Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Home at last

Today marks seven weeks since the deadly tornado swarm of April 27 struck Alabama. I left Odyssey for the San Francisco airport the very next morning, and yesterday was my first day back home. At just under seven weeks, this was my longest single Red Cross deployment since Hurricane Katrina, which we worked for 12 weeks straight.

Final shipment. Hard to see, but the floor of the truck is full of cases.

FedEx picked up our last equipment shipment from headquarters Monday afternoon, and three of us drove a one-way rental car to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where the Red Cross has a disaster "hot site" and warehouse. Two of my technology team from the Alabama operation picked up an Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV) there, which needed to be moved to Orlando for some upcoming training. One of those folks needed to go to Orlando anyway, saving a few bucks. Louise made the two hour drive to Hattiesburg to come get me, so the four of us toured the hot site and then went to dinner. After that, I was officially "off the job."

It is difficult to comprehend the scale of an operation like this one, which can lead to comments such as the one reader Dorothy left on my first post after arriving on the operation:
Saw the Red Cross had taken over a building in the Riverchase Galleria in Hoover, AL. Probably over a hundred cars, plus a dozen or so of rented vechicles in the parking lot. Whatever good could a building full of people on computers do to assist people who have lost their homes?
Indeed, we had taken over the long-vacant Comp USA store in the Galleria (and many thanks to the mall for their in-kind donation of the building as well as their scissor lift so we could wire it; we paid only the utility bill while we were there). Now that we have left I can share the location; Dorothy asked "Why ever would anyone care?" I've written about this before, but the short answer is that neither can we accept donations nor can we provide any assistance at these "headquarters" locations. It is frustrating to clients and potential donors (and a potential public relations disaster) to show up at such a facility, especially if they have gone out of their way to get there, only to be told they are in the wrong place and be sent somewhere else. Places where we provide assistance are well marked and well publicized, while places we use only for logistical support are not, for exactly this reason.

Yes, there were over one hundred cars in that lot, and at one point we had close to 400 people in this building, as all volunteers arriving to Alabama for the operation were processed through here. In fact, Dorothy, nearly all of the vehicles you saw in the parking lot were rentals -- personally owned vehicles may not be used on a relief operation. On an operation of this scale, only a fraction of the volunteers responding will be from the local area, with most coming from out of town or out of state. Over the course of seven weeks, we used over 700 rental cars on the operation, and another 75 rented trucks. That's in addition to the 100 Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles (marked mobile feeding trucks), four Emergency Communications Response Vehicles (communications satellite trucks), and other Red-Cross owned vehicles sent to the operation from around the country, plus hundreds of tractor-trailers belonging to suppliers or contract carriers.

The sheer numbers on this operation were staggering. Since the initial tornadoes mid-April, just in Alabama, the Red Cross:
  • Served 431,525 meals
  • Served 996,751 snacks
  • Distributed 26,708 clean-up kits
  • Distributed 39,715 comfort kits
  • Distributed 918,685 bulk items such as tarps, shovels, diapers, water, etc.
  • Opened 35 client shelters
  • Provided 7,951 shelter overnight stays
  • Used 114 vehicles to provide mobile feeding
  • Opened 8 kitchens supporting 21 feeding sites (in addition to the mobile feeding trucks)
  • Opened 44 emergency aid stations
  • Made nearly 17,000 outreach and health service contacts, and another 10,000 mental health contacts
To do all this took over 2,600 of us, of whom 85% are volunteers like myself. Most of those 2,600 workers were in the field, staffing shelters, kitchens, warehouses, bulk distribution sites, outreach centers, and emergency aid stations, or driving around the impacted areas in rental cars or mobile feeding trucks making direct contact with or providing food to the impacted families. Headquarters staff topped out at just under 200, and we had around 150 computers and ten printers deployed in the headquarters building.

The operation director rallies the troops at HQ before sending them to their assignments.

Most of the staff in headquarters provide direct logistical support to the field operation, with the remainder supporting the needs of the volunteers on the ground. Serving nearly half a million meals and a million snacks, and moving millions of relief supplies like cots, cleanup kits, and even stuffed animals for displaced children, in a state where the infrastructure has been badly damaged, requires dozens of volunteers with telephones, computers, fax machines, and all the other modern trappings of a Fortune-500 company. And what my team does is to take an empty building like a vacant big-box store, without even a single working telephone line, and turn it into a working Fortune-500 company in under half a day.

Our technology team, in front of the four ECRVs

At the peak of the operation, I had a team of 20 people. That included the four two-person crews for the ECRVs, which were essential due to widespread communications outages throughout the state. Not only did we set up (and later tear down) the headquarters, but we also provided equipment and support to six remote service delivery sites, three resource centers, a warehouse, two (of 35) shelters, and hundreds of outreach teams. In addition to setting up over 170 computers, we issued 400 cell phones and dozens of two-way radios. In the early days of the operation, while cell phones were inoperative in many parts of the state, we leveraged a community of amateur radio operators to communicate in and out of the impacted areas.

It is at the same time mind-boggling and elegant; chaotic and organized; tiring and energizing. We love what we do, and I accomplish more today with a sea of laptops on plastic folding tables and a handful of volunteers than I did in corporate America with a $20M Network Operations Center and a hundred trained technicians. But it is very hard to explain to people outside of the disaster relief field just what it takes to get the job done.

