Seen in the newsletters sent out daily by the Emergency Operations Center

Another snippet from the other side of the looking glass:

If you need to have a car that you own towed from your property, contact your insurance company.

If you need to have a car that you don’t own towed from your property, contact a local towing company.

If you need to have a house that you don’t own removed from your property, contact the Army Corps of Engineers.

Such is the power of 30 feet of salt water driven by a storm 300 miles wide.

Also, take a look at Operation Eden, which has pictures from the area where I am working.

Finally, to the worry-worts out there, yes we are watching Wilma. No we don’t think it will turn left. Locals tell me they always turn right…

Late night thoughts

This afternoon and into the evening I was working on the Waveland water tower. (Yes, on the water tower, 100 feet up.) We put in a long day of debugging in the lab before we went, then working on the tower when we got into the field to install the equipment. So when we got off the tower, I was looking forward to dinner. We’d worked too late for dinner at Waveland Cafe, and Don had already declared tonight Pizza Night. We’d noticed that the pizzaria had won the “first restaurant to reopen” contest, and were looking forward to spending a little money in Hancock County. Turns out, it is a lunch place that closes at 4pm, so we missed dinner there. We came back to the completely remodeled Sonic drive-in (complete with girls on skates!) and had dinner. I ordered a large Coke, which might explain why I’m wired and not asleep right now.

Today, I assigned the intern (turns out interns actually have names, who knew? Ours is Matt Justice) the job of installing a computer lab here at the FEMA Camp where the contractors and volunteers stay. It had been a low priority thing, since we originally thought that all the residents here would be contractors, and we figured that at the inflated rates FEMA is paying for the work, they could find their own way to call home. We brought Internet here, but left it at wi-fi, figuring people with laptops would find it, and those without would find someone with a laptop. After living here a while, we found that a whole lot of volunteer groups come through, and that it made sense to support them with phones and a computer lab.

Anyway, that’s why we decided to put a lab here. The cool thing is that I told Matt to git’r’done, and he did. I got a call from him this evening (while I was on the water tower) and he proudly told me the lab was up and running. It’s his first independent assignment with us, and I’m really proud of him for taking care of it so well. I’m also happy to have it available to me to use tonight, so I don’t have to dig my laptop out from under a huge pile of crap in my car.

Here’s some stuff I’ve been thinking about, but that didn’t fit into a blog entry, so it’s getting lumped into this one.

Guatemalan Relief

After Hurricane Rita came Hurricane Stan. It hit Guatemala and other Central American countries as a force one hurricane, but it still dumped enough rain to cause havoc in the region.

I intend to write an appeal in a few days, when I get time, for donations to help an ex-coworker who lost his house in the landslides in Guatemala. He and his family survived, but he needs to replace his house. Any money we raise will go to Planet Outreach’s US non-profit, which will move the money down to Guatemala via bank transfer, as they usually do for funds for operating expenses. Ventura’s boss will spend the money as he sees fit, probably mostly in the form of a grant to Ventura for reconstruction expenses.

Please watch for it, and think about if you’d like to help. I don’t want this to turn into some kind of charity blog, but Guatemala’s run-in with Hurricane Stan is a disaster that hit close to home for me, and one step removed for you, since you all read about my time there.

Thanks

A while ago I was sitting at the New Waveland Cafe eating dinner. A woman who was clearly a resident of Waveland said thanks to me. But it wasn’t thanks for anything in particular, and it wasn’t really to me. She said it in a distracted way, with empty eyes, and it was hanging out there like a ping to the broadcast address. (Uh, non-techies: like a shout in the dark.)

It was spooky and I felt sorry for her, but she moved on and I didn’t get a chance to engage her in conversation and listen to her story. I think she’d gotten into a bit of a rut where the adrenalin rush of making decisions and taking care of herself had worn off and she’d fallen back onto just saying thanks to people reflexively. I hope she bounced back. There is mental health counseling available as freely as the medical care, but I don’t know how much it is being used.

Waveland Town Meeting

I went to a City of Waveland town meeting that I heard advertised on the radio. I went to see how local government was relating to the people, and to see if I could find leads for our work at Radio Response. I struck out on the latter, but learned a lot about the former.

The mayor, Tommy, presided. (I never heard his last name. He knew many of the attendees by their first names too.) He did a really wonderful job of making it clear he was fighting for his town, and convincing his residents to have faith, and patience, and determination. A number of times I was overwhelmed with the resolve and strength of the people in the room. One man attempted to use the forum to air his frustration with the buracracy (and Tommy in particular), but he was shut down by a woman in the crowd who politely told him to complain in some other venue, not the one dedicated to getting info out to the residents. Very inspiring.

