Saturday, August 27, 2011

Riders on the storm

!!! riders on the storm

We are parked at Red Cross headquarters in Wilson, North Carolina. I arrived with Odyssey yesterday morning, after an hour's drive from the interim headquarters location in Raleigh. Louise followed much later in our Red Cross rental car, which turns out to be a hybrid, a Toyota Prius, as she first had cell phones to deliver all over the eastern part of the state.

I have time to update the blog today, uncharacteristic for this stage of the operation, because the worst part of the storm is hitting us now, and everyone is sheltering in place. For most of the headquarters staff, that would be the pair of hotels they are occupying across town from here. For us, it is Odyssey, and so we are the sole Red Crossers here at HQ.

I'll catch up by filling in the blanks from my last post, which I dashed off before we hurriedly hit the road. I left off on Wednesday by saying that we were in a frustrating waiting game, while the Disaster Operations Center (DOC) in DC figured out where we'd be needed, if anywhere, for hurricane Irene. Folks at the DOC were already pretty frazzled trying to play the chasing-Irene guessing game, and it did not help any that they were all still rattled from their very own magnitude 5.8 earthquake on Tuesday. We were probably not helping by pressing them for answers, sitting as we were in a truck stop with no power.

Shortly after I posted, we resigned ourselves to waiting another day to hear anything, and made the decision to pack up and head over to Crooked River State Park. That was just a dozen miles from the truck stop, and had plenty of RV spaces with electric power for $33, which starts to look very attractive when it costs $45-$50 per day to run the air conditioning with the generator.

We were just about ready to leave when my phone rang. It was staff deployment, telling me I had been assigned as Technology Chief to the Richmond, Virginia operation. Since I'd heard that a Chief had already been assigned to that operation, I asked deployment about it and they informed me that I was closer, and the other individual, who lives in Texas, would be held in reserve for Tropical Depression 10, which at the time looked like it might develop into a threat to interests in the gulf (it has since turned to sea and will not make a U.S. landfall). Fine by me, because we really needed some kind of deployment orders to get back on the road.

Before we left, I called the DOC to let them know that I had been reassigned to Richmond, and the Technology folks seemed at least a little surprised by that. And, of course, they confirmed that Louise would not be able to take a Technology assignment in Richmond if I deployed there as Chief. When they learned that we were really much closer to Raleigh anyway and that we'd rather work together in Technology on the same operation, we were both reassigned to North Carolina, with the original individual going to Richmond.

While I would have enjoyed going back to Richmond, since we set the "hot site" there up ourselves a year ago, and previously worked an operation there shortly after we started with the Red Cross, North Carolina was really a better choice. But it was nearly 4pm by the time this was all sorted out and we hit the road, and Raleigh is a seven hour drive from where we were parked.

Once we were on the road we called long-time friend and the assigned Technology Manager in Raleigh, David, to let him know our status and work out an arrival time. We settled on sometime Thursday morning. Based on that, we had our sights set on a fuel stop in Florence, where we would also overnight -- a choice of four Pilot/FlyingJ locations. We stopped for dinner in Walterboro, where the GPS said there was a Ruby Tuesday but where we also found a pair of local establishments, and chose to eat at the Glass House Restaurant, which was passable but a little rough around the edges.

The idea had been to break up the evening's drive a bit with a dinner stop in the middle, but after a frustrating day, a late start, and a hunk of prime rib settling in my tummy, I started running out of steam as night fell. We ended up pulling off the highway an hour shy of the fuel stop, at a TA truck stop in Manning, SC. We got parked and settled in for the night and called David to work out a specific arrival time.

The outcome of that discussion was that we'd need to be there before noon if at all possible, which led us to conclude we'd either need to leave by 7am, or continue on to our originally planned stop before turning in for the night. With the amount of time it takes to fuel being something of a wildcard -- some pumps are three or four times faster than others -- we decided it would be best to get the fueling behind us before the night was out, and so we headed back out onto the road, after nearly an hour stop.

It was the right choice, because we got not only slow pumps, but also ones that would not pre-authorize very much fuel. As I posted on Thursday, we ended up authorizing two pumps (one on each side of the bus) three times each. In hindsight, I should have taken the cards in to the fuel desk to have them do it, but sometimes that process can take longer than just dealing with the robot a couple of times in a row. It was also disappointing that we could not get any water, given how tight the schedule had become. After fueling we settled in for the night -- again.

We got an early start Thursday, after a quick update here, and figured to be in Raleigh by 11:30. We decided to hold off on water until after our arrival, so we had no stops except for bathroom breaks -- I definitely do not have a three-hour bladder. When I went to start the bus, however, I got a lot of clicking before it cranked fully, as if the start batteries were low.

Now, this has been happening for the last few days, getting a bit worse each time, and I've been compensating as needed by bridging the house batteries in. It's a bit alarming that the start batteries are having so much trouble, considering we just replaced them a couple months ago, but I was guessing maybe just a bad connection at the batteries or one of the connection posts, and I figured to look at it when I got the time. But this time, even bridging the house batteries in did not fix it right away, and the big Detroit struggled mightily before lighting off.

By this time I am thinking there is some extra resistance in the cable between the batteries and alternator, which not only carries the charge current to the batteries, but also the starting current to the starter. Fixing that is going to be a major project, involving removing the hatch under the bed, and we're on our way to a disaster, so we just press on. We'll only need to start the engine a few more times before we're settled, after all.

