Friday, September 12, 2008

Hurricanes Don't Know Politics

“You better duck and run
Get under cover 'cause a change is come
Storm warnings and it looks like rain
Be nothin' left after the hurricane.” — Change In The Weather, Buddy Guy

Friday. Hurricane Day. This is going to be a memorable one, I imagine.

Even though there are far too many things going on in the midst of presidential campaign season, and even the GLBT political intrigue as well, it takes other things more personal to bring you back to life – remind you that you actually have a personal life too. For us in Houston, it’s Hurricane Ike.

It acted like it was making a beeline for Corpus Christi, maybe even further south. I really didn’t think it would make this turn towards us. Well, it did.

As I live out on the western edge of Houston, I don’t have to worry over storm surges. Floods and storm surges are vastly different here in the flatlands. Floods just sit there – still water. Storm surge sweeps folks, cars, houses away. This storm surge will be bad – estimated at 18-20 feet, last I heard.

Storm surge people have to run the from hurricanes, should run from hurricanes. For the rest of us, there’s no reason to clog the roads and highways (as we amply saw during the panic evacuation from Hurricane Rita). For me, the only concern is wind, and with it tracking practically right over my house through nearly all models, it means my house will get the brunt of the wind this far inland. They’ve forecasted it could be Category 2 when it makes it to my area.

As anyone who lives in the Gulf Coast knows, news tends to go 24-7 Hurricane once it’s within 48 hours of imminent landfall. I knew it was coming in, and didn’t need to sit and obsess on news.

Thursday at work, Shell sent out a note to all employees to ask for volunteers to assist those at Houston’s Metro and City of Houston to process evacuees. So I was game! Better than just sitting and watching the hurricane bear down on us in slow-motion.

After work, I quickly changed and headed downtown to the GRB – the George R. Brown Convention Center. Traffic was extremely heavy going out, virtually non-existent going in. Even 30+ hrs. away from landfall, there were a number of gas stations that were already closing, even a few boarding up.

Once at the Convention Center, I noticed that things seemed a little slow in the sunset hours. In looking around Shell had a large presence of volunteers (as evidenced by our bright yellow T-shirts with the red Shell pectin) The only real activity surrounded the evacuated residents from a nursing home in Baytown. They were all loaded onto four Goose Creek I.S.D. school buses with lift capability – 38 residents in total, plus 8 caregivers and the registered nurse overseeing evacuation. They came to GRB as instructed in order to evacuate them in one group.

There were a couple problems: first, there were no evacuation buses with the lift capability needed for non-ambulatory folks. Second, there was no facility within easy reach of Houston who were willing to take in 47 people in one group with special medical needs.

Unfortunately there was nothing within a shorter drive for these evacuees, and nobody had an answer. Originally the nursing home residents, caregivers and school bus drivers, they were initially told they would have to drive them out of town – to which they all refused. School buses are not equipped for that long a ride for special needs patients. But none of the authorities appeared able to get any answer either!

After Katrina, and the nursing home residents who couldn’t evacuate and drowned there, you would’ve thought this logistic would’ve been worked out by now. Apparently, three years after Katrina and Rita, FEMA or the state coordination are just not there yet. Heckuva job, Perry!

Our evacuation coordinator explained that they did not want to send the non-ambulatory and special medical needs folks on a bus ride to Dallas (again, mindful of what happened in evacuation of Rita), and were looking for a place to take them in. But the school buses were herded down to the other end of the convention center and sat from about 6:30 until 10:30 or so. Being at GRB, I didn’t have my political contacts so I felt a bit neutered myself.

Once the sun went down, we started getting many more evacuees – including, again, more special needs buses. We even got a couple buses from Baytown with mixes of both special needs and non-special need. You wouldn’t think that would be a problem, but we had to determine which were staying on the buses and going to a local facility for special needs, and which were going to disembark, be processed and then wait for buses to take them to Dallas. Needless to say, many of the folks were not happy about the news – especially those boarding for Dallas. My people skills became very popular!

"Look at the people, they got terror in their eyes.
Bad wind is comin' it can't be denied.
They're runnin' with the dogs and afraid to die." — Change In The Weather, Buddy Guy

Finally, my political connections started coming through: Councilmember Peter Brown and his chief of staff Maverick Welsh showed up at GRB. They made a beeline toward me and wanted a run-down of the process, how we were coordinating it, and also any problems (to which I let them know the situation with the nursing home residents and also the special needs, non-ambulatory evacuees.) They left and headed to TranStar (the state’s coordination for transportation and logistics during hurricane threats) to try to get someone to address the problems we were having.