The bulk of the meeting was spent discussing how to get moving on rebuilding. There are layers of red tape keeping people from getting trailers, and getting permits to rebuild. Some make sense, and Tommy did his best to lay out the case for why they are needed. He even explained that when he’d gone to experts to protest the delays, they explained why, and convinced him of the need. For instance, the Waveland water system south of the tracks has to be rebuilt from scratch due to the incredible amount of damage to it. Some people want their water turned on before the other connections on the street are fixed, but that poses a health risk because even the valves are broken making it impossible to prevent contaminated water from flowing back into the system. Tommy continues to resist their requests, and people aren’t happy about that. People can’t get FEMA trailers until all three utilities (water, sewer, and electricity) are turned on. One man pointed out that he needed power now to start drying out his house without spending $24 a day on gasoline for the generator.

The three-utility rule seemed to me really stupid. Afterall, there is free water and prepared food and bathroom access all over town, so people don’t need water and black water service. All it would take is to take one of the shiny new shower trailers FEMA rents for us volunteers and make it available to citizens, and they could live in a trailer with only one of the three utilities: electricity. (Living in a tin can here in the south without air conditioning would be impossible. Even in October.)

This is a common problem here, in my opinion. If you are ever in a disaster, pretend you are a volunteer, and you’ll get treated WAY better than the citizens. Also, clear out of the region. The evacuees from New Orleans that wandered off the street into the Palo Alto Chapter of the Red Cross almost got mobbed by volunteers anxious to help them.

Tommy also said that the police have already arrested 37 looters. He said he spoke to one guy himself, and the guy’s excuse was “it’s just trash, the debris haulers will take it, but I can sell this scrap metal”. Tommy told him, “We’ve lost everything we own. That trash is all we have left. You’re going to jail, and when you get out, you’re going to stay out of here, or you’re going to go back to jail and never get out!” The crowd cheered.

There was talk of the Mississippi Renewal Project that’s been launched up in Jackson. It’s an effort by architects and new urban planning people from all over the country to convince Gulf Coast cities to rebuild in the new urban model, which looks just like the maps of old European cities. (Which is pretty funny, because the outskirts of European cities look just like American sprawl — Wal-Mart included.)

To the new urbanism people: BACK OFF. Everyone understands where you are coming from, and what you have to offer. People might even take what you have to offer, if you don’t make asses of yourselves first. From the tone in the room, I’d say you are about one short step shy of stepping over the line already. You have to take it easy and show respect to local people. We’ve been helped immensely by having Mac be our ambassador to the people of Mississippi. And Matt, my intern, always reminds me to slow down and walk like a local when I get excited and start walking like a Californian.

Directions

Directions here are funny. It’s just like any small town; “turn left where the bank used to be, then right where the supermarket was, etc.” The thing is, the wreckage of the bank and the supermarket are still there, so it’s marginally easier to follow the directions — once you get good at recognizing what a building used to be from a pile of debris.

One time I was giving directions, and I swear to God this was what I said:

  • Go to the first stoplight that’s out and turn right.
  • Turn left at the Burger King with the boat in the drive through.
  • When you get to the house on it’s side leaning against the telephone pole, turn right.
  • At the blown-down stop sign turn right. That’s Washington St., but I think it’s only spray painted on the white house that’s missing it’s roof. Don’t bother looking for a street sign.
  • Go down Washington until there’s a mobile home on the street. Drive around it and pull into the driveway the mobile home is sitting on.

(To the people in Waveland trying to follow these directions, don’t bother. It’s a made up example. But y’all probably know where each of these places actually are, right? <wink>)

Language

As I’ve done several times this year, I picked up the local dialect. I proudly use git’r’done, fixin’ to, and y’all whenever proper (Southern) English rules of grammar demand their use. The second person plural is quite helpful, and it’s really a shame y’all don’t have anything like it up north. My mother caught me saying “nuthin'” on the phone tonight, and I proudly informed her that not only do I say “nuthin'”, I also say “ain’t”. And I ain’t fixin’ to change nuthin’, either.

I’ve been disappointed that I have not yet had a legitimate chance to use the posessive second person plural (“all y’all’s”). I’ve heard it used, but not gotten to say it yet. Hope springs eternal!

