sharon and I watched the reports of Hurricane Harvey approaching, we were as concerned as everyone, and it was made more personal because we've both lived in Texas (1980-86 in Houston for me, 1996-98 in Dallas for Sharon). By August 29, the extent of the catastrophe in East Texas was apparent and sobering. By August 30, along with the rest of the country, we realized that this was a hundred-year - perhaps thousand-year - storm.

Sharon and I have been the beneficiaries of extraordinary good fortune over the years, and we know it. As we realized the extent of the tragedy in and around Houston, we also realized that it came at a time when, for the first time in years, we both had a big opening in our calendars. We had the briefest of conversations that went like this:

Dan: We should be doing something for Hurricane Harvey relief. I want to give [$amount] to JJ Watt's fundraiser.

Sharon: OK. What else can we do?

Dan: I have nothing on my calendar for the next two weeks. 

Sharon: Me either. We should go to Houston.

Decision made, we then needed to figure out just what "going to Houston" meant. Among the many Harvey posts on Facebook, I saw a friend and former business colleague, Sue Schneider, mention that she was heading to Texas to join the relief effort. We had this conversation on Facebook on August 31:

Dan:  You are heading to Houston, I assume? I may be able to take some time next week. Thoughts on how to volunteer? Red Cross site still down [their site was down periodically throughout the first week of the aftermath].

Sue: Flying in to Dallas tonite. You really can't get to Houston at the moment but they're doing a megashelter in Dallas and some in other communities since people have emigrated. I'll know more once I get there.
Dan: Please do.

Sue: you might want to consider Team Rubicon which goes to help in the neighborhoods. I can hook you up with a friend (who's an affiliate in our biz) and she can fill you in. Let me know.

As promised, Sue connected me with Christine, who recommended Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian relief charity, and Team Rubicon, a volunteer organization composed mostly of military/ex-military, first responders and law enforcement. We had already read a little about Team Rubicon, and decided to volunteer. We both assumed that volunteering meant us telling them we were available, and them telling us when and how to go to Houston. Well, not exactly. As it turns out, Team Rubicon is a very different sort of volunteer organization. The first thing we learned when we applied: they really aren't looking for people to dish out food at the local shelter. On the Volunteer page of the TR web site, they say this:
We are looking for the types of individuals below…
Military Veterans: Active Duty, Reserve, National Guard, Retired, Medically Retired 


Kickass Civilians: First Responders, Medical Professionals, Emergency Managers, Others with Applicable Skills

Sharon had worked in the ER at Children's Medical Center in Dallas. I figured that something in my past had to be considered an "applicable skill." And we think we're pretty kickass. We applied. The questionnaire that followed asked for a lot more information than either of us expected, but we dutifully completed it. That's when we learned that, to be part of Team Rubicon, we needed (a) to take safety courses and pass TR exams, (b) get FEMA certifications that required taking a series of online courses and (c) get background checks. Serious ones. 

On September 1, we both submitted the necessary documentation for the background check and started taking the online courses. The courses were primarily to familiarize non-military people to the command structure used in FEMA rescue and relief operations, and included surprisingly difficult, detailed exams. We took the courses and all of the exams and submitted them on September 3.

Late on September 5, we both received notice that we had passed both the online courses and the background checks. Within an hour, we received deployment notices: we would be deployed to Houston within five days, and could have as little as five hours' notice. We also received equipment lists, and after sorting through stuff, we learned that we had roughly 2% of the gear they suggested.  
The morning of September 6 we headed into San Diego, planning stops at REI, Big 5, Sears and a few other places. Seven hours and about $1,000 later, we came home with backpacks, day packs, sleeping bags, steel-toe work boots, gloves, first aid kits and a vast array of stuff we couldn't imagine actually using. We cut the tags off of everything, made sure it all fit in the backpacks and sat tight waiting for travel details.
The wait was short. The morning of Thursday, September 7, we received notice that American Airlines had donated a charter flight from LAX, and that we were to report to the Team Rubicon HQ offices near LAX at 5.00am (ick) on Saturday, September 9.
Total elapsed time from volunteering to taking off: 9 days.

Tomorrow: The calm before the storm after the storm.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Why I respect Trump supporters, but not Trump

I have to get a few things off my chest. 

