Sunday, August 26, 2012

All Quiet On The Southern Front

And so it ends, the storm has moved to the north with no apparent damage leaving in it's wake gray skies warm musty air with a cool hint to it, a strange combination like standing in a stuffy room with the refrigerator door open.
We are back on our regular schedules, the city is regrouping after a properly measured response to the hurricane threat and business will resume as normal as soon as possible, I'm sure. Like a lot of my neighbors I'm glad I had this opportunity to refresh my storm plans and
Tactics buttoning up my home. It went quite smoothly considering it was seven years since the last such effort. Back then we did it all too often.

One more night of sitting up at work on regular time and then home.

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Sleeping And Working

Outside the police station people are doing the hunkering thing. Ask anyone who prefers to stay at home during a storm and they will tell you they are going to "hunker down." This usually involves getting together with friends and pets and drink is frequently taken in convivial darkness. Those of us who are employed in what they used to call reserved occupations have other things on our minds.

For most people "work" is an activity undertaken in a burst of energy for a limited amount of time, then they go home and do other things. For emergency services, work consists of a great deal of routine mixed with sudden, frequently terrifying bursts of insanely complicated activity. For a dispatcher the tedium of sitting up all night is never relieved by a burst of sudden activity away from the desk and the bank of five computer screens. We work twelve hour shifts and one of my first questions for a prospective trainee is "Can you sit still for twelve hours and not go mad?" I can train anyone to answer the phone and talk on the radio who has a capacity for multi-tasking but I can't train anyone to sit still. During a hurricane the situation is even more dramatic. After twelve hours of fielding calls from anxious citizens or talking on the police radio directing officers in trying circumstances, one has nowhere to go but to bed close by as day shift takes over. The comforts of home are replaced by...

If it looks like a cell that's because it's the closest thing to a cell the police station has. It's where prisoners in serious cases are brought for interviews by detectives before they are released or taken to the county jail on Stock Island. It makes a useful bedroom for an old fart like me who prefers solitude to shared sleeping spaces with the younger more active dispatchers.

All the comforts of home drawn from a suitcase packed by my wife and coffee and sandwiches from the improvised mess in the corridor. A huge generator powers the building and the fire station next door when the power goes out. Showers, not always hot, are downstairs next to the locker room where there's nothing quite like reaching for a dry towel while naked yet surrounded by armed men in black battledress uniforms getting ready to do battle with Mother Nature. Never in my wildest dreams...

I have been through this many times in my eight years here, and I have to say I have enjoyed the past few hurricane free years. But it's part of the job and I like working in a place where everyone knows what to do, where the drama is outside the walls and I get the opportunity to do something useful from time to time. I was astonished to discover that I am the only night shift dispatcher with hurricane experience. I worked my first in July 2004 shortly after I was hired and since then I've lost count of the number of times I've slept in this monastic cell. I hope tomorrow will be the last time for a while.

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Isaac's Eye

We are told by weather gadgets that the eye of Tropical Storm Isaac is going to be over Key West soon. Looking out the back porch over the neighboring car dealership all I could see was wind and rain and mist in proportions not much different than a strong summer thunderstorm.

There are still a few cars negotiating the construction on North Roosevelt Boulevard and the waters of Garrison Bight are remarkably calm, small waves but not even any whitecaps.

Supposedly the eye will pass over the city bringing a short period of calm then the back of the storm will come, adding 20 miles per hour of forward motion to the estimated 60 miles per hour of circulating wind speeds producing what would be effectively a category one hurricane. In any event things seem entirely manageable and when I go back to work at six I expect we will be fielding calls from the public in the aftermath of the storm as it whirls away to do damage, possibly as a category two on the unfortunate folk of the Gulf Coast.

If history is a guide we will send the night worrying about broken tree limbs, downed power lines and over celebratory drunks taking things beyond the limit. If that is as bad as it gets we shall be delighted I am sure.

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Calm Before The Storm

It's windy and raining outside, whitecaps on the waters of Garrison Bight seen through the windows as we are not allowed to leave the building for as long as we are locked down. It would be silly for us dispatchers to disperse and find ourselves unable to return where we are needed, so for as long as this "event" continues we are always close by and able to report to our desks as needed. So far we are doing the waiting thing, as always happens before the storm. Anxiety levels usually rise exponentially among those choosing to stay in town, as the storm gets closer and the wind starts to howl. I took these pictures yesterday from Highway One of the Sugarloaf K through 8th grade school which is being used as a Lower Keys hurricane shelter. In Key West the county Gato Building and Key West High School serve the same temporary purpose.

Hurricanes change the Emergency service response protocols because normally the policy is to send people out on demand to help citizens but when Tropical Storm winds reach sustained speeds, technically 39 miles per hour, equipment is locked down and routine calls have to wait till the storm clears. In the event someone needs fire or rescue we route the request to the respective bosses and they decide what to do, if anything. It may be hard to understand but people trained to respond to help have a very hard time refusing a request from a citizen needing help. And at wages that make the private sector laugh.

I slept well this morning on my cot, and when I shuffled out into daylight all I could see was a summer thunderstorm lashing the city. Situation normal, so far, all screwed up for summer fun. As Isaac keeps barreling towards us at nearly twenty miles per hour I worry now for people Up North who will face the same storm after at least a couple of days of travel over warm waters.
Good luck to them, and good luck to us as long as the storm keeps moving fast and fails to gain too much strength. The slow movers that build immense power are the scary ones.

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Waiting For Isaac

Sunday morning in Key West. I'm settling in to sleep in a windowless room while the day shift moves in and takes over. It was not an especially busy night in the city and today everyone waits to see how strong the winds might be. Quite a few residents will be nurturing epic hangovers, no doubt.
The forecast has varied between hurricane and tropical storm strength when Tropical Storm Isaac reaches the Florida Keys. Indeed some think it may be a category two by the time it reaches the Gulf Coast, so it will likely be worse for them...a category one houldn't produce terrible damage in islands as experienced as these. Most people here know what to do.

Sitting out a hurricane in the police station is something I have done many times before. Its not homey but it is safe so I will sleep soundly before returning to duty at 6 pm,always looking forward to the time we will be released to go home.
Good night.

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