My Red Cross volunteering thing

I know P&R is the Katrina forum of choice, but whatever.

One week ago I volunteered and told them I could leave on 9/9. Tomorrow at 5pm, I head to DR#871, which I gather is in Mississippi. I don’t have my itinerary yet, but I gather I leave from Sacramento and fly into Birmingham, Alabama. From there, I call an 800 number for further instructions. Given the times involved, the first instruction will probably be to get a hotel room.

Apparently, the Red Cross isn’t taking any volunteers for a few days. The guy I spoke with today said they only have something like 9,000 of the 40,000 they need, but they got all 9,000 at once and are running into logistical problems. They need a couple of days to clear it up.

Anyway, if I get any internet access, I’ll post updates here. I’m taking my camera, so maybe I’ll post some gratuitous photos of miserable people. Or not.

Good luck Nathan and please do try and keep in touch.

After being driven to the wrong city, I eventually caught a 10:15pm flight out of San Francisco. Arrived in Montgomery, AL at 8:15am, and went straight to the HQ in an abandoned Wal-Mart. After the worst beauracratic mess I’ve ever seen, I got registered, waited around for a while, was given a hotel room and finally got some sleep. This morning, while waiting around for an assignment, someone asked for two people who could use Excel, so I volunteered. It looks like I’m spending my whole time here, doing data entry. It’s effectively their database for their DR871 shelter needs. They really should be using something good, but whatever. Tonight, I’m sleeping in the staff shelter with 100 of my closest friends. Joy. But, I kinda knew that was going to happen.

So if I’m here, no disaster-area photos, sorry. When I get a bit more time, I’ll try to upload pictures of the HQ. It’s just weird, here.

Good work, Nathan. It’s needed.

Minor update: Staff shelters are real fucking boring at night. I didn’t bring my PSP because I didn’t want to worry about $300 of electronics in a staff shelter. Also I can’t hook up my camera without admin privilidges, so no photos of the empty Wal-Mart until later.

Since I see that QT3 now has a wiki, I fear that my little pseudoblog here will further push it into “LOL kthxbye” territory, but I promise to stop when I get home.

Why not just post here? Out of one of the many things I hate about wikis, no structured response is one of them.

Oh, I’m still gonna post here. I was just kidding around about my self-indulgent thread lowering the standard of quality grouchiness around here.

There are two donated laptops in the entire center for email and web use. All the other PC’s in the center are pretty much blocked from everything that isn’t Red Cross or a news site. 10-minute limit, in theory, but I think you have to really push it before someone asks you to leave.

The rough thing about volunteer office work like this is that almost nobody is here for very long. The person who’s training me and knows how the system works, for example, has been here two weeks and leaves next week. There are a couple of paid workers here, but they’ve got their hands full. I think that’s how you wind up using Excel to track shelter needs.

Minor update: Several shelters have closed, and Shelter Support has decided that they didn’t need me after all. I believe this, because it’s consistent with the way things seem to work here, and because I don’t think I had enough time to screw up that badly. So now it’s intense boredom while I wait for another assignment.

After being deassigned, I started pestering the Response Technology Team for a transfer from the mass care group. They’re the IT group, but for whatever reason they’re not called that.

After a day of light training, I volunteered for a trip to Biloxi to move an HQ from Gulfport. Our group got the assignment at 8:30 and left by 10:00. It was about a 4 1/2 hour drive when we arrived at the shrine hall the HQ was moving into. They’d already run steel cable across the hall from the balconies, and we ran network cables along the lines and dropped them to the floor where the individual groups were going to set up. We ran a ton of lines for the network and a bunch of lines for IP phones while another group set up the sattelite dish.

We did this until around midnight, when the local RTT guy came back in and announced that administration had changed it’s mind, and had a new layout.

Two hours later, we’d run about 2 miles of Cat. 5. One group was leaving early, so I caught a ride with them to the naval station where the Seabees had set up a staff shelter. I thought the staff shelter here in Montgomery was bad, but this was a warehouse with 500 mostly-filled cots and no AC right next to the coast. I managed to get a couple of hours sleep before they turned the lights on at 6:00, when we drove back to Montgomery, where I almost immediately returned to my hotel room and fell asleep.

