Saturday, September 1, 2012

Laboring over the weekend

My apologies for the lack of updates on the blog. We've been working 10-14 hour days since we arrived in Orlando last Thursday. We are parked in the parking lot of our second hotel in as many weeks, and with no power available, we've been running the generator about four hours a day.

When I posted here last Wednesday I had anticipated that Tropical Storm Isaac would be threatening Florida by the weekend, and we would have marching orders by perhaps Saturday. In fact, the call from the Disaster Operations Center (DOC) came not long after I had posted, and they wanted us moving the very next day. Given the uncertainty of the track, and the potential for jeopardy statewide, they had decided to stage the operation in Orlando.

Whenever an advance leadership team is sent in pre-landfall, it's not unusual to stage at a hotel, and that's where we reported after a 50-mile drive from Cocoa Beach, with a stop en-route to add some diesel to the tank in case we needed the generator. We expected to be in that hotel only for a couple of days, until the track revealed itself and we had a better sense of whether to headquarter in Orlando or perhaps elsewhere in the state. There was a convenient dead-end near the hotel's minuscule parking lot, and we parked the bus there under the shade of some trees.

As it turned out, Isaac was uncooperative, refusing to firmly choose what parts of the state it would impact, and we ended up staying in the staging hotel for a full five days. We absorbed all the conference space the hotel had, and by the time we left people were crammed in the room like sardines. We might well have stayed another few days, had the hotel not already had an event booked in half the conference space we were using.

It was a decent hotel, at least, and we had staffing list us as extra persons in some of the rooms that the team was using, which got us room keys and access to the free breakfast. At various points in this process, it looked like we might move HQ to Tampa, Tallahassee, or points in between.

After the storm passed the Keys and the damaging northeastern quadrant had passed over Miami-Dade, we learned that things in both areas were not as bad as they might otherwise have been. The storm did not intensify as much as it could have before hitting the keys, and instead we started gearing up for a major impact as a Category-2 somewhere in the panhandle. By the time the ramp-up had reached its peak, we had over a thousand volunteers in-state, ready to open shelters, start feeding runs, distribute bulk items, and provide counseling and other direct assistance to clients.

Over the course of the next two days we watched the updates from the National Hurricane Center as they continued to move the forecast track westward with each successive update. Eventually the forecast landfall moved past the end of the Panhandle and into Alabama, then Mississippi, and finally Louisiana where it actually hit. Of course, landfall of the eye is not the whole story, and with the storm several hundred miles across, we still had to gird for storm surge, damaging winds, and flooding in the panhandle, already saturated from Debby.

By the time we were booted out of the first hotel, it became clear that we might not have enough of an operation in Florida to even make it cost-effective to move into a large headquarters, whether in the panhandle or anywhere else. Ultimately the decision was made to finish up the operation right here, in yet another hotel conference room just a few blocks from where we started. No free breakfast here, though.

The major focus since we got set up in this building, an effort that had me and my team here until midnight on moving day, has been to close the operation and move assets to Mississippi and Louisiana, where they are needed. I sent a good deal of my staff to those two states, and we've been sending equipment back fast and furious to the Maintenance Center to get it re-certified for deployment to those other locations.

As of this writing we are down to a dozen or so workers here at headquarters, and all the technology assets have been recovered from all the field sites with the exception of the lone remaining warehouse on the operation, elsewhere in Orlando. Tomorrow, Louise and I will be taking a much-needed day off after ten straight days. We have two other staffers here who will mind the store. Monday we will have to downsize again, and it may very well come down to just the two of us, unless we are needed elsewhere. Both of our positions are already covered in Mississippi and Louisiana (the Alabama operation, like ours, is already closing), so unless something goes off the rails we will probably not be sent in that direction.

Our challenge for our day off tomorrow will be to find something to do. Hanging around the bus, as is our custom in such cases, is an expensive option if we have to run the generator all day to keep cool. And Labor Day Weekend is no time to be gallivanting around Orlando partaking of the local entertainment. We have the use of a rental car, and the other hotel we're still using on the operation has free WiFi in the lobby, so perhaps we will spend some time there. We'll probably also try to find a place to get a massage, possibly a tall order on a holiday weekend.

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