Thursday, August 25, 2011

Feel Good

Recently Mr.Adam called from Plaquemines Parish after tracking my number down just to say "thank you" for all I did. I was so overwhelmed. After 5 years.

click to see some pictures I posted in my other blog many years ago. Still in the process of finishing up this saga.

some pictures

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

One year after Hurricane Katrina

After Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, the company immediately mobilized to aid in the recovery effort. Since then, employees have provided critical emergency services and helped thousands of families with temporary housing and schools. One year later, work continues through a new contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

To date, my company has: hauled and installed more than 23,000 temporary homes for FEMA; constructed temporary schools in Mississippi that have allowed more than 8,000 children to return to school; helped plug dam levee breeches by providing specially designed sand-filled, 16,000-pound polypropylene fabric bags; remove thousands of tons of debris from the streets of New Orleans; and quickly get a Procter & Gamble manufacturing facility as well as other industrial sites back online.

Glad to be a part of this. Hopefully diaster doesn't strike again.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

We Want Trailers, Now We Don't!

I have been meaning to complete this saga. But somehow haven't managed to devote a chunk of my time to finish what I started. Will do. Must do. Soon. Very soon.

Was watching CNN yesterday and there was yet another news clip on Katrina (I normally never miss anything on this subject). This time they were talking to this lady, Diane Lionel, whom I personally delivered a trailer to. Was hoping to hear some inordinate praises for our hard work, but she was raging mad. The trailer we gave her was right there, in her front yard with my finger prints and all. Her house had been repaired and now with the wake of a new hurricane season, she had a new worry. The trailer sitting in front of her house could prove to be a projectile under heavy winds and damage her house. There are many people like Diane who are worried and want FEMA to take their trailer away.

A FEMA representative informed us that there are still 9000 people who are waiting to receive their trailers. Diane's trailers can't be given to those people as they are expecting a brand new trailer and will not accept a refurbished one. Brilliant! Sometimes I feel some people deserve their government!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Part 3- Perspective

September 18th, 2005

En route to Belle Chasse, we noticed that the hurricane damage got worse as we headed east from Thibodaux. The first time I saw a broken window, I whipped up my camera and took 5 shots of it. I was later to find that broken windows of standing structures got rare as we got closer to the eye of the hurricane. Rubbles instead of homes became more common. The scene just got grimmer. Those photos of broken windows were nothing compared to what lay ahead of me in the days to come. Here and there, we’d see businesses completely rummaged and looted. Dollar store, Lazyboy furniture store, even Burger King was not spared. Such times you don’t wonder about the integrity of such people as much as you do about their sanity. Running out of a store with a sofa tucked under your arm when most of the town is flooded comes in close contention to hijackers shooting the pilot before the landing.

There was a huge queue (at least 4 blocks long) to get into Walmart at 5 am and get supplies. Walmart employees were letting in people in small batches to control the crowd. They had armed personnel to assist them incase pandemonium broke. If you are lucky, you could be done with shopping for milk and bread in 8 hours (if the supplies last). Traffic lights were shattered, so most of the times at the intersections, we had to make an quick judgment and drive on hoping no one would slam us from the sides.

I-90 East took us over a bridge where we caught sight of New Orleans downtown with the superdome dominating the skyline on the left. It was stripped off its white roof. The tall neighboring buildings stood intact. On closer observation, the windows were all shattered and parts of the structure damaged. As I look at the city that prided itself to be the biggest party locale in the world, I couldn’t help the shiver from running down my spine. Not a soul in sight; the town was dead. ‘You should have come here before Katrina,’ said Matt. I don’t know if I could take it if I had.We crossed the Intercostal canal and we entered Belle Chase. There was a sign that said- Katrina has done her worst, now let us do our best.

We arrived at the Belle Chasse EOC (Emergency Operations Center) by 8 am. The two hour drive was going to kill us for sure. The EOC was swarming with the military (National Guard), Red Cross, Salvation Army, Army Corp of Engineers (USACE), Environmental Restoration(ER), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in spite of the day being a Sunday. We walked into the parish government office and the thing that struck me was boxes and boxes of food and water lying around. Food isn’t going to be a problem for us, I thought. A few clueless displaced residents walked in and out looking for answers. Some yelled and some cried. Some spoke to us thinking we could help. All we could do was listen, and say, ‘We understand.’ Did we really?

The parish president looked completely stressed out as he was giving announcements to his citizens in the radio to remain calm and help was on its way. He assured them that the temporary housing would be in place in two weeks. I guess that’ll be us doing that. I’m glad he is doing all the promising.We got our act together pretty soon. Roger was elected by us to lead the Strike Team in Plaquemines Parish. We started our work by scouting around for sites where we could place trailers. Some of the land would be donated by property owners and some would be leased by the government. We located a bunch of potential sites that day and at the same time got familiar with the parish we would be working in for a month or more.