Where I was in Biloxi, the damage was bad but not horrific. You’re driving along, and you notice that the sign on a billboard’s been torn up. Then you notice that all the billboards are torn up. Then you see a couple of houses with some shingles missing. Then you cross the river and see a boat sitting 30 feet up the bank, and half the trees are blown over. Then you get into the city and all the commercial signs are knocked out or blown over, and most houses have blue tarps on the roofs, and a few buildings have collapsed for whatever reason. It wasn’t terrible, but man, it wasn’t good. I’m told it gets much worse farther in, but obviously we didn’t go there.

Against any kind of rational thinking, I volunteered to drive to Brookhaven yesterday to install a pair of satellite phones in a staff shelter. The 300-mile drive down wasn’t too bad. The person I went with, Monica, was a decent travelling companion. She’s an editor who claims to have worked with a couple of very well-known horror authors. I don’t have any particular reason to doubt her, and it’s not like it matters anyway. She went on and on about some new author she’s editing named something like Rhys Gruffyd or Gryffud or whatever. I gather he’s Welsh. At any rate, there was something to discuss on the drive.

Anyway, a sattelite phone is a pretty expensive piece of hardware. The understanding was that the shelter was without any communications, so we were a little surprised to find the place just a few blocks away from open Cracker Barrel and Ruby Tuesday restaurants. Oh, and everyone had working cell phones, which are tons more reliable and cheaper than sat phones. I suspect someone at the staff shelter said “We don’t have phone service”, and that propagated through the different groups and managers until it became “They have no communications! Get them a sat. phone!” Whatever.

For what it’s worth, though, the people here really aren’t a bunch of fools. We’re doing a lot of good, but with an operation this size with an all-volunteer workforce, with such a high turnover rate, usual organizational issues get magnified until you get some people just wasting time. Whatever happens behind the scenes, what’s important is that there are clients getting the help they need.

This is kind of hard to express. But good man, Nathan, good man. I wish I had the ability to get away from my work long enough spend the kind of time doing the good you are doing.

Thanks, Zen, I appreciate it.

Slooow day today. A couple of minor issues with PCs, and a number of people requesting / returning cell phones. I had the chance to go do some site surveys for upcoming staff shelters, but I really really want two days in a row without hours of driving. Tuesday, I’ll probably be excited to go.

I’m also really trying to get my staff card, a pre-loaded debit card for miscellaneous expenses, like food. I’ll admit that I can eat in the staff shelter: I won’t be hurting for food no matter what happens, but after an 11-hour day, a good meal does a lot for the spirit.

My understanding is that the number of volunteers they have is outstripping the number they can actually process. They ran out of the physical cards to distribute. They spotted me $200 a week ago, which is gradually diminishing. I’m doing fine, but an expense card would make trips much easier. For example, on the satellite phone job I mentioned yesterday, we used up nearly $100 just in gas. If I had to use my cash for that, I might have been in trouble. I also have a couple of personal credit cards, so even if things go really poorly, I can get out that way and probably even be reimbursed. That just sounds like a pain.

Tomorrow’s my day off, but I’m coming in to HQ for a little bit, anyway. One couple brought in a washer and dryer and are very kindly doing staff’s laundry. Unfortunately, there’s just the one washer and dryer, so my clothes will be ready tomorrow. It looks like I’ll have a car on my day off, too, so I should be able to finally see a little bit more of Montgomery than the strip of box stores and franchise restaurants I’ve seen so far.

This is going to be sad/goofy but if anyone will get it, you lot will: I didn’t bring my GBA or PSP because I didn’t know where I was going to be staying and I don’t want to try to keep track of anything pricey to replace. The most complicated game I’ve played in over a week is Nanaca Crash, which it turns out isn’t blocked by our firewall. Last night, I almost stopped into GameStop and bought a used GBC and Zelda DX to have a cheap game to play. I decided against it because: 1) What would I do with a GBC after I’m done here?, and 2) I don’t really have time to play anything. It’s just a force of habit that I feel like I should. The good news is that I put all my Sargeras characters in inns before I left, so I should have maxed out my rest bonuses by the time I can play again.