During the election, I regularly sparred with Trump supporters on a variety of topics. My sense back then, which hasn't changed much, is that there are three types of people who support Donald Trump:

People who legitimately want change. There are a lot of people that fit in this category across the political spectrum. They believe that Washington has become a vast wasteland filled with politicians who no longer understand what we, as citizens, truly need. They see our system trip over itself repeatedly. They watch the US struggling to maintain its position as the world's only superpower. They want the America that our parents and grandparents fought for in World War II. And they believe that the best way to accomplish this is to brush aside the way things have been done and bring in an outsider who isn't bound by tradition and rules. These people may identify as members of any party, although for the most part they're disaffected Republicans who feel like their party no longer speaks for them. They have been looking for a voice that speaks to their ideals without the political rhetoric.

People who hate Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I originally separated these two, but realized that there's a near-100% overlap. There are plenty of reasons to despise Hillary Clinton that don't involve ideology. They range from the legitimate (concerns about dynasties) to the questionable (she was unwise in how she handled her private email server) to the ridiculous (she callously and intentionally left Americans to die at Benghazi) to the borderline-insane (her campaign manager and implicitly Clinton herself ran a child sex-trafficking ring out of pizza shops). And there are similar reasons why Obama is hated - he swung the country further left, polarized the relationship between police and citizens, enacted a healthcare system that is being crushed under its own weight. For this group, voting for Clinton was simply never, ever going to happen. 

People who felt disenfranchised. This group has a lot of overlap with the previous groups (particularly the Clinton/Obama-haters). They have watched what they perceive as political correctness weaken their standing in their communities and in the world at large. They have long believed that immigrants were at the heart of the American problem, having watched both legal and illegal immigrants lower overall income by accepting lower wages. They've been waiting for someone to stand up for them, to say, "We're looking out for American citizens. You're first on our agenda. Yes, we know America is a country of immigrants, but you were here first."

I have a lot of trouble arguing with any of these positions (although the last one makes me a little ill). I disagree with them in general, but having spent considerable time thinking about each position, I realized that it's not the positions I have trouble accepting. I agree that our political system has become a swamp, and all sides (Democratic, Republican, Independent, others) have contributed to the overall swampiness. I agree that our status as leader of the free world is in danger.

In 2016, we were all unfortunate enough to have perhaps the two worst candidates for President in the history of US presidential elections. I'm not going to defend Hillary Clinton, even though I voted for her - I would have been much happier voting for Bernie Sanders, who I believed (and still believe) is the closest thing to a legitimate "people's candidate" that we've ever seen. Clinton had much going for her, but she was a distant candidate who was difficult to love or even like, and she carried a veritable Tumi warehouse of baggage from both her political past and her husband's.

All of that having been said, there's a fundamental point that the Administration's opposition clearly understands, but that Trump supporters have yet to realize (for the most part). There is a system in Washington that has developed over our 241 years. It's very far from perfect, but it protects us from tyranny by distributing power among three branches of government. There are many cases in which that very system has been responsible for gross inaction (see the housing collapse of 2007) or action that was poorly planned and executed (see Obamacare). But the solution to that problem isn't to put the system to death (see Trump's 100+ executive orders since his inauguration).

Trump decided a long time ago, certainly well before his election, that the United States isn't all that different from a big company. It has income, expenses and employees. Flying over it at 30,000 feet, it certainly looks like a business. It therefore makes some sense that applying sound business principles to government could help right the ship. In practice, though, the United States only looks like a business. In business, if the strategic and/or tactical groups fail, leadership replaces management or the entire team. In government, the team isn't hired by leadership, and can't be fired by them. Trump has attempted to end-around this problem via (a) executive orders, (b) harassing, demeaning and threatening Congress, even within his own party and (c) ignoring sound principles of government that have, for better or worse, worked for 200+ years.

There's an important underlying lesson here, and I hope that at least a few Trump supporters have made it far enough to hear this. Those of us who oppose Trump do not - repeat do not - necessarily disagree with any of the three points I made above. Washington has, in fact, become a vast swamp. It was a swamp when Democrats controlled both Congress and the presidency. It was a swamp when power was split. It's a swamp now. No one was thrilled with our choices in 2016. And we have all felt disenfranchised to one degree or another.

The problem we have isn't with the issues that brought you to support someone who wasn't Clinton. And the problem isn't with you, the Trump supporter, either. The problem we have is with the specific person that became the only viable alternative to Clinton. You may believe at some level that he represents you, but you also know that a guy who grew up with nannies and servants is probably fundamentally different from you, and is unlikely to truly empathize with your plight.