Plaquemines Parish is a narrow strip of land south of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi river. From here, it flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Mississippi, the largest river in the US, runs through the middle of this peninsula. The parish is divided by the river into the east bank and the west bank. The west bank has got more residents and businesses. The main industry is deep-sea fishing, geese- hunting, oil rigs and citrus plantations. Belle Chasse is in the north and Venice is in the south, 100 miles apart. Low income people lived in the south. Both these cities are in the west bank. Most of this parish used to be bayous or marshy mangroves that were converted to land by pumping out all the water and constructing levees to protect the waters from flooding. Levees are embankments or dykes 15-20 feet high made of nothing but soil. There are levees that are built all along Mississippi river and there are levees are the built along the Gulf of Mexico to create a bathtub like effect. When you drive from north to south on Highway 23 (the only road in this Parish), you are flanked by levees on both sides.

Plaquemines Parish was the first to be hit by Katrina and the last to see any kind of help. The people are quite bitter here though no cases of shooting were reported (St Bernards parish and New Orleans Ninth Ward saw a lot of crime). The population we are dealing with is 30,000 out of which more than half the people lost their homes due to the hurricane. The death toll was not much because everyone was evacuated. It was almost a month after the hurricane and this area felt like a war zone. Miles south of Belle Chasse, I heard it just got worse.

Belle Chasse was still not fully functional even though the damage was not pronounced. The houses belonged to the upper class and the ground elevation was higher. The roofs were torn apart and there was flooding in most parts. Trees were snapped in half or uprooted from the ground. Most of the houses were not livable, even if it looked great from outside. Mold and stale food in the fridges plagued every house. Refrigerators and furniture were sealed with tape and thrown outside for the garbage truck to pick up. The whole house had to be emptied... every possession thrown out. On a normal day, I can imagine this place to be actually pretty with its colonial style houses, like the one of Mr.Smith. He is a rich retired army colonel who lost almost all his furniture and collectibles (picked up from various countries he visited). He had some crazy stories to tell regarding how they escaped from the hurricane just in time. His wife was very upset regarding their missing pet and horses, but was so gracious to offer us something to eat and drink.I had lunch at the church where Red Cross was giving out free food. Felt weird taking food away from some poor soul, but I guess we had no other choice. Had to pull out meat bits before devouring the food. Of all the options I had, being picky wasn’t one.

Late that afternoon, we were told that Roger’s help was needed badly in Jackson,Mississippi and that he’d have to leave us. So we lost our chief the first day itself. We continued to work, making sure the sites we looked at were viable options. Some of the leads we had were under water or were contaminated. Some were in the floodplain and could not be used. But we kept looking and filling forms and clicking pictures.

The only way to locate property in that place is by taking someone local along with you. No GPS will figure out what they are talking about when they say the grey house on stilts 9 miles down from the red barn. You must understand that this place is as rural as it can get and knowing an address to a location is blasphemy. Mapquest can go to hell. Everyone here knows everyone else. ‘That used to be Kelly and Jim’s house’, pointed out Andy, my local guide, to an area where I could see only the stairs that probably would have led to a cozy home a month ago. Kelly and Jim were going through an ugly divorce and were trying to divide everything in the house. Now that the flood has claimed everything, they can start from stratch- he said sagely. No more bickering as to who gets what. Katrina was like their lawyer; she took everything. ‘And do you see that house with a tree trunk coming out of the window? That used to be a restaurant I would go to eat everyday. Mr. Wilson, he had the best crawfish and jambalaya.’ My guide must be either numb to this or really brave… he didn’t even wince when he showed me what remained of his own house. Just the roof that crashed on the ground.’ I hope to get my son’s bike from this mess. He was very attached to it.’ That is all he had to say about the disastrous scene and I had no words to console him.

We drove further south to Port Sulphur, where I remained grim and speechless as my guide pointed out certain salient features of previous landscape. A golf course, a school, a marina. Many a times he himself couldn’t recognize the place and would pause to think. We drove through a landscape that I can never erase from my memory. From patches of color in the north, this place became one uniform shade of dirty brown. Houses on top of cars. Cars on top of trees or floating in murky water. Trees fallen on electric lines. Dead cows on roofs. There were houses on middle of the road that had just floated away and we had to drive around it. Debri and snakes everywhere. A Shell gas station completely devastated. The ‘S’ from ‘SHELL’ had been knocked off and that aptly described this place. I take that back; I think hell would look better. The stench, if I can even put it in words, was empowering... collection of blown out sewer lines, dead carcasses, maggots, stale food, oil slicks. Mosquitoes swarmed this area. We had fighter jets constantly spray mosquito repellents. The only problem with that being, it killed the bees and stopped pollination. Most of the vegetation was dead and decomposed due to the area being under 12 feet of saline water. Every possession was plastered with inches of filthy soil.. clothes, vessels, furniture etc. The houses were marked with the number of dead that were found. It was an eerie sight and highly eye opening. When someone says, these guys have lost everything… they mean it.