Be happy if you’ve never experienced the filth that is the “love bug”. Not those movies about the Volkswagon, the little black and orange insect that is, in a completely non-figurative sense, fucking everywhere. See, they mate while in flight, and pretty much all the time. So they’re fucking in the air, on your shirt, and occasionally on your glasses if you wear them. I think the only place they don’t fuck for long is on the highway, because they’re too busy splattering on your windshield like a shit-smelling sticky rainstorm. I don’t know if this is seasonal or if they’re always here, but they’re a damned good reason to stay out of Mississippi.

So Monday was my day off. I went downtown to check the sights. The state capitol was apparently the capitol of the confederacy, though I’m not sure for how long. I visited an open plaza that used to be a slave auction. There was also a church where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor. Of course, I left my camera in the car, and I decided that it was too hot to walk back and get it.

There’s a service center in Tylertown, and the tech guy there’s been there a while, so yesterday I agreed to drive his replacement down. The basic rule is that nobody drives alone, so I was supposed to bring the Tylertown guy back with me. Well, he isn’t ready to go yet, and he really needs a car. So could I find a way back? I found a group of volunteering Democrats there who were heading back to Montgomery, so I’m catching a ride with them. Right now, I’m in the business center of a Mariott in Jackson, waiting for a woman we’re picking up to finish packing.

Last night / today was also the first time I’ve really been on the front lines, so to speak. I’ll have more to say about that when I get more time.

The basic service center operation is this: Clients line up and get a number ticket, generally for a future date. I didn’t see this happen, but I gather it’s a mess. Then, in the morning, they come in and wait for their number to be called. In Tylertown, they waited in the bleachers of the dirt stadium or arena or whatever it’s called at the event center where the service center was. Once their number was up, the clients move into the event center itself to wait some more, but it’s air conditioned. Eventually, they meet with a worker who fills out a 901 form that enters them into the system. That worker identifies their immediate needs, loads and issues them a Client Assistance Card (or a check if CAC’s aren’t available), and sends them to the bulk distribution area for whatever they need right now. It seems complex, but it gets the job done. My understanding is that the Tylertown center handles somewhere between 600-800 clients per day. The 901 forms are sometimes entered on-site, but often they are forwarded to centers where they just do data-entry.

I’d guess that the service center in Jackson is about three times the size of the one in Tylertown. At least the whole facility was air-conditioned. Security at service centers and staff shelters is generally done by a combination of National Guard and local/state police. I’m not sure if the police are on or off-duty.

I didn’t see it myself, but a few people made a run to Wal-Mart for supplies after the Tylertown center had closed. On their way back in, a few clients stopped them at the “gate” for information, and someone saw that, and soon they had something like 35 carloads of people asking for assistance. The workers went to each car and basically told them to come back in the morning. It sounds cold, but it’s just not practical to run a 24-hour operation. From what I’ve heard, this happens every night, and pretty much every service center.

I gather someone also found a child sleeping on the lawn of the facility, but part of that may be embellishment. I didn’t get any more of the story than that, and I’ll be damned if I wanted to hear it anyway.

Let me tell you how Hurricane Rita is impacting the operation in Montgomery: It’s raining. Also, the service center I mentioned previously? At least some of them are closing down. A Red Cross operation has several stages. The first is relief, making sure that the clients get food and shelter. The second is recovery, getting clients the resources they need to get on with their lives and start participating in their local economy. The service centers are mostly part of the recovery phase. However, with Rita coming in, the operations nearest the area are shifting back towards relief operations to take care of new evacuees from Houston and such. My understanding is that this is required by part of the agreement the ARC has with Homeland Security, but it would probably happen anyway. It must be fun working over in the Public Affairs group when stuff like this happens.

One of my closest friends works for the Southern Company, which does the power for the south-east. Whenever something like this happens he spends weeks working 18 hour days, 7 days a week until they can get power back. He was in Mississippi for something like 8 straight days, and I’m not talking about there’s a city still here kind of the state, the part that got hit the hardest. They found 7 corpses in trees while trying to re-establish power. They were told to leave them alone and mark them on GPS. He also said that there was no sound at all. No birds, dogs, crickets or anything. He said it looked like a bomb was dropped. It’s kind of like God wiped that place off of the Earth.