We will always disagree on ideology. Some of us believe that abortion should be a woman's choice; some don't. We want our economy to be strong, but disagree on the means to accomplish that. We want the world to respect (and in some cases fear) us, but we want to be neither the world's policeman nor its bully. When I argue with you about Trump, it's not because I don't respect your deeply-held beliefs (I may disagree, but that's different). It's because the person who is carrying the standard for your beliefs is far less believable, far less trustworthy and far less deserving of my respect than you are.

Bottom line: we don't disagree as much as you think. So let's make a deal moving forward. I won't call you racist or socially irresponsible. You don't call me a snowflake and stop saying "yeah, but Clinton" every time I criticize the president. And let's agree that, regardless of who's on top, regardless of who's in the swamp, we're all in this together, and tearing one another apart is never going to result in something better.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

I'm sure Caesars could be more dense, but I'm not sure how

I have spent my entire life in marketing. Marketing is one of those broad job categories that not everyone understands - if I were an accountant, you could make a decent guess about what my typical day is like, but as a marketing guy I doubt you have much idea what I do.

Marketing is pretty simple at its heart - it's all about shaping ideas. If I want you to think positively about Coca-Cola, I create images related to Coke that you already have a positive sense about. We all like friendships, love and cute animals. If I can weave Coca-Cola into those things you already like, you'll start to like Coca-Cola by association, or at least have a positive feeling when you see the Coca-Cola brand.

Then you have Caesars, the parent company of the World Series of Poker and the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. I can honestly say that I have never seen a major, worldwide brand more intent on destroying its own image than this company. I have written quite a bit about this over the years, including:

Six ways Caesars screwed up the World Series of Poker
WSOP 2015: Has anything changed?
Are you there, Caesars? It's me, Dan.

And just so you don't think I'm entirely biased against Caesars, I also wrote this:

How Caesars saved the World Series of Poker (2 parts)

The first story must have struck a nerve, because I received a flood of email from various senior WSOP people that sounded like Sean Spicer attempting to justify a 4am tweetstorm. That story was written three years ago, and despite its having gotten some high-level attention, exactly none of the six things I mentioned were acted upon. Caesars knows that they have a captive audience for six weeks every summer, so they feel safe in charging $12 for a hot dog and $2.50 for a banana.

This sort of callous attitude towards players has been a hallmark of Caesars' relationship with poker players since they first took over the WSOP in 2004. The most egregrious display of their insensitivity to their customers (in my opinion) was the decision to adopt the November Nine format. Caesars contributed exactly zero to either the prize pool or the players, but decided that, to achieve their own marketing objectives, they would call a halt to play for three months at the end of the world's largest tournament. They have done plenty of other things to offend and alienate players, but this was emblematic of their utter disregard for anything other than their own interests.

At this point, you might suggest that acting in their own interest is what business is all about, and you'd be right. But there is a unique synergy that is particular to the WSOP - players put up all of their own money. This is a company that is contributing nothing but a venue and media coverage, yet they are dictating how a tournament should play out for millions of dollars. And in the process, they are fundamentally changing the game.

[In their defense, the November Nine format has finally been deep-sixed.]

So what does this have to do with marketing?

There is a specialty of marketing called branding. My one-sentence definition of this highly complex topic is creating a unique name and image that presents a significant and differentiated market presence. Examples of companies that have done this extraordinarily well: Coca-Cola, Amazon, Geico and Apple - just reading each of those names likely stimulated images in your head. Example of a company that did this stunningly well in the poker market: PokerStars (although that has dramatically changed since their acquisition by Amaya).

Caesars has done the opposite. Their hard-nosed belief in their entrenched and safe position in the market has left hundreds of thousands of poker players with the most negative impression possible - one that convinces players that Caesars cares only about Caesars to the detriment of its players.

I'll give you two examples of this. As you probably know, MGM Resorts casinos began charging for parking last year, and Caesars properties decided to follow this unpleasant trend. They originally did something everyone thought was positive - the Rio was exempted. But last week they undid all of that by announcing that there will no longer be valet parking for the WSOP. Note that they didn't start charging for valet parking - they just stopped offering it except at the main entrance. They attempted to sell this as a benefit, claiming that the WSOP "still offers free valet parking," but since it's a roughly 1/3 mile walk from the casino entrance to the WSOP area, this is a specious claim.