Every now and then, like a rainbow behind the stormy clouds, you would find a personal belonging intact…whether it was the photo of two friends or a kid’s toy or a bag that was hanging from a tree with its zipper pulled tight. Or like this church that was the only standing structure for miles and miles. Or like this house in which everything was topsy-turvy except a spice rack in the kitchen with the spice bottles standing untouched as if to say- there is still hope.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Part 2- The who, what, how and where

September 17th, 2005

Met the other two guys at breakfast and exchanged phone numbers and personal information.Roger is from the DC office, originally from West Indies. His eyes lit up at the mention of cricket. Married with two kids. He seemed like an organized, meticulous guy with lot of experience (10 years).

There was Hisham from Atlanta, the 30 year old, who said he has two wives and no kids, but quickly changed his mind when he realized we were trying to get serious information. At that point he said , ‘I was kidding, I actually have five wives.’ Hisham is from Palestine and not from Ireland as he claimed. He was such a goofball that we couldn’t get over his silly sense of humor. He said that Jessie Jackson wasn’t too pleased that he was helping out in relief efforts especially when people like him sent the f***ing hurricane in the first place. To put it mildly, Hisham just cracked me up with his preposterous talk. He is very much single. Only if he would concentrate on one girl at a time. An architect.

Lars, the 33 year old tall Scandinavian guy who had 10 years experience in the army (in Korea) after which he joined our company 4 months ago. So he was all rearing to go. Desk job must have suffocated him a bit. Married with two kids. He is a Water and Hydraulics guy. We got to know he was Mormon after cracking a dozen Mormon jokes. Our fearless leader, who has committed to work till the project duration. Kudos to him.

Matt, the 27 year old guy from Chicago..lived all his life in the Mid-west felt bad to be the only guy who was born in the US. Outnumbered by foreigners in his own country, he felt a little apprehensive. A paranoid health freak who’d brush his teeth 5 times a day and use hand sanitizer every time he got out of the car. He is a very friendly person with a cool sense of humor that would put me in giggling spells. An Environmental scientist who looks exactly like Chandler of Friends fame. Single, with a roving eye and a steady girlfriend.

Jessica who is engaged to be married this December. She is a Transportation Planner and has been in the company for a year just out of school. She was the baby of our group, being just 22.

Interesting group. With our varied backgrounds, we might just get along fine.After an early start in Houston, driving in two cars, the six of us reached Baton Rouge by 2pm.

We were given a doze of safety instructions:
Drive defensively as signals are down and people are pissed.
Don’t touch anything you aren’t supposed to, especially stagnant flood water or floating carcasses.
Wash hands with antiseptic wipes immediately, if you do.
Watch out for snakes, alligator and abandoned pets.
Do not pet snakes. (huh?)West Nile virus breakouts; hence keep bug spray on all day.
Wear long sleeves and steel-toe boots. And pants too, I assume.Watch out for looters and shooters. (and then?)
Keep emergency numbers and make sure the gas tank is full all the time.
Don’t go anywhere alone, even in daylight.

Oh BTW, we are the ‘Strike Team’ and we will be working south of New Orleans. Strike Team?! OMG, what the heck did I sign for?!

We got an information overload of our work by dozens of people ranging from big bosses to bigger bosses for 5 solid hours. Forms and Organization charts were handed out. Processes were explained. Contact numbers were given and we were let loose with our heads spinning.

The gist of it was something like this - We will be going to Plaquemines Parish the next day to set up temporary houses (Travel Trailers) for displaced residents of that parish (similar to county or district).The situation there seemed grim and everyone seemed to have only one motto. Heads in beds. Whatever it takes.My heart did a little somersault.

Overwhelmed, excited and exhausted, we drove to our designated motel, Economy Inn in Thibodaux (a town south of Baton Rouge), two hours away from our work location in Belle Chasse. The only place that was vacant in 150 mile radius. We saw more NO VACANCY signs than we saw hotels. This place is to be seen to understand why it was vacant. A completely run down deserted motel with shady drug dealers driving in and out in their gaudy limos. Roach infested, cobwebs dangling to the floor, tiles broken in the bathroom (covered with cardboard and plastered with ductape), A hole in the wall stuffed with toilet paper, a fridge with dead cockroaches, a broken TV and beer bottles strewn under the bed (I checked under the bed for dead bodies). The bed-spread was filthy and the comforters ripped off, the lamps shades were gone and there was exposed metal. The side-table had cigarette stub marks all over. Good thing we got our tetanus shots. Each of our rooms had unique characteristics, so there was no point in asking for another room. I went up to the hotel owner and reminded him that his Halloween decorations should have waited for a month at least. He happened to be desi I am convinced that Patels can run hotels even in Mars. My comrades wanted me to use my Indian charms to have him get rid of the bugs at least. I tied, he shrugged and said ‘sorry’. So much for my charms!