Of course, that area doesn’t get much media covrage because of New Orleans, but it sounds like hell.

Nathan, thanks for going and volunteering. I can’t take that kind of time off work, so I’m glad someone is going, even if I can’t. On a related note, I went to my doctor’s website today to try and book an appointment, and discovered that one of the other doctors in the office has gone down to help out. There are a few blog entries, which are rather heartbreaking. It makes me feel very conflicted about the red cross - far too much bureaucracy and not enough helping.

On one hand, this is true: the bureacracy is absolutely maddening. On the other hand, at this level it’s pretty much all-volunteer. Keep in mind that the Red Cross doesn’t even know for sure that a person’s going to be there until they’re there: promising to volunteer is cheap. Now take this volunteer pool, and consider how many of them have ever done this before. It’s not many. Now take that pool, and find out how many of them actually have any real management or leadership skills. Now consider the combined experience of a work group when most volunteers stay for only three weeks. Now have this workforce arrange to get 12 million meals where they’re needed while maintaining the safety of the volunteers.

The beauracracy behind the operation is fundamentally a series of step-by-step instructions that ensure that things get done in a reasonably safe manner. Without that, I really think it would be a total clusterfuck. It’s a horribly inefficient mess and it’s fundamentally unlikely to get much better, but it does a lot of good.

By the way: I don’t have enough time left to really travel anywhere, and Red Cross HQ has inexplicably loosened their firewall to allow access to QT3. That’s why I’m posting more often in the last couple of days.

Two nights ago: beer. Last night: beer. Managed to find a drinking group and hit a couple of bars. One was called Igor’s, which I liked but I felt out of place in. I try to be color-blind, but I admit I felt a little weird being at the all-white table in the otherwise black bar. The second, a self-proclaimed english pub called the Fox & Hound. As far as I can tell, you can claim you’re an english pub if you have draught Guinness and a dart board, because otherwise this place was a lot like any other bar. They had a couple of pool rooms which brought us back for a second night. Nachos in Alabama seem weird: they put those purple-colored beans on them. A couple of people from northern states were impressed by my willingness to eat the jalapeños.

Today’s my last day of actual work. My understanding is that because of the hurricane and the tornado threat connected with it, we have half our staff off today and the other half off tomorrow. It’s been slow enough that half the staff is about right. Mostly, I’m checking out cell phones and signing people’s out-process papers to certify that they aren’t taking ARC laptops with them. I’m technically off tomorrow, but I still need to come in to do my own out-processing. I allegedly fly out at 5:00pm the next day.

Also, I really wanted to ask this unreasonably cute woman from South Carolina to dinner, but I choked and it turned into a “I’ll see you around.” Dammit.

Yesterday: Day off. Went to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival park-thing. The highland games were wrapping up, but there were a couple of pipers there for some kind of morning chuch service. Went to the art museum, where they had a pretty neat exhibit by Duane Hanson. He had a bunch of uncanny sculptures of ordinary people in regular poses, which made the whole exhibit kind of creepy. Every time I looked at a piece I kind of expected them to ask what I was staring at. There are some very nice paintings, including an Edward Hopper. I made it back downtown to get some photos of the capitol building. I also went to the mall to kill some time, but I arrived before it was actually open. It had a very Dawn of the Dead feel.

Poor coordination kept me from getting a ride back to the Fox & Hound with people from my work group, so I ate at a japanese steakhouse near my hotel. I met a man from Colorado and his daughter from Chicago who came down to visit his family dislocated by Katrina, and a couple of truck drivers who are part of the reconstruction effort. I wonder what the relief effort is doing for the Montgomery economy.

Today: Heavy rain. I jumped through all the out-processing hoops, which includes a brief chat with a mental health professional. I gather a number of people go a bit nuts down here. I believe it: I met the guy I was supposed to bring back from Tylertown earlier, and there was something a bit off about him. It’s not like I knew him before he volunteered or anything, but he seemed really tired and agitated when I saw him.

My flight leaves a little before 5pm, so I have some time to kill. I’ll try to get a ride to lunch, or walk if the rain lets up.