Friday, September 30, 2005

Wow...

I went out with some very cool people from the outfall water sampling group #2. We went out to pumps #16, #14, #7, as well as the Orleans Canal and London Canal. Then we met up with another water sampling team at the West End neighborhood--the one that flooded because of the 17th Street Canal breach. I saw both sides of the breach. The "bad" side got wind and flood damage. The "good" side just got wind damage. To call either one as being in good shape is a complete lie. I'll add explanations of the pictures at a later date. I took 186 pictures today. Here's some of what I saw.

I am very tired and have to start my new duties as te Environmental Assessment Branch Chief tomorrow. It involves hectic office work, which actually should be alright. It's the acronyms and task names that I have to learn which will be the difficult part. Figuring out the protocols and how everyone interacts will be important, because people will chew you out if you talk to the wrong person in the chain. Good times.





















Thursday, September 29, 2005

Ok, this time I mean it... I'm going to New Orleans

Well, I got up at 5am and spent the better part of a half-hour trying to get on the internet to look up the directions of where I was supposed to meet my team to go to New Orleans. I thought I had figured it out, and I drove to "Camp EPA", which really is just an unused parking garage which now has some EPA trailers and vehicles in it. I thought I was all set, but nobody was there. I got a phone call from the coordinator, who was wondering why I was 10 minutes late. Well.. it ends up they just left without me, and I got to sit in the office and learn my new job. I'm actually glad I didn't make it out there today, because without seeing on paper what folks are doing, I would have been totally blown out of the water on Saturday, when I start performing my duties in earnest.

I have a space at the Operations Section in the Incident Management Team. Basically, we've taken over a section of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality's 10th floor, and we've got an entire mobile office set up in here, right down to the snack table complete with Moon Pies. That's right: we've got Moon Pies, so you know that we're getting things done.

It's very hectic in the IMT, but it's actually strange: in my normal duties with EPA, I'll create a document, make 3 or so copies, give them to 3 different people, make 3 sets of edits, and repeat the process until everyone's happy. That's pretty much what I did today. So, it's not that bad (sure, I say that now...). I'm the group supervisor for the Environmental Sampling Group. There are 5 teams of people that are taking water and sediment samples across the city, and I'm the guy that keeps track of where they're going, what they're doing, where they've gone, and where they've been. At least, that's what I think I'm doing. The general rule of thumb around here is that things change.

There are really good folks in this building right now. I've only been here a couple days and I'm pretty wiped, but some of these people have been here since just after Katrina hit. They can quite possibly be labeled 'certifiably insane' for their commitment to their jobs, and their ability to handle the absolute insanity that is addressing a disaster.

I have a car, so I drove to a little deli and got a sandwich. It's chicken salad, and it's delicious.

This town--actually, this whole state--is like an old shoe. Even the really nice part of town is run down--like the stop lights are rusty or the sidewalk is cracked. The old part of town looks even older. Everything in this state looks like it's been used for a long, long time. It's got character though. And really good food. So I shouldn't complain (even though I still will).

So you saw the rom of cots that I've been sleeping in the last couple nights. Thank my Lucky Charms that Jim gave me a set of earplugs, because I can hear people snoring across the room even with them on. Regardless, I've been sleeping just fine. But now, much like George Jefferson, I get to move on up to that de-lux apartment in the sky-ay-ay. I'm heading out to "Camp Katrina" which is a bunch of trailers (3 per trailer with our own shower!) located at a stable. I don't think the horses are there, though. If we're hanging out with manure, that would be a slight step down from the cot room.

Last night Sandy and I got a couple cases of beer and drank with a few guys on the corner, tailgate style. We can't drink on State property, but the State doesn't own the sidewalk or the outer portion of grass. Well, maybe they do, but we are still able to drink on the sidewalk and that outer portion of grass anyway. There's a guy from Philly named James who is hilarious. The three of us sat and told stories like I would with my good friends from home. It was a great time.

So Tomorrow I'm going out to New Orleans with a water sampling team, and this time, it's for real. I promise I'll fill my camera with pictures, and I'll probably let them speak for themselves. It should be an adventure, because even though we have street maps, when the State Department of Transportation gives out traffic reports like:

"All roads are drivable, except for the ones underwater"

...you know it's going to be interesting. (the state DOT actually did give out almost exactly that report, which gave everybody here a good laugh)

This will be interesting. But for now, I sleep.

Our "mobile office" is through the doorway, to the right is about half a floor's worth of cubicles, most of which are occupied by EPA staff.

The cubicles to the right.

The first half of out mobile office. Everyone's in a meeting right now (I'm not a big fish, so I do not have to attend), but it's really packed most of the time.

