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.