An hour or so passed, and we were having more logistical logjams in evacuations. Finally I got a call from Jason Fuller with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s office – he was coming over, and the situation would be addressed! The nursing home folks actually left shortly before he made it to GRB, and I don’t know if they found a location or what happened to them. But no one seemed to know where they were headed. Baytown will be underwater tonight, so I’m hoping they didn’t decided to just go back.

However, that visit seemed to unlock some of the logjam – and just in time! Buses were now coming in steadily around 11PM. Again, more of the same issues with who would drive to Dallas, and where the local folks would go.

Later Cong. Sheila Jackson Lee made a personal visit to see how the process was working. She and I chatted for a bit over some of the logistical snags: lack of extra-wide wheelchairs, the issue of not having long-trip buses with wheelchair lift capability, and even some of the ongoing issues of drivers getting message to “drive to Dallas”, but not having a specific destination – creating more delays.

It struck me how storms or disasters bring all the politicians from both sides together, working for once on the same team. Dems Brown and Jackson Lee, GOP Hutchison – it didn’t matter. Disasters don’t know politics.

While it seems like the logistics were nothing but a nightmare, that's not true. Vast improvements are having families kept together due to the new process of having everyone entered into a computer database, receiving a wristband that stays on them, and scanning them. This way, TranStar and FEMA have access to the information of who evacuated and where they went. Special consideration is given to keeping families intact in transporting them out.

Even pets are kept with owners -- a key issue overlooked before Katrina. Once upon a time, shelters took humans only. Pets either stayed behind (as we saw at times in Katrina), or their owners refused to leave in order not to let their pets fend for themselves. We've had numerous pets come in, and they're being well cared for -- even having access to their owners in a segregated area in the GRB.

Somehow, as the evening went on we had fewer problems and evacuation locations began immediately opening up. It seemed to impress the staff, the bus drivers and their evacuated passengers and cops watching it all clear up. They were impressed with me thinking I’d done it – I didn’t.

Apparently just getting with the politicos and communicating the logistical snags got the process moving better. It may not have been deserved, but I became (as the volunteer coordinator told me) their “superstar.” It’s nice when efforts coincide and the pieces fall in place. It was like I told the police officer with me after Sheila left, it’s just like team sports: you involve yourself, see what’s happening and what’s needed, then do it.

Finally, about 1AM, I was toast: sleep and recharge time. As I drove home I was impressed with how deserted the roads were, and how typically warm, sticky and calm it was. It’s deceptive.

While I’m sitting here at the house this morning, I’ve been watching the news reports showing the very beginning of the storm surge – 16-18 hours from the storm’s landfall – already topping the seawall in spots. This is going to be a bad storm for Galveston and points in the coastal area.

Just this morning I heard of a freighter with 22 people onboard that’s 90 miles off the coast of Galveston, and the eye of the storm is around 200 miles off. The Coast Guard told them there’s nothing they can do and they’re just going to have to anchor and ride it out. What damn idiot captains this ship? Was he just flown in from Pluto to take over and sail right into Galveston right in the midst of the storm? Lord only knows what’s going to happen to whatever this guy has in cargo … although everyone along the islands will know soon when it washes up. Idiots!

However, it’s not just the ship captain playing stupid. This morning, we’ve seen numerous people still in Galveston and the bay coastal areas, standing around watching the waves. There’s going to be a lot of folks (as we saw on TV this morning) making a last minute decision to leave.

I guess that makes up my mind. In a while, I’ll likely head back downtown and help with the evacuations again. This will be fun.

As I write this, there’s no rain at all, bright sunny day … but the winds suddenly began gusting ….

“Aha, you best believe it's true!
The levee's busted, bad news comin' true!
Oh no, there ain't no place to hide.
Reach out and pluck you, take you for a ride, yeah.
Sheer frustration takin' everything in sight.
Won't be no blessin' if we make it through the night.” — Change In The Weather, Buddy Guy

1 comment:

Polar said...

I wonder if the captain of the freighter voted for Bush?

Be safe, and thank you for your service.