Having stayed past a month, I’m apparently not just a Yankee. Yankees eventually go home. Damn Yankees come and stay.

Future

There’s some talk of Radio Response getting funding and becoming a real organization and needing an employee to stay on and run things in preparation for next hurricane season. That won’t be me. I’m satisfied to fulfill my committments here, and then move on.

My last day here is October 26. After that, I’ll head up to Seattle via Colorado and Burns OR (some route, huh?) to see my (soon to be) newborn nephew and try out being an uncle to see if I like it. (I guess I better like it, it’s not like you really get a choice in these things!)

I expect to start applying for a job with MSF as soon as I get home to start house-sitting for Karl. I’ll give them an availability date of Jan 1-ish, and see what turns up. I’ve gotten notifcations via my RedR contacts that jobs are opening up in Pakistan for the relief effort there. I guess Pakistan would be as good a place as any to have my first mission. At least there would be some English there. And I think I still prefer a mountain climate to a tropical one.

Nearing the end of a long week

I’m nearing the “end” of a long week here. I put “end” in quotes, because despite my best intentions, my “weekends” (one day breaks) seem to be separated by increasingly long “weeks” (my last break was last Monday, so I’m only a day late this time, assuming I manage to get away tomorrow, which seems unlikely).

Talking about breaks like this sometimes feels indulgent, but when I got here I could see that the project needed some continuity. Since I was in a position to offer some, I decided to take care of myself so as to be able to provide a lot of energy over a long time.

Today we deployed phones on our network for the first time, which was a cool accomplishment. We also got a new customer site up, which is two in two days.

Mac is back on site, and that makes me happy. He’s been doing double duty back at his farm, both doing deferred maintenance on his own network, and doing Radio Response office work. But double duty left little time for communications, so it’s been difficult to stay in touch. And as things have been politically sensitive on the project recently, we’ve needed to be in touch more. Alas, that’s the facts of life.

One of the things I am good at is making decisions independently and then taking responsibility for either making them stick, or fixing them if I was wrong. Through attrition, I am now the manager here. But also through attrition, the team has shrunk to only include really sharp people that don’t need any management. I still get to boss around the interns though, and that never gets old. But I told Matt the other day that I’m going to have to stop picking on him soon because he’s doing everything right. I’ll miss not having an intern to pick on, but it’s good to have a well trained coworker to replace a greenhorn!

Today, I talked to the chief of staff for Rep Anna Eshoo, my representative in the US Congress. She’s interested in community wireless because she represents Silicon Valley, where some of the technology came from. She’s also on an oversight committee for the FCC. I told him my story, and told him about what’s happening here, and how we are figuring this thing out as we go, but it’s pretty clear we are making something new of value here. He asked what Rep Eshoo can do for me, and I didn’t really have a good answer. I told him my dream is that there is some part of the US government that acts like an angel investor, and would give us a grant to pay an IT professional to work here 6 months to manage the interns and bring the thing to a close. But I think too small… other people are suggesting that the future for this project should be much bigger, or more permanent.

It will be interesting to see how it turns out.

Tragedy in Santiago Atitlan

This just in from my friend and coworker in San Pedro la Laguna:

Mis queridos amigos, queria mandarles algunas fotos acerca de la
tragedia ocurrida con el huracan stan, fue muy duro mas para el pueblo de san pedro la laguna, pero tambien fue un reto para mucha gente de poder ayudar, barrio con todo un canton en santigo Atitlan, el canton panabaj,no me hubiera gustado ir pero la necesidad de ayudar y tomar evidencia de todo fue lo que me empujo a hacer todo eso. En san pedro gracias a Dios todo esta bien, excepto los 6 dias de luz, el telefono que no tuvimos y el agua potable que nos hizo falta, ahora que tenemos luz, todo poco a poco se esta volviendo a la normalidad, Saludos a todos y que Dios les bendiga y gracias por sus preocupaciones.

Juan Cruz

Translated:

My dear friends, I’m sending some photos of the tragedy due to Hurricane Stan. It has been very hard on San Pedro, but also it was a challenge to the people that could help Santiago Atitlan and Panabaj. I did not want to face the tragedy, but I needed to help, and to witness what’s happened, so I pushed myself to do it. In San Pedro, thanks to God, everything is OK, expcept for 6 days without power and telephone, and a shortage of potable water. Now we have lights. Everything, little by little is returning to normal. Greetings to all, and thank you for your thoughts.

Juan Cruz

I have posted Juan’s pictures in my gallery.