Jess and I had to share a room. We locked the door soundly and placed some suitcases behind the door (not relying too much on the locks), looked at each other and shuddered. I tried to sleep, but just couldn’t. Suddenly in the middle of the night, I burst out laughing (I was disgustingly behaving like a giddy teenager at times). Jess sat up shocked and I sheepishly told her that I just remembered her swimsuit. Hahaha! Imagine swimming here. She was completely amused (thank God!).

I had to use the bathroom; so I snuck in as sneakily as I could, hoping not to wake Jess. When I walked out of the bathroom, I banged my head violently against the TV (you would have noticed it if the lights were on) Now I know how that TV broke. It’s freaking right at the door! Jess woke up with a start as the whole room vibrated. Had to calm her down and say it was me again and that I was going to be alright. So both of us had red blurry eyes when we had to leave to work 5 am the next morning.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Part 1- Journey Begins

September 16th, 2005-

I don’t know if I am hungry or my stomach is churning in nervous anticipation. I have no clue as to where I will be stationed and what I will be doing. Whatever it is, I am willing to bet that the work will be worth it. I’m partly relieved to have some company from the Chicago office, some familiar faces heading down to the Gulf Coast with me to help in the Katrina relief efforts. Jessica and Matt are really cool people whom I have never really interacted with in the past other than the occasional nod in the hallway. But they look cool…Jessica with her long blonde hair and pretty face. Matt also with blonde hair and ermm..pretty face. It’s Friday morning; we run amok getting our tetanus shots, filling our timesheets, setting up the out-of-office message, transitioning our work, answering million questions from the rest of the people who seem to be awed and had no clue we were leaving (nor did we 12 hours ago). My office set up a little send off party for the three of us complete with a cake. It feels great to get the support, encouragement and opportunity to do this from my company. Lara, my colleague-cum-acting mom threatens Mike to take care of us girls and never leave us out of his sight or else! Matt nods dismissively.

Arrive at the airport on time, grab something to eat and head towards the gate. Matt says he needs to get a book. We say we will wait for him at the gate and we do. Not many people at the gate, but we are not surprised. Of course, we are early. I tell Jess I need to go to the bathroom and she says she will come too. We finish our job and go to the gate to find out that the flight took off without us. Dammit! Can’t believe it! I can’t believe that I goofed up the first day itself. I have 30 more days to go!! Lord Help! Anyways, we couldn’t get hold of Matt as we never bothered to exchange our numbers. We just assume he made it in the flight somehow. So much for keeping an eye on us. Wait till Lara hears about his abandonment.

The two of us get ourselves booked in the next flight. The lady from the flight staff asks us the reason for missing the flight… and we are in splits, clutching our stomachs and laughing hysterically. Such responsible individuals. Next flight to Houston, 5 hours from now. Thoughts of going back to office and getting some work done occurs but is dismissed owing to embarrassment. We wait it out in the airport. Almost lost my laptop and after some shocking moments, found it. Very close call, it was. I pray to the Memory Goddess to restore my senses at least for a month.

Matt calls frantically from Houston. ‘Where are you guys? For a long time I thought I was in the wrong flight.’More giddy laughter from our side. Matt realizes to his horror that the rental car and the hotel is on my name. To top it, Jess and Matt got their luggage exchanged in Chicago due to some confusion. Bottom line, Matt has to while away time in the Houston airport. He would have been better off being in the bathroom and missing the flight. He took it in his stride. He had no choice, as we didn’t seem genuinely apologetic. I’m sure he is negotiating with someone to be on a different group now.

Me and Jess get to know each other in the airport. She is a real smart kid, 22 years old and is full of genuine gusto. She is Australian by birth and has lived in Alabama and hence she feels even more strongly to be there. She has volunteered for many things in the past and she made me feel like a baby compared to her.We talk about the books we brought with us and decide to exchange when we are done. She also brought a swimsuit and I say ‘That’s a good idea!’ We will come to realize that we wouldn't have time to even think of reading a book.

We reach at 10 pm (after some minor rental car fiasco, like me driving into ghetto areas with the headlights turned off) and people who are already there have formed certain opinions about me, which is mostly right. I am introduced to this 6’6” monstority called Lars from our Spokane office in Washington State. With his boyish charms and loud personality, I am sure he gets away with a lot of things.

Hisham and Roger still to reach Houston. They missed their flights too (apparently had valid reasons). We’ll find out tomorrow. I’m off to catch some sleep. This day is probably the least adventurous of the days to come.