Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Day 2 of the National Hurricane Exercise

The highlight of the day was the presentations of Bill Read, Director of the National Hurricane Center, and Craig Fugate, the FEMA Administrator. They both emphasized the same point, that the devastating inland flooding that occurred in the Northeast as a result of Hurricane Irene was forecast well in advance.

Bill Read showed a 5 day inundation forecast map for Irene that was close to what actually occurred. He raised the question: why was the inland flooding a surprise to the public and some emergency managers? He offered the additional point that the areas that ultimately experienced record flooding (northern New Jersey, upstate New York, Vermont) had received considerable rainfall in the previous 10 days and the ground was saturated. Thus, it should have been no surprise that the large quantities of tropical moisture that Irene dumped on these areas created destructive flooding.

Craig Fugate pushed forward the suggestion that the lessons of Katrina may have led people to concentrate on the storm surge threat from Irene to the exclusion of the inland flooding threat. Bill Read raised the possibility that the media focus on the beach, with constant footage of meteorologists before a backdrop of a foaming ocean, may have contributed to the diminishment of the inland flooding threat.

Bill Read also asked: Did the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center do a poor job of communicating the threat? 

In an admirable piece of self-criticism, Bill showed a slide that highlighted how the NHC consistently overestimated the strength of Irene. He admitted that after much study there were unable to determine the source of their error. The barometric pressure of the storm is normally highly correlated with the intensity of the wind. In the case of Irene, this correlation did not hold.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Day 1 at the National Hurricane Conference

The first day of the National Hurricane Conference was a serious of vivid and engaging sessions on the response to Hurricane Irene from our friends in the Northeast. The New York City (NYC) Office of Emergency Management as well as representatives from the states of NJ, CT and NY filled us in as they related their challenges in sheltering and making evacuation decisions.

As I told one of them, "Welcome to our life here on the Gulf Coast."

In 2005, after witnessing the horrific images from Hurricane Katrina, the NYC OEM began doing the difficult but necessary planning required to evacuate and shelter the 8 million people in the metro area. Some of the key players in this effort, the Logistics Chief for NYC OEM, the Emergency Management Director for the NYC Department of Education, and a representative from Menlo Worldwide Logistics, spoke about their multi-year effort to develop a plan and the days that they had to execute it.

NYC has a series of shelter hubs throughout the city. They tried to make the hub locations as close to walking distance as possible. As the people arrive at the hubs, they are transported by city buses to the shelters. The supplies for all these shelters must be loaded from central warehouses and transported by truck through the city to the shelter locations.

The shelters are located in schools. The average age of the school buildings is 70 years, so many are missing conveniences such as elevators, loading docks or even front doors wide enough to admit palletized loads of freight. Visualize, if you will, hauling a truckload of bottled water, by hand, a case at a time, up several flights of stairs. Multiply that by the cots, food and other supplies necessary to stock each shelter and you get an idea of the effort required.

They talked about how their timelines to deploy these resources didn't exactly match with the Mayor's timeline for declaring a disaster. Thanks to their excellent planning, the resources were deployed to the right places at the correct times. What they hadn't planned for was picking all these supplies up again. Demobilizing the resources proved to be the more daunting task, but they worked thought it.

The discussions about the gut wrenching task of making the local evacuation decision were particularly interesting. They talked about evacuating all the hospitals and nursing homes in the designated zone. What really had an impact on everyone, the public and emergency managers alike, was when the announcements came that the subways, buses and trains were going to shut down as the storm approached. This was always in the plan, but no one could believe that it would actually happen.

I told them all that they did a great job, but they were lucky that the storm was essentially a very realistic, full-scale functional exercise. When the next time comes, and it will, they will be a lot better prepared.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Paris, France

Throughout my life I have struggled, either fitfully or concertedly, to improve my French. Achieving facility in a language is not a destination, but a process that requires continuous application. During the last 10 days in Senegal and France I was able to resuscitate my French (once again!) from the grave.

That is not to say that I was able to achieve the meagre levels that I obtained, with great effort, in the past.  Rather, I was pleased that I was able to execute the simplest tasks of a tourist verbally, and extract the essence of the meaning from innumerable placards adjacent to the countless paintings that I viewed in museums. I even scanned a few newspapers in Dakar and Paris.

Although Spanish is my second language and I am extremely proud that I am able to speak a second language, my secret dream has always been to be fluent in French.  I so much wanted to be able to answer the question: "Parlez vous frances?" with the word, "Oui."

But I cant. Ce la vie. 

But I have enjoyed tremendously the pleasure of sitting in the sidewalk cafes in Paris and listening to French being spoken around me.  The words "voila" and "d'accord" are wonderful words that convey so much of what it is to be French. The French language and culture and food and drink are pleasures that I have enjoyed and hope to continue to enjoy for the rest of my life.

Merci. Avoir. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dakar, Senegal

We landed in Dakar, Senegal on March 11, the day after our 34th wedding anniversary. Neither of us had been to Africa before. In fact, Senegal wasn't on my top 50 list of countries that I wanted to visit before I died. The magnet of our sudden attraction to the Dark Continent was standing outside the terminal  behind a  metal barricade that separated the crowd of expectant hosts and eager taxi drivers from the stream of weary, arriving travelers. Our Peace Corps Volunteer son Jamie had been in Senegal for 19 months.