This is bad for so many reasons that I'm not sure where to start, but I'll mention only one for now. Players leave the WSOP area at all hours of the night with substantial amounts of money. When there's valet service, a player can feel safe with a few thousand dollars. When the only option is a several-acre sea of cars with nonexistent security, it is only a matter of time before someone is attacked and robbed. If Caesars is lucky, no one will be killed, but I wouldn't want to take that bet.

The second example is even more specific, but it will give you a sense of just how little Caesars thinks of its players. Before I relate this - I won't spend a lot of time tooting my own horn here, but marketing, and online poker marketing in particular, is what I do. I have had a successful career at it, and I know what I'm talking about. 

I have talked for a long time about how the WSOP's online poker site seems to have no idea what poker players really want or look for. I finally decided to take some time and tell them exactly why I felt this way. I went back over my notes and composed a lengthy email to Bill Rini, the head of online poker for Caesars Interactive. Here's the email I sent:
From: Dan Goldman
Sent: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 11:02 AM
To: Bill Rini
Subject: Comments on WSOP.com
Hi Bill,

I asked [mutual friend] for your contact information because I really want WSOP.com to succeed, since it’s my only online poker alternative in Las Vegas. I realized as I was putting my comments together that I was actually giving you marketing advice, which I don’t really want to do. Instead, I want to point out a few things that I see through the eyes of both a player and a guy who’s managed a highly successful online poker operation before. I trust they will be taken in the intended spirit.

  • Whoever does your satellite planning and scheduling, particularly for the WSOP, doesn’t seem to play much poker. WSOP.com is an amazing mouthpiece for the WSOP brand, but satellites are treated almost as an afterthought. Here are just a few examples:
  • During the WSOP, you have a massive, captive audience for online poker. You do a reasonable (not great, but reasonable) job of promoting WSOP.com within the venue. But if you launch the client, it’s hard to know that the world’s largest poker tournament is even going on. I made this comment on my blog in 2015: “Let's use today as an example. It's Wednesday, and on Friday you have one of your biggest events, the Monster Stack. There are exactly ZERO upcoming satellites for the Monster Stack (OK, there was one at 4p. 4p, really?). Tomorrow, the day before the event, there are two. You should be running dozens.” Nothing changed at all in 2016. I spoke with other players, who all agreed that they would have played in as many Monster Stack satellites as they could – but there just weren’t any. The situation with other big events was the same. This is a massive waste of a marketing opportunity, both live and online.
  • You run 1-2 $10 rebuy satellites a day in which you guarantee (2) $500 lammers. This is a pretty good idea, and they are well-attended. Why two lammers? I suspect that your typical player is depositing $50-100. Why not have satellites that guarantee one lammer, and make them $3 rebuys? Or even $1 or $2? You could run a lot more of them, and I can almost guarantee that you’d never miss a guarantee.
  • This next item is appalling, even more so because it has now happened to me twice, once in 2015 and once in 2016. Here’s a complete description that I posted on my blog:
In a classic case of the left hand not having any idea what the right hand is doing - I won an online satellite for an event the following day, and didn't receive anything (no email confirmation, no call, nothing) about how to claim it. So I emailed support at about 1a, and immediately received an auto-responder saying you'd get back to me within 24 hours. I got no further response, so I called the support line at 9a. The first response from the woman who answered (who had to consult someone else) was, "Follow the instructions in the email we sent." Well, OK, but you didn't send one. "Oh, OK, hold on." A few minutes later, she returned and said (seriously), "We'll have someone get back to you within 24 hours." When I explained that the tournament was in 3 hours, she asked me to hold again. When she returned, she said, "Just go over to the WSOP and go up to the second floor." I explained to her that there was no second floor. Her response: "I don't know what to tell you. That's what they told me."
When I went to the Rio, there was absolutely no one who had any idea how to process my win. I got lucky and ran into Johnny, a WSOP.com guy who was very helpful last year, and he was a superstar. He stayed with me until they got my ticket, which took close to an hour.
This is inexcusable. Coordinating something like this is trivial. There is absolutely no reason why your onsite staff didn’t get this right the first time, and it wasn’t the only time it happened. I won 3 seats in 2015, and it happened every single time. Then, I won one in 2016 and waited in line for over an hour with a whole group of disgruntled WSOP.com satellite winners. I promise you that not one of them came away feeling better about the WSOP brand after this experience. And the fact that your telephone support staff doesn’t even know there isn’t a second floor at the venue makes it clear that you hired the cheapest possible labor and didn’t train them.
  • It appears that your operations staff is equally out of touch with the realities of online poker. As an example, yesterday many players received an email from WSOP.com that said, among other things (this is condensed):
You have not logged into your account for more than 9 months and as a result, we will begin to implement our dormant account procedure on 2/1/2017. The twelve-month period triggering dormant status is calculated from the date you last logged into your WSOP.com account. Once your WSOP.com account enters the dormant account period the account will be closed and we will charge a monthly administration fee of $4.99. The administration fee will be deducted from the dormant account balance once each month and will continue to be deducted until the balance of the account has reached zero. When my daughter, who lives in LV but only plays online during the WSOP, sent me this, I thought it was a joke. This is horrifying customer service. Yes, I am aware that it’s in your house rules (http://www.wsop.com/legal/house-rules.asp - btw, go have a look at this page, which was apparently last changed on August 4, 2104). Maintaining a dormant account doesn’t cost you anything. In fact, you’re getting interest-free money from these players, some of whom have probably forgotten that it’s there. You have a significant number of players who only come to LV for the WSOP. Why not use this as a marketing opportunity instead of instantly offending every player who gets this? (In case you don’t already know, the damage from this absurd email has already been done, as it’s circulating on message boards.)
When a company behaves like this, its customers know they aren’t important. The WSOP itself already does plenty of this (see Six ways Caesars screwed up the World Series of Poker and Are you there, Caesars? It’s me, Dan for some examples). WSOP.com is, perhaps inadvertently, reinforcing the arrogance and near-hostility that virtually every WSOP player feels. The pervading sense is that Caesars believes that the WSOP brand is invulnerable. It’s not. As I mentioned in one of my posts, look at  America Online or Paradise Poker as examples of what happens to dominant brands that don’t take care of their base.