The second half of the mobile office. My space is that laptop facing the end of the table to the right. Sitting down is Pete, my boss. He's a cool guy. He's got a quality I need to learn: he's direct and to the point. He also didn't kill me for making a few mistakes on my first day. Here's to hoping I don't make any more.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Off to New Orleans

I am the group supervisor for the outfall/flood water sampling group. As soon as the logistics folks can find me a vehicle, I'm of to drive to New Orleans to join up with the floodwater sampling group. I've got a radio, EPA clothing, and all the stuff I need to go out there. I am just pissed that it's taking so long to find a vehicle. They tell us at 7 in the morning that we're going to head out there, then expect us to automatically have a vehicle to do it. So, as long as I get a 4WD within the next hour, I'll be happy. Stories and pictures to follow.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Baton Rouge, maybe tomorrow we'll do something

Today we drove into Baton Rouge. We went east from Dallas toward Shreveport, then south to Lafayette, then we took I-10 (the one that has been really hammered by Katrina east of New Orleans and in Mississippi) to Baton Rouge.

First, it is hot. It's really freaking hot down here. Sure, it's only 95 degrees, but it's so humid that as soon as you get out of the air conditioned buildings, you just feel like your clothes are stuck to you. Also, Louisiana is kind of crappy. Driving down I-49, we expected to see towns and gas stations and stores along the highway, but for some reason, anything resembling civilization is not located along the highways.

Hurricane damage: We've seen some significant damage even as far north as Shreveport. There is a lot of water everywhere. Sure, there are swamps and bayous, which are supposed to be wet. But everything looks just waterlogged around here. There were a lot of fallen trees everywhere we looked south of Shreveport. We told ourselves that we wouldn't let the gas tank get below half-full, and gassed up as often as we could along the way. There were runs on gasoline as far north as Mansfield. We stopped at a station somewhere just south of Mansfield, and of the three stations, one was completely out of gas, while the other two had lines for gas a couple cars deep. We ate at a Wendy's, which was out of fruit, and had no other sodas than root beer, fruit punch, diet coke, and iced tea. The shelves of the gas stations were mostly empty, and it just seemed like all the people we saw were either travelling away from the hurricane-damaged parts of LA, or going back to see what's left of their homes. Everyone in this state seems to be in transition.

We stopped at a Wal Mart in Natchitoches and I picked up some hiking boots, a knife, a raincoat, and some bug spray. While I was being ringed up by the lady at the guns and ammunition counter, 8 people asked her where stuff was located in the store. 5 of her answers were "we're out of that". They're out of air conditioners, ice chests, (mostly out of) batteries, and other necessities. The store looked just well worn. Some shelves were unscathed by the purchasing populace, while other shelves were completely devoid of goods. The traffic in Natchitoches is horrible, by the way. It took more than a half hour to go just a couple miles and back. And to top it off, I set off the store alarm because of the sensor in the box of my boots (which, for the record, I did pay for).

The stretch of I-10 from Lafayette to Baton Rouge was somewhat surreal. Going east, all I saw was army/Nat'l guard caravans, fuel trucks, semis loaded with goods, heavy equipment, government vehicles (EPA, DHS, etc.), and cars full of families or full of possessions. Going west, we saw power company trucks and more of same. Most of I-10 on this stretch of road is very pleasant. It's all elevated, and you drive above swamps and bayous. There was water all below us, I don't know if it's supposed to be there all the time or not, but Southern Louisiana is waterlogged.

When we got into town, the thing I noticed most is that the feds have pretty much moved into town, and there is a general 'loose' sense across the whole state. Not lawlessness, but it just feels like there's a little more leeway to do what you feel down here.

We arrived at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality building, where I am spending the night. We checked in, got ID's made, and I was sent off to the Joint Federal Operations center down the road for my inoculations. The JOC is just insane. I was greeted by Blackwater guards, who carded me and let me in (I am a federal employee, after all). The JOC is basically this huge warehouse-cum-operations center. You name the agency, and it's in there. I went up a freight elevator full of federal police (think swat team members), and went to the medical portion of the cube forest that has sprung up inside this building. A nice lady gave me my inoculations. I know I had a Hepatitis A and B inoculation before I went to college, but being the sucker for punishment I am, got them again. Now I get to go back to the doctor in a few weeks and again in a few months to get more shots. But at least I'll be very sure I won't get Hep A or B.

Got back to the LDEQ building and went to our first briefing. We were put in a conference room full of huge satellite photos of New Orleans, and maps of known damage, flooded areas, and other information. We were shown some pictures of what to expect when we get out in the field tomorrow. All I can say is if I take pictures half as good as the ones I saw today, you're all in for some serious storm damage.

We learned what to be careful of while we're in the field: everything. There are oil slicked roads that when wet can skid your car. There are any number of poisonous snakes that can kill you. There are bugs, rabid packs of dogs, toxic waste, hazardous materials, and mold. The mold is apparently inches thick inside most of the water damaged buildings, and a lot of people are already getting upper respiratory infections. I am definitely getting a respirator if I go inside a home. WE have to watch out for gators, and spiders, and tire-flattening debris. Although almost all of the power lines we'll come across are not powered, people are hard-wiring generator to their homes, which sends juice through the lines, which just adds to the list of things that can hurt me in the field. So it should be good times. I will find out where I'll be tomorrow morning. I hope that my posts get more interesting. I'll probably post tomorrow night, if I am able to. For now, you'll have to settle for this pic of some storm damage in Baton Rouge.
Some building fell apart.