The Dakar airport, hub for Western Africa and gateway to Europe and North America, reminded me of a dozen drab, dim and decayed terminals that I have passed through in Latin America. Our daughters and a niece had preceded us in the last year but I knew that their stories and pictures could not rival the real experience: the musty smell of the terminal or the herds of goats that inhabited the medians of the roadways in the city.

While we were over the Atlantic, the United States (with the exception of Arizona and Hawaii) transitioned to Daylight Savings Time, so I think that when we arrived our bodies said that it was 3 in the morning but the sun was up and it was 8 A.M. in Dakar. Our son Jamie met us with an elaborately conceived and well coordinated plan. The essence of the plan was for us to spend the next 10 hours in a succession of hot and wind blown hired vehicles.

Thus came about our introduction to and education in the Senegalese inter-city public transportation system.  When I worked for the Florida Department of Agriculture I escorted a bus load of Danish fruit & vegetable buyers around Florida. I took them to breakfast at a Waffle House because, having lived in Europe, I knew that the bustle of the restaurant, the shouted orders from the waitresses and the frenzied dance of the cook would be something beyond their cultural experience. One of the Danes ran out and came back with his movie camera to record the experience.

Gale and I were similarly entertained when, several hours after our arrival in Dakar, a taxi dropped us at the central Dakar "garage." On the way over Jamie turned around from the front seat of the taxi and, with a stern look, warned his parents of the ordeal to come. 

"This garage is my least favorite place in Senegal," he said. "In order to survive, you need to put on your F### you face."

Kindergarden teacher Gale was genetically incapable of such a feat, but they both agreed that I could handle the task with ease.

The Dakar garage looked like a junkyard packed with vehicles, swarming with drivers engaged in cleaning, repair or indolence, and with an impressive horde of Senegalese street vendors. The arrival of three white people with luggage created a sensation. The sales mob descended on us before we could even exit the vehicle, thrusting their wares through the window and into our faces. 

The garage was ordered according to the destination city. At each departure point was a vehicle called a "sept place," which is French for 7 places. The vehicles had 7 places available, 3 in the back, 3 in the middle and one in the front. We were heading to Kaolack, the next big city on our journey. 

Jamie forged ahead toward the Kaolack departure point while Gale and I followed, dodging vendors. When Jamie arrived and announced that he wanted to go to Kaolack he was surrounded by drivers, all talking to him at once in Wolof, the local African language. The proposition was simple: we would pay for all 7 places for the 3 of us and our luggage. Although a lot of words were flying about, communication was in short supply. Jamie hated the whole Senegalese contract negotiation process and the fact that he had to do it simultaneously with 5 or 7 or 10 different people. The negotiation came to an abrupt end when Jamie walked with the driver to a nearby car and waved us forward.

We were able to exit the Dakar metropolis in record time and soon were gazing at the Senegalese countryside for the first time. The land was parched and hungry for the arrival of the rainy season in June. When we arrived in Kaolack, the headquarters for Jamie's Peace Corps Senegal Region, we took a brief break from the road for lunch.

After lunch we shouldered our luggage for a road march through the streets of Kaolack to the garage to get transport to Sokone, Jamie's home city, and Toubacouta, our destination for the day.

As we approached the garage Jamie turned to us and said, "This is my second least favorite place in Senegal."

The arrival of three white people, two looking elderly and infirm, elicited the same reaction as it did in Dakar, only on a smaller scale. Jamie immediately entered the "shouting match in a crowd" system of negotiating a price. The discussions were more heated and confrontational because we wanted the same 3 places for the price of 7 but we also wanted the vehicle to take us beyond the usual destination point and drop us in the center of Toubacouta, instead of on the main road from Sokone. Like the Dane in the Waffle House, I pulled out my camera and recorded the scene for posterity.

On previous trips Jamie forced our daughters and accompanying friends to endure the Toubacouta Death March. They returned with some horror stories of the ordeal. Both daughters advised Jamie that "the parents" should not be subjected to the strenuous hike, with luggage, from the Sokone road to the center of town. Gale and I agreed.

Thus the intensity of the negotiations in the Kaolack garage. For Jamie, it wasn't the money, but the principle of the thing. Just because we were white tourists we shouldn't be taken advantage of. Gale and I agreed.

After arriving at a price that both sides considered unfavorable but tolerable, we climbed aboard. Jet lag, the heat and the fact that we had been traveling for 30 hours in the same clothes began to impinge on our dispositions. We passed through Sokone with the intent to stop there on the way back and pushed on to Toubacouta, seeing our first monkeys scampering through the grasslands and the baobab trees.

In Toubacouta we transferred ourselves and our luggage to a small boat for a 20 minute ride through the mangrove forests of the vast Saloume river delta to a small island. On the island a donkey cart waited to transport our luggage as we walked for 30 minutes from the south side of the island to the north.

At about 6 PM we arrived at the Ecotourist resort in the Aire Marine Protégée du Bamboung. I was ready to stop traveling and rest for a while. Gale agreed.