Sunday, September 28, 2008

PSO: Something constant in something changing

First concert of the season. Actually, I think I've only been to opening weekend once, two years ago. But I remember the start. The assembled audience openly singing 'The Star Spangled Banner' to the best of their ability accompanied by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. A performance I find better then any celebrity with their own interpretation of the piece at a Super Bowl or World Series.

The Star Spangled Banner has changed its meaning to me over the past two works, which is proper as an artistic work (which it is, among other things). In the past two years, I have been attached to military forces to Afghanistan, and I have responded to fires and worked in Hurricane response as a Red Cross volunteer. I've been alongside those in the military, fire, police, all levels of public service and volunteers doing their jobs in non-standard conditions. To use some allusions to literature, classic man vs. man and man vs. nature scenarios. Some of the people I worked with were tuned personally to working in crisis and emergency conditions. Some were not. But even those who were not, generally strove to do their duty even when in situations much larger then themselves. And I was glad to be in their company.

With this frame of mind, I listened to the PSO play 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine.' I've listened to versions on the internet, but somehow, the hearing it live, in the concert environment, with all the variables of the concert setting such as an audience, the orchestra and conductor, and its place on the program, changes its meaning. I spent much of the past month in Texas and Louisiana volunteering for the Red Cross, serving in government operations centers. In these centers, there were representatives from a wide variety of state government agencies, working to provide support for citizens being impacted by the hurricane or in the early stages of recovery. Many of the workers there were used to working in emergencies, like those from law enforcement or fire. Many were not, and these were new stresses for them.

The time in these centers were marked by constant activity, rising and falling in tempo. And there was much repetition, as similar issues would recur in different places. Similar enough to be familiar, but just different enough that they had to be engaged differently. Very much like the orchestral parts in 'Short Ride' with it many repetitions in the parts that were close enough to be familiar, but different enough to sound different with every reprise of a theme.

The underlying unity of 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine' is provided by the wood blocks, with their constant marking of a pulse, even as their tenor changes. And the constant where I was working was in the steadiness of the work, the ongoing response to situations by those doing the work, whether steady, calm, frustrated, or overwhelmed, which was the constant tenor amidst the constant activity and sometimes chaos of a hurricane.

My life is a varied one, with many aspects. Among them is this place to absorb and respond to performances of the fine arts. While in Texas and Louisiana I dealt with a wide variety of people. People whose lives have been turned inside out and upside down. People who worked in recovery, to whom hurricane response and recovery was a challenge worthy of applying their talents and skills. People who were responsible for citizens of their towns, counties and parishes, doing their duty. People who heard a calling to help their fellow people, using the talents and abilities they may have. Some of them would view themselves as simple people, far away from the lights of the big city and the great ideas of the world. And many of them would be greatly surprised at being thought of in the context of one of the country's great fine arts institutions. But it is for them that such works were created. And I was proud to know them and glad for the opportunity to serve with them.

[Also posted at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra PSO Blogs]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Word of the day: Doves

Doves: Disaster Operations Volunteer Escapees. retired couple that for their vacations travel to disasters in their RVs to work as Red Cross volunteers.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

QOTD: If you are not pissing everybody off

"If you are not pissing everybody off, you aren't going to make it as a government liaison."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hunkering down for Hurricane Ike

I've been here for a week now. Mostly working in the Louisiana State Operations Center. Very busy, lots of phones going off with all the state agencies here. Lots of different groups in the room. Numerous state agencies including State Police, Environmental Quality, National Weather service, Dept. of Agriculture, Department of Transporation and Development. Department of Social Services, Department of Health and Hospitals. Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Red Cross. Corps of Engineers. And many that you may not expect. All with a job. Some jobs are obvious, some are not. Because there is a disaster. It is a surprise that everyone can be thrown in a room and work together. Well, ok, there is a learning curve for everyone to work together, but still, 50+ people in a room who have never been in the same room before working together is pretty impressive.