About half way to Raleigh we stopped at a rest area on I-95 so that Mr. Micro-Bladder can use the rest room. When we got back to the bus, the starter did not work at all -- not even a click. Uh-oh. Bridging the house batteries did not help, and a quick check of all the gauges and computer read-out did not reveal any likely culprits.

Louise started the process of calling Coach-Net, our towing service, to either get a mobile mechanic or a tow truck out to us, while I crawled under the engine with the voltmeter and a two-way radio. A few minutes of diagnosis revealed that the start solenoid was not closing to provide current to the starter, and in my pre-disaster, get-there-now fog, I concluded that the brand new starter solenoid that the starter shop put on the starter when we were at Choo-Choo must have failed.

When Coach-Net finally recommended a tow as the best option, a gargantuan nail-biting undertaking with this bus even for the five miles to the nearest shop, I decided to jury-rig a solution while they are arranging the truck. If I can at least get it started once, we can avoid the towing hassle and get to the shop under our own power.

It's impossible to reach the lugs on the solenoid by hand without removing lots of stuff bolted to the engine, or near it. But I can see it from the engine bay door, and I ended up building a bolt-on-a-stick arrangement with a length of PVC pipe and some nuts and bolts from the parts box, intending to short the lugs by threading the stick through the various bits that are in the way. Of course, this has to be done without shorting the hot lug to the nearby ground, and it was vaguely reminiscent of that children's game popular in my youth, "Operation."

After spending ten minutes digging out and collecting the parts, drilling the holes in the pipe, and putting in the bolt and nuts, I was ready to thread the "forceps" between the patient's, umm, parts. That's when I noticed the loose wire hanging down in front of the fan belt, as I was carefully scoping out how to avoid said belt while the engine started.

That loose wire was previously affixed to a pressure switch in the fuel line. This switch cuts off the starter circuit whenever fuel pressure is above a certain point (5 psi, I think). The idea is to prevent an attempt to start an already-running engine, as well as to cut off the starter after the engine catches, even if the start button is still activated. With the wire disconnected, the starter can not engage at all.

The end nut on the threaded post on the switch was gone, so apparently, the nut rattled off some time ago, and the ring terminal has been slowly working its way off, causing the increasing struggling during starting, until one time it finally came off altogether. The switch was replaced when Choo-Choo put the engine back, since it had been bent during the removal, and perhaps the nut was not properly torqued.

Our most loyal long-time readers will detect a pattern here. Apparently we can not drive hundreds of miles to a relief operation without some kind of mechanical problem befalling the bus en route. Like the time we wore a tire down to the belts and had to have it replaced, chipping the windshield the same day. Or when the power steering pump blew its seal and dumped gallons of steering fluid into the engine oil sump.

In any case, I am glad I did not have to finish my game of Operation, and getting the coach started was just a natter of reattaching the starter safety switch wire. Nevertheless, we were at the rest area for over an hour, on what was to be a three-minute potty stop. We called David several times throughout the ordeal, second only to Coach-Net. We waved off the tow truck before leaving the rest area, or course.

Headquarters in Raleigh was a hotel near the airport, and we simply parked around back for the night. It was cool enough to leave the A/C off while we were in the office for the day, and we ended up only running the genny for a few hours so we could have some cool and dry air while we slept.

By the end of the day the facilities folks had secured a headquarters in Wilson. The original thinking had been Greenville, but after looking at the forecasts, it was decided that perhaps that was too close to be safe. At least here we are an hour closer to the coast than in Raleigh, yet far enough inland that we did not have to worry about assets being inundated by surge.

As with so many Red Cross headquarters, this one is a vacant retail store. It is in a shopping center with other stores, so we don't have free reign over the parking situation, but we worked it out with the landlord and security to park Odyssey in an area where the dumpsters are located for a cluster of stores. In addition to having direct access to the back door to headquarters and its main electric feed, the area is walled on three sides and provided us a nice lee from the worst winds of the storm. We managed to run a 20-amp extension cord out to the bus before we settled in for the night.

This morning we had to load up the Prius with some equipment needed by the operation while they bunkered down in the hotel today, and when we got back we worked on whatever wiring and cleanup we could do in HQ with no network access, as winds were already too high to deploy the satellite truck. The small crew that came with us had to return to the hotel by 2pm, when the shelter-in-place order from operation management became mandatory.

Just before that time I was able to hard-wire my 10-gauge cord into one of the electrical panels, and we now have 30 amps going into the inverter, and another 20 amps available for the water heater or a second air conditioner if needed. The regular 20-amp extension cord is running the air compressor, so we are pretty well set for power. We had filled our water tanks at the hotel in Raleigh, but there is also a spigot here if we need it.

In another hour or two, the bulk of the storm will have passed, and tomorrow we will be back in full swing. The satellite truck will be here at 7am to get on-line, and there is an all-hands meeting at 8. I expect we will find out then what the full scope of the operation will look like.

Photo by bass_nroll, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Glad the "surgery" on the bus was minor. Hope we can say the same about Irene...

  2. Question: Why not let the bus idle while pulled over for a bathroom stop?
    Comment: I usually let the engine cool off and catch it's breath by idling about 15-20 minutes after pushing hard. I can check the tires, use the bathroom and eat a snack in that time so I let it idle. My bus friends have told me the worst thing I can do to my Detroit is start it so start it as little as possible. Of course your problem had to be discovered and fixed but it would not have had to be fixed in the middle of a mad dash if the engine had been idling. I'm genuinely curious.


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