Louise, of course, is still working. Her operation here in Mississippi is ramping back up now that the flood waters have begun to recede (it is impossible to distribute relief supplies or meet with the clients while their neighborhoods are still under water). While I can probably help out here just by walking in to HQ, I am not really needed, and I do need a few days off. Old habits die hard, though, and I spent yesterday repairing the satellite dish that was damaged on Louise's very first day on the road.

I did, indeed, have a spare for the part that broke, from back when I purchased an entire used mount to fix a cracked elevation stop. Ironically, we were also parked behind a Red Cross warehouse at that time as well. The dish, while a bit worse for wear, is working properly again, and we will not need to renew the pay-as-you-go MiFi, which Louise bought as a backup, beyond the current allotment, which runs out in just a few days.

While this operation probably has another two weeks to run, Louise has been here nearly five weeks already, and she's not really very busy at this point. She's given her notice for Saturday, and we are planning on heading to Charlotte, North Carolina for our annual conference that begins next Wednesday. We may yet wave that off if things get crazy here, or if we are called to another disaster in what is shaping up to be a very busy season. But that is the plan right now, and I will be spending the next couple of days trying to find us a place to park in Charlotte.


  1. Glad to see things are winding down and you are back posting again. Thank you for the help you provide. I'm looking forward to reading more of your exploits.

  2. Thank you for sharing a bit of what your team does. I hope it helps those not familiar with massive infrastructure that is required the deliver a meal or assistance where it is needed. That you guys are able to do it in such trying circumstances and so rapidly is beyond impressive. While what you guys do may not be as visible as the teams on the street, you are all heroes.

    Thank you for all that you and Louise and the rest of your teams do to be there when it matters. Enjoy some well deserved time off.

  3. Thanks for being there for those folks who need your help, but I, for one, am glad you are back entertaining us with your travels.

    It was great to hear just what it is you were up to though.

  4. Great post and thank you for volunteering your time and expertise. I made a donation to the Red Cross in large part because Alabama is my home state and because I knew you and Louise were working hard and wanted to show my support to you and my state.

    I really hope that Dorothy reads this and understands the importance ... it is like looking at a duck swim through the water. Smooth motion from top side but the duck is paddling like crazy underneath.

  5. I'd like to thank you both for all that you do. You both could be sitting on a beach somewhere instead of working very hard in a crucial but often thankless job. People have to understand that logistics is the key to winning wars as well as accomplishing anything on a large scale. You can have the best troops in the world, but they are useless with no food, water or bullets.

    The Red Cross cannot serve one meal without having the supply chain to get the gear, people, and food there and keep it coming.

    As an example, say the Red Cross sets up a relief kitchen in a town. Let's say they need flour to make bread. You have to have a computer ordering system so that Red Cross HQ knows to send 100 lbs of flour to the kitchen. This system then needs IP connectivity to communicate to HQ. HQ then needs to have said system direct 100 lbs of flour from the warehouse, load it on the proper truck, then shipped to the relief area warehouse, then on to the kitchen that needs it.

    Without all that, you have a bunch of well meaning people who cannot help anyone. It is because of their logistics and organizational skills that the Red Cross is so effective.

    Good Luck and hopefully in a few years when I retire, I can volunteer and help you.

  6. As one who has patiently checked on your blog recently, hoping for an update: Thanks for sharing some details what your life has been like in recent weeks; I and others read every word. And thank you for what you do to help those in need!

  7. Sean & Louise,
    As you both well know I check your site daily and patiently wait when you are deployed or otherwise unavailable to update us.

    And as always I commend the 2 of you and the many, many other volunteers you work with who unselfishly drop whatever it is to rush to any where or wherever a disaster has happened and put your personal life's on hold while doing what you do to help others!

    And I guess it's probably a good thing I missed Dorthy's remarks until after Sean so patiently & diligently responded politely with exact #'s and data "to show why the Red Cross needs to have a huge building and hundreds of cars in the parking lot!"

    Dorthy wake up and look past the parking lot and see that more than meets the eye is going on. I know to you Tornadoes are common place back home. "But you & Toto ARE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE!"
    When Tornadoes hit outside of the normal area known as "TORNADO ALLEY" it is much more involved for people that are not used to having them hit close to home several times a yr!

    Sean & Louise go and enjoy some well deserved time off before the Hurricanes hit.

  8. It was great to see an update, Sean! Glad you're getting a respite now, and that both of you can look forward to some time off soon. You and Louise have been in my thoughts every day.

    As has the Magnificent Moving Land Mass that is Discovery. Good to hear the sat-com system is back up and running! Helping Louise get Discovery, Opal, Charlie, Angel and herself out to Mississippi was an adventure I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in. You two, and all the other Red Cross volunteers, deserve everyone's thanks and support for the labor and time you donate.

    I'll continue keeping an eye on the blog and look forward to seeing you both when next our trails meet!

  9. Great to hear you are getting back on the road. I missed your posts. A big thank you to you both for the hard and behind the scenes volunteering you do.

    Mojo would like to say a personal thank you to Opal who obviously missed you both while you were helping.

    Kelly, Rocket and Mojo

  10. Really interesting post - that's the kind of thing you just wouldn't know unless you were personally involved on site. It's a huge job. Thank goodness for volunteers like you and Louise! :)


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