Sunday, August 27, 2017

Hurricane Harvey is no Wilma. Now we have iPhones.

I was up until 4:30 last night riveted by the KHOU YouTube channel out of Houston. The rain bands were hammering them after Hurricane Harvey, in a configuration their meteorologist aptly described as a layer cake tipped over. I read Tweets coming in all night long from people I follow in Houston going in and out of their tornado rooms.
I saw a lot of people on Twitter talking about praying.  This is not an interesting activity for me. Where are all the people wondering why there were cars completely submerged with their headlights on? There were interstate height lamp posts with water within a few feet of the canopy and they were still on, shining on the water. I have so many questions! How much electrical current is running through that water? What's the conductivity? Is everything getting electroplated? Or the reverse, corroded? Is there a system to disconnect power to electrical infrastructure when they go underwater? I'm thinking of telephone nodes, street light controllers, stuff like that. Why are people playing in this water today? Do they have no understanding of risk?! Electricity aside, think of the live fire ants floating around in rafts. People trying to help their neighbors, that's one thing. But just playing, that's not cool.

I can't stop thinking ahead to what the recovery from this will be like. I'm remembering back to 2005, 4 years before I started this blog, when Hurricane Wilma went for a wild ride all around the Gulf of Mexico. It forced my step-sister to move her wedding from Isla Mujeres, Mexico to Destin, Florida, in the panhandle, on five days notice. My brother and his daughters, who had flower girl dresses made, couldn't come from South Florida because of gasoline shortages.

I was working for a civil engineering firm in Tallahassee at the time. They had a disaster recovery division that got a contract with Broward County (Fort Lauderdale area) to manage the clean up effort. I was sent down there to work on it. I took my personal laptop, cell phone, GPS, camera, and car. They gave me a company hard hat and a company safety vest. I went to Walmart and bought some steel toed boots.

My job was to go out to neighborhoods with private contractors who had come from all over the country with loaders and dump trucks. All I had to do was stand there and watch them load trucks with debris. When the truck was full I filled out a form with many duplicates. It had the time and date and how full I thought the truck was. Then I gave the driver one copy and he went to dump the load at the landfill where they were grinding up all this organic debris.
The landfill where the trucks took debris to be ground into bits small enough to move efficiently
The idea was that I would turn in a copy to my people at the end of the day and they entered all this into a giant database. My cube mate from Tallahassee was in an office building back in Ft Lauderdale doing data entry all day. Broward County had to very carefully track all of this activity so they could be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As far as I could tell it was a lot of people using their own resources to repair a Federal Disaster Area with the expectation that the Feds would reimburse them afterwards. I had to pay for my own hotel and gas and everything. I was a salaried employee though, so I was confident my expense report would go through. But I had to be able to cover that expense up front.
Ficus trees down everywhere
On the first day in Broward County I was sent to a neighborhood with small houses on small lots close to the street. There was non-organic debris like bottles and cans in the right of way under the entire ficus trees they had to cut up and haul off. The contractors were told not to pick up the actual trash, only trees. It was like they were only cleaning it up to the level they expected it was when the storm struck. I am pretty sure it was literally Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd where they told us not to pick up trash. I was so mad. It seemed petty and discriminatory and despicable to not clean it ALL THE WAY UP. Give them some kind of boost and motivation to move forward and be better. Jeez. They probably are all struggling with lost wages and who knows what all else.

The kind of neighborhood that got cleaned up first in Broward County

Most people don't even have power back on, but by all means, run the pump on your fountain
The next day I was sent to a very high end neighborhood where every house was on about 4 acres. They all had generators humming in the backyard so they could sit inside in the air conditioning watching DirectTV. About 5 times a day they'd make us move the dump truck off the street so they could get by in their Humvee to go get a fucking frozen yogurt or get a pedicure or whatever the fuck they were doing. They had their own yarn man hauling debris out to the street as fast as we could pick it up. We were told to not leave until the streets and right of way were leaf-blower clean. We were on one block for a week. It irked me no end. Rich people demanding that they be served first. I think it was the damn peacocks stalking down the streets that made me feel so mean.
Even the peacock thinks he owns the public property

On MLK drive we couldn't pick up empty cans, but we were told to collect anything these people put out by the road. What is that, a trampoline? 

3.25 Acres, Pool, 6 Horse Stall Barn
When they'd block the road like this they'd have to stop working to let cars go by. Over and over.
I was quite content to watch this machine all day. This guy got that thing on three wheels all the time. 

For my next assignment I was sent to document tree damage in the right of way of a small municipality. I started out with a partner who was a temp hire who came from up North somewhere excited by the high pay. On the first stop she told me I was using my GPS wrong. "You have to point it at the tree." I tried to explain that SHE was using it wrong, for maximum precision we should go all the way up to the tree and point it at the sky. But the error was so big it was fine to take the reading from where we took the photo and get it done as quickly as possible. Accurate final count more important than precision. The next day she told me she'd called her pastor from the hotel and he'd advised her to talk to me to be sure I'd accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. By lunchtime I'd gotten the city manager to let me do the whole job alone. I designed a database in my hotel overnight to use instead of the paper form and I personally documented all the trees down in the right of way for an entire Broward County town, uploading the GPS waypoints and photos into the database directly. They were so amazed by my grasp of technology.

That was in 2005. Remember 2005? This was 2 years before the invention of the iPhone. There were some modules you could use with DSLRs to put the GPS coordinates in the metadata of digital photos but they were out of my reach. But now everybody has a device in their pocket that can document storm damage with the GPS location embedded in the metadata of every photo. This job now would not require a salaried scientist to drive every mile of road in a town or county. You would just need to scrape the data off social media. Instead of writing a receipt for every truck of debris you just have the driver snap a photo and text it to a specific number where it could automatically be recorded in a database.

The key to efficient management is a robust cellular data network and a few good computer scientists. We still need people with chain saws, dump trucks, and loaders, but a lot of the expense for people like me to stand there and just watch them all day is sort of obsolete.

I'm curious if these systems are already in place. If they aren't then I am going to be extra bitter than I was wasting my time in 2005 trying to point people in the right direction with innovation. But when am I not extra bitter? Nothing really changes.

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