This has gone on much longer than I intended. I have high hopes for WSOP.com, but unless you guys get in tune with your players, I don’t think you have much of a chance.

Regards…dan
Here is the response I got from Bill about two hours later:

From: Bill Rini
Sent: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 11:02 AM
To: Dan Goldman
Subject: Comments on WSOP.com
Sent: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 11:02 AMTo: Dan GoldmanSubject: Comments on WSOP.com Hi Dan,
 Thanks for taking your time to share your thoughts.  We'll take them into consideration. Best, Bill

OK, did I expect Bill to jump into action? Of course not. These are suggestions, but they all make sense from a poker player's perspective, and none challenge the base marketing concepts of the WSOP. Here's a perfect example: Today is May 30. The WSOP begins tomorrow. Here is the satellite schedule from WSOP.com:



That's right - there are thousands of players here for the beginning of the WSOP, and there is exactly one satellite running between now and Saturday - and it's for the Employee Event, in which most people can't play.

This isn't rocket science. If you have thousands of your best customers in town for a huge poker event, and you have an online poker site, you promote your big event on your poker site. Marketing isn't hard; most of marketing is very easy: give people what they are willing to pay money for, and they will pay you money. You have the simplest possible task, with a year to prepare for it - how could you possibly be this dense?

[Side note: to reinforce how little attention my email actually received, you will note that I pointed out a typo on the WSOP.com web site, in which they say that the last time their terms were updated was 87 years in the future (August 4, 2104). If you click here, you'll see that page is still there, with the same typo.] [UPDATE: Caesars finally fixed this typo on June 1, 2017.]

My marketing career has mostly consisted of not making the little mistakes that kill companies. Caesars, up to now, has had success with the WSOP while continually tripping over its own feet. I had hoped this was the year when they got smarter, but it looks like we'll have to wait for at least one more.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sen. Feinstein responds (sort of)

A few weeks ago, I posted a letter that I had sent to Sen. Dianne Feinstein regarding her surprising support of the Sheldon Adelson-sponsored (some would say "bought") Restoration of America's Wire Act, a Federal bill designed to extend the powers of the Wire Act far beyond its authors' intent. I finally received a response today. While I didn't expect a personal reply, I honestly expected better than what I got - a form-letter response that reiterates her position and makes it clear that she's consumed a large dose of Adelson Kool-Aid. Her response follows, with my further response below.

For more on Adelson's attempt to buy Congressional support for this absurd bill, click here.


