September 2005 Archives

Mon Sep 26 16:20:44 CDT 2005

Wacky Idea: Did the traffic jam save Houston from Hurricane Rita?

OK, here's a wacky idea: The Urban Heat Island effect is pretty well documented.

Burning a gallon of gas produces 125,000 BTU. (Wikiepdia entry for Gasoline)

Let's assume there were about 1 million cars on the road trying to leave Houston before Rita got there on Wed & Thursday, that each burned about 20 gallons of gas.

That's 125000 * 1000000 * 20 = 2,500,000,000,000 (2.5 trillion) BTU.

So my wacky notion is, could that much heat released into the Atmosphere around Houston have actually strengthened the area of high pressure over Southeast Texas enough that Rita actually took a more Northerly path than it would have otherwise?

Posted by johan | Permanent link

Thu Sep 8 04:00:55 CDT 2005


I've been of two minds of writing about Katrina. Well, that's not entirely accurate. I've definitely thought a lot about the effects of and reactions to Hurricane Katrina. And i've thought about writing some of those thoughts down. But so much of what i often write is just random detritus from my mind, so i've been reluctant to put these thoughts in the same implicit category. And, of course, so much else has already been written about it, why would it be useful to add any more? I have this same thought everytime i go to a big library, and see all of the books i've never even heard of.

But after reading this post by someone who visited the Austin Convention Center, i decided to write a bit.

Sunday the 4th, i rode my bike down to the Convention Center to see if i could help. I asked a police officer directing traffic nearby if they were accepting volunteers. He said "Yes," and pointed me towards the Convention Center entrance off of Trinity. I saw a colleague from my office who'd been working like the crazy, enthusiastic young man he is, to get computers set up, because that's what he knows how to do best. I then had my info entered into one of those computers by another volunteer, and i went into a room where a person with a Red Cross "Hello my name is..." name tag gave me a blue vinyly-plasticy wrist strap (like they give you when wait in line for tickets to a rock concert) that said "Deutschen Pfest" on it in black Gothic script. The rest of the day was very much like this: people were friendly and you could tell that everyone was doing the best they could, under very rushed and harried circumstances.

After a few minutes of standing around wearing a blue wristband, i gathered that we were to wait in the room (furnished with about 30 chairs, some coffee and cake) for someone else to come and request volunteers. After a few minutes, Craig, someone i recognized from "the Austin Slacker scene" from many, many years ago came back in with about four other people and said that they were returning because they weren't needed.

Red Cross "Hello My Name Is..." man (RCHMNIM) said, "But they said they needed five computer people."

Craig replied, "When we got there, they said they haven't received the computers yet."

RCHMNIM replied, "Oh, i guess that explains why they didn't need you."

A few times someone would come in and request someone with "child care experience." Several young girls with Christian-themed t-shirts jumped up each time they heard "child care," and they were sent off the third time.

About 10 minutes after i was there, a woman who was dressed like she was running came in and requested 30 volunteers for sorting and distributing donations. I, and most of rest of the room left, led by the aforementioned woman. The reason for her choice in garb would soon become apparent.

In the hallway, she explained in a loud voice that she would be walking very fast to get to where we were going, so we needed to keep up. She emphasized that we did not need to walk this fast all day long. She said this several times, and then we hauled ass through another hallway, and BAM, we were on the convention floor. All i could see was cots and people. It was a rather sudden and intense introduction to what is "going on."

Without a word, we hauled ass through the main floor, emerged on the other side, and went through some doors into a very large, high-ceiling receiving area, connected to the loading docks, but still inside the building. There was food being served from silver catering gear, lots of canned food and such, and lots of clothes. She took us over to the clothes, and explained that this was it. She encouraged us to take on as much responsibility as we wanted. One man half-joked that he thought that was good, and that he might be running things soon. Without missing a beat, she laughed and said, "Good luck."