Where I'm sleeping tonight. (Sorry, it's blurry, but there are people sleeping in there now, so I ain't taking another one).

Monday, September 26, 2005

Louisana it is

So we finally figured out where we're going. Tomorrow morning we're heading out to Baton Rouge, LA. Although we've been told that our job will probably change once we get there, I was told that I'm part of the Hazardous Debris Task Force. No idea what that involves yet, but I'm sure I'll let you know as time progresses.

We have to be at the operations center at 4pm, and some roads between here and Baton Rouge are impassable, so we're giving ourselves plenty of time to get there. Luckily, since we're in Dallas, we'll be north of a lot of the damaged areas until we get closer to Baton Rouge. Hopefully we'll get there with little trouble. But what this means is that I'll have some exciting pictures to share, as well as actual good stories of helping the Gulf Coast recover from what happened.

I'll post when I can. I know that we're going to be sleeping in a hallway of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality building in Baton Rouge. I know that there's a lot of devastation in southern Louisiana. Other than that, I don't know much else right now. It's exciting in a way, because even though I don't know exactly what will transpire in the coming days, I know that it will all be for a good cause. And I'll be surrounded by good people. That's all I need to know right now.

And the waiting is the hardest part

Tom Petty was right. We had a meeting at 8 in the morning, where we were told that Texas doesn't have as much damage as they expected, and EPA is not requested to help. HQ doesn't want to have us come down here for nothing, so they're looking to integrate us with the Louisiana relief efforts--either in New Orleans or Lake Charles. We've got another meeting at 6pm, so maybe we'll know something then.

We went to the site where JFK was shot. What I took from going there was that the entire area is just so much smaller than it looks in the video. There are two "x" marks on the road, one black (where the first bullet struck JFK) and one white (where the second bullet hit). They're not that far apart, maybe a few car lengths. We visited the grassy knoll and stood outside the book depository. Here are some pics:

The grassy knoll is to the left of center.


A view of the book depository (far left) from the grassy knoll


The grassy knoll from the sidewalk.


View of white "x" from the grassy knoll.


The book depository building. There's a museum in the back, but I think that the county uses this building as an office...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

(Insert 'Dallas' theme song here)

(Click the link above for the theme song for this post)

So, Dallas is ok. It's like Indianapolis or Minneapolis: there's nothing but parking lots next to a downtown (that was ghost-town-empty on a Sunday night) and a huge area of suburbs surrounding that. They do have super-nifty highways with big stars on the pilings. Lone stars. They're big because, well, everything's bigger in Texas...even the stars on their highways. And BBQ. Sweet, sweet BBQ. Luckily Jim and Sandy like BBQ too, so we've had it twice in two days. We went to a joint where the brisket was cut right in front of us. Yesterday we went to a place that advertised its food as 'world famous' BBQ. Tonight's place said they'd been there 'since 1948'. The 'world famous' BBQ was tastier than the tried and true BBQ. So that's a little tip for y'all city folk: while both are very good in and of themselves, 'world class' BBQ is superior to BBQ 'since 1948'.

I have a real beef with the fact that Chicago doesn't have as many BBQ joints as we do burrito joints. Human beings should have ready access to tasty food of all kinds at all hours, it's as simple as that.

Again, I have no idea what I'm going to be doing down here or where I will be working. I can only speculate that I will either wok 12 hour days in an office in Dallas (in which case this blog's level of interestingness will be in the crapper) or I'll be sent to areas which have been damaged. If I am sent out to the coast to work in hurricane damaged areas--which I hope that I will--this blog will be the most efficient way to communicate to my family and friends. For now, indulge yourselves with these pictures from the 12th floor of the Dallas Park Central Westin hotel.


The buildings in the foreground are not downtown Dallas. Dallas and Fort Worth can be seen behind the office park.

The call; the trip South


Sunset while refueling somewhere in the middle of Missouri

So, I'm in Dallas, Texas. The Agency sent out a call for volunteers to go on a 2 or 3 week stint for hurricane relief before Katrina hit, and I asked my boss, got the o.k., and told our emergency response coordinator that I could go if needed. I got the call to head to Dallas on Friday at about 2 in the afternoon. After work I went to the Sox game, went to the Second City, passed out, and got in a Suburban at 12:30 the next day with a couple other EPA folks: an underground storage tank inspector named Sandy, and a guy from Superfund (hazardous area cleanup) named Jim. Both are cool, given that we have been getting along and laughing from the get-go, and we still laughed our way into Texas. So that's good. We don't know what we're supposed to do yet, but we'll find out tomorrow morning a 8am at EPA's Region 6 building downtown. I'll post more after dinner.