Dear Daniel:

Thank you for contacting me to express your support for Internet poker.  I appreciate knowing your views, and apologize for the delay in my response.

On February 4, 2015, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced the "Restoration of America's Wire Act" (H.R. 707), which would update the Wire Act to cover a broad range of Internet gambling.  The bill would thus return the statute to the interpretation given to it by the Department of Justice prior to 2011.  As you may know, I am a cosponsor of legislation (S. 1668) in the Senate.

I understand that you support the legalization of Internet poker.  I am afraid that this is an issue on which we must agree to disagree.  The dangers of Internet gambling have long been an area of concern for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.  I share their view that Internet gambling is too easily accessible to minors; subject to fraud, money laundering, and criminal misuse; and too easily used as a tool to evade state gambling laws.

The "Restoration of America's Wire Act" has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.  Please know that while we may not agree on the legalization of Internet gambling, it is helpful for me to hear your perspective on this issue.  I respect your opinion, and will keep it in mind should the "Restoration of America's Wire Act" come before me in the Senate.

Once again, thank you for writing.   I hope you will continue to be in touch on issues that matter to you.  Should you have any additional comments or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact my Washington, D.C. office at (202) 224-3841.


Sincerely yours,


  Dianne Feinstein
         United States Senator

============================================

Dear Sen. Feinstein,

I find your response disturbing in the extreme. It's OK with me that you sent a form letter response - I know that you must get thousands of emails every month. But a form letter, three weeks after my original email, that clearly doesn't address the issues at hand, is surprising and unacceptable from my elected Senator. I would hope that you have a human being who reads your email, but apparently either that's not the case, or someone decided that the issues I raised aren't worthy of comment. Either of these is disappointing and unacceptable.

On the assumption that perhaps a human reads THIS email - the views you describe in your response are quite out of touch with reality. What you said was:
"I share [the FBI and other law enforcement agencies'] view that Internet gambling is too easily accessible to minors; subject to fraud, money laundering, and criminal misuse; and too easily used as a tool to evade state gambling laws."

The view of law enforcement is only barely relevant. Law enforcement in the 1950s largely supported segregation, also. This is a legislative matter, not a law enforcement one (and it does not reflect the current position of either the Department of Justice or the FBI). The issues are far larger than this, and in fact each of the views you describe have been dealt with by the dozens of countries in which online gambling is legal. Specifically:

Underage gambling: There is no question that this is a key issue in this discussion. Industry estimates of underage gambling range from 1-2% of all online players - roughly the same percentage as the estimates for underage gambling in live casinos. And the means of verification and enforcement are far better online than in live casinos, who often let underage players play until they win, and then deny claims.

Subject to fraud: Having been in the industry for many years, I can tell you first-hand that online fraud (specifically credit card fraud, which I believe is what you refer to) is substantially lower than live credit card fraud. This is a regulatory and enforcement issue, and makes little sense as an argument against the industry at large.

Money laundering: This is certainly the most laughable of your claims, although it's been part of Sheldon Adelson's playbook since his campaign against online gambling started five years ago. Live casinos accept cash for over 90% of their transactions, making them far more vulnerable to money laundering than online casinos and poker rooms, whose money sources are nearly 100% traceable. As a glaring example, Mr. Adelson's own company settled a huge money-laundering claim in 2013 as a result of The Venetian's acceptance of $45 million in cash from a known drug trafficker. This crime could not have taken place online, as transactions as small as $10,000 are routinely examined and audited.

Tool to evade state gambling laws: I'm honestly not sure what this means. The vast majority of US casinos support legalization of online gambling. Properly implemented, online gambling can easily be restricted to defined state borders. This has been accomplished in Western Europe, where most countries have legal, regulated online gambling, as well as the three US states that have legal, regulated online gambling. What is your actual concern?

The bottom line is that a majority of your constituents, as well as a majority of casinos, support online gambling. Your arguments against legalization, while they may read well as bullet points, don't hold up to even the lightest scrutiny. If you have someone on your staff who actually understands these issues, I strongly urge you to have them either (1) articulate arguments against legalization that represent legitimate concerns that can't be resolved by regulation and stringent enforcement, or (2) stop obfuscating with irrelevant arguments.

Your position on this matter continues to make no sense. I look forward to hearing any reasonable arguments you have that support your arcane position on this matter.

Sincerely,

Daniel Goldman