At one point one of the other Red Cross guys with me took a moment to step back to watch the room. He figured there were thirty phones going off at the time. Let's see, what kind of things to I work on. . .

- Calls from mobile kitchens that are running out of fuel

- Shelters that needed supplies, showers, generators

- Requests for data on feeding activities for planners

- Requests for information on state emergency and disaster declarations

State agencies asking 'Can Red Cross do . . .?'

Governor's representatives coming to ask 'How does Red Cross . . .?'
- Big, unsolicited, unexpected donation of food that we had to figure out how to use (or if we could use it)

Lots of big issues. Very different from being one of the people on the ground, talking to people, feeding people, setting up cots, surveying damage, all the other things I've done in Red Cross. But it is not too hard to see how it fits into everything else. Especially when some of the resources that get coordinated here keep other operations from shutting down. Like feeding people who do not have another source of food because the power is out.

But now, Ike is making landfall overnight. Everyone is hunkering down. The place I'm staying has had its power on and off today. And waiting out the storm. So we can go back to work tomorrow.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Greeting Hurricane Gustav in Texas

Last week Wednesday
"Please update your availability to deploy for Hurricane Gustav"

"Can you deploy for Hurricane Gustav? I'll get back to you with an assignment."

Friday 1430:
"Book the first available flight to Tyler, TX. You will be a government liaison. Call me when you have flight information."

I've been spending the past week in Tyler, TX volunteering for the Red Cross responding to Hurricane Gustav. It has been a hectic week, almost all of it spent inside a state operations center here starting from morning until late at night. I joke it is my first Red Cross deployment, it is for a hurricane, and I never got wet.

Tyler, TX is in northeast Texas, and while it did not get hit by Hurricane Gustav, its partner city, Beaumont, did. And in the first test of the Texas evacuation plan, all evacuees from Beaumont were sent to Tyler. The center I was in was responsible for state of Texas resources in 20 counties in northeast Texas, who were housing evacuees from various parts of the Texas coast around Beaumont and Galveston. It is a massive burden, as the receiving counties are not nearly as densely populated as their coastal partners. Red Cross and locally sponsored shelters had 5000+ evacuees, and every hotel and motel room in the region was booked, mostly with evacuees. And they have to be fed, medical needs met, and issues of all sorts that happen when you have this large a population over any period of time. And then, when the all clear comes, everyone that evacuated with help from the state, needs to get back.

Does it work? Like all concepts that are implemented for the first time there are kinks, but everyone here looks pleased by the end result, and much better then last time around (2005). Evacuees were around people from the same place as them, and it was easier to organize the transporation back, as people in one shelter were going to the same destination point along the coast. Still, I submitted a 5 page report with some issues, and everyone has been told to do the same, quickly, because there is another hurricane on the way.

It was a good place to work. Incident Command System (ICS) works, I had my role, and I fit into the team here pretty much seamlessly. Like all operations, there is a lot that is learned everytime you go on one in a different place. It gets hectic. Problems arise at the local level that were not anticipated (after all, this is a disaster). There are the information requests from higher up that are overly burdensome. And there are long hours trying to plan the next stage of the disaster response, which has to happen the same time you are working on issues in the here and now. And you have been doing this for N hours that day, with another M hours to go before you even think of sleep. Along with everyone else in the room who have been doing the same thing.

Deep thinking will have to wait. The last couple days were spent getting buses to people, people on buses, and buses moving south. And people arriving back home. And now, I head east, to Louisiana, where it seems like it was not so easy. Because, even though I've noticed that Hurricane Gustav is not on the news anymore (pushed off by Hurricane Hannah. We heard a reporter say "it may make a moderate category 1" and we all started laughing. A moderate category 1 can be experienced by driving on the highway with the windows open during a thunderstorm), Red Cross, police, medical, and military personnel are still helping those evacuees, feeding those who have returned to homes without electricity and gas, and helping hospitals who have their populations back, but are not operating at full themselves.