She then told us to shadow a buddy from the existing sorters, and broadcast to the sorters "Who here can show these new volunteers what to do?" One young woman raised her hand. We all walked over towards her. She said, "We pick up stuff here, where it's unloaded.." (gesturing at the piles of stuff on the floor) "and take it over to the tables to sort it." There were lots of fold-out "card" tables, that bore signs like "Men's Bottoms" or "Women's Tops," improvised from yellow note pad paper.

I turned around to look at the fast-moving woman who'd led us here, but she was already gone. (I never saw here again.) So i started sorting. It wasn't very organized, but then again, it was just sorting through huge piles of clothing, blankets, tents, and so forth. As i sorted, i periodically toyed with the idea of proposing that we rearrange things, but the main problem seemed to be lack of tables, so i just kept my mouth shut and sorted. Everyone was doing pretty much the same thing: silently sorting.

Time passed. A man came up and asked me if i'd seen any size 12 flip-flops. "For the showers," he said. I said, "Good idea," but i hadn't seen any and said as much. He nodded and kept looking. It seemed to me that evacuees probably weren't supposed to be here &emdash; there were two "guards" (men wearing City of Austin sport shirts) posted at the points where people could enter the sorting area &emdash; but i figured i didn't really know what the hell was going on so i just kept sorting.

More and more sorting. I helped two women find some pillow cases. After something like two hours, i looked up and saw that only about five people were leftover from my group of 30 volunteers. There were about 10 other people who had been there when i arrived, and they were all still there, as well as a bunch of "new" people. A little while after this, one of the newer people decided to start trying to organize things. However, he didn't really know who else to coordinate things with outside of our sorting area, and so he mostly ran around trying to talk to everyone.

Things went like this for the better part of four hours. I helped unload some stuff from the dock. It wasn't extremely organized, but it got done. Once or twice, when i was coming back from the dock, City people asked me if i was a volunteer. I held up my wristband, and nodded.

After four hours, the catered food smells started to get to me, and i had family in town, so i decided to head home. On the way out, i saw two women dragging cardboard boxes filled with stuff like diapers and water, so i carried one of the boxes into the convention center for them.

When i was riding home, i thought about the day. Things were remarkably calm. There was no yelling, no fighting, no crying. Evacuees looked tired, and a bit shell-shocked, but they seemed to still be "themselves." Many of them stood out; not because they were black, but because they dressed differently. Sometimes this might mean flashy, but with the older people, this more often meant more formal clothes. (More formal than i'm used to seeing on Austinites.)

I also felt proud of my "home" City and State for the first time in quite sometime. Texas was taking in more evacuees than any other state, and so far, things seemed to be going pretty well. It made me happy to think that Texans still remembered how to be hospitable, especially in such dire circumstances.

I think one of the reasons i've been reluctant to write about this is that i don't want people who read this to feel that i'm preaching. I don't want anyone to feel guilty because they didn't do something. Being a Recovering Catholic, i feel i'm intimately familiar with guilt, and it's effects. I think guilt is ultimately a pointless emotion, because it beats people down and makes them feel like less than they were before. And that helps no one. So i say help if you can, and if you want to, and i suspect you'll feel you got something out of it. Otherwise, forget about it and move on. Helping simply because you feel you must feels like like brushing your teeth.

So hopefully the following won't sound to preachy or "shiney": I also think i finally understand what one of my college professors told me about working for the Peace Corps in Tanzania: "You do it for yourself." This puzzled me. Of course i figured the underlying assumption was you are there to help other people, it's not like it's a vacation to Acapulco, so he was probably talking about something else. I think what he meant was that you do it because you also benefit from it. It didn't make much sense to me at the time, and this may not make much sense to people reading this. The best i can explain it is that we should volunteer "for ourselves" so we can claim an important aspect of our humanity. Yes, sorting a bunch of donated clothes for four hours does not in any coldly rational sense change the world. However, it did briefly change my world. That trivial but sincere action made a difference to me, because while i was doing it, and immediately afterwards, the world wasn't such a crappy place. Because if only for once, the Right Thing was done.

It feels kind of like stepping out of the shadows into the sunlight on the coldest winter's day. It just feels better. Logically, it may not matter much, but at that moment, it makes all of the difference in the world.


Posted by johan | Permanent link