Saturday, September 27, 2008

Enough With the Bad News Already

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With all the bad news, destruction, power-loss and traffic congestion, I could not stomach subjecting my fellow Baytonians (and my own sanity) to one more bad and horrifying story line, so taking your pardon, I'm writing about nothing relating to misery this week.

We deserve a break from this reality in all its ugliness, so without further ado, here goes.

Sitting on my patio the day after the big disturbance, I saw what I thought was an exotic and mysterious bird, heretofore undiscovered in these parts. It was definitely a hummingbird, just not one of the varieties native to our area. It was white with flecks of brown in it. Researching hummers on the Internet, I realized I was indeed seeing a rare bird.

It was an uncommon leucistic hummingbird on our patio September 12. This was the day Hurricane Ike came and went. The poor critter was fluffed up, wet and very tired. It rested in our crape myrtle for about 20 minutes. I wrote the staff from Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History as instructed on the web page to let them know of the sighting. Information on this fascinating bird is found here:

Their immediate and delighted response made me realize what an event this was. It's not every day a bird watcher sees something new and according to my dad out Dayton way, they are also getting a plethora of exotic sightings. My Dad tells me the common cattle egret first came to this country from Africa on a hurricane and seeing he is rarely misinformed, I took it as gospel. He said all European Starlings in America came from the release of ninety-nine birds in Central Park, New York City in 1890. One hundred were brought over, but one died. He knows his bird facts alright.

A few days passed and low and behold, a yellow and green flash of feathers zipped close by my head and I saw a parakeet land in my bald cypress tree. I thought for a second it was a local pet on the loose, but there is a good chance it was blown in from Florida, where they are commonly in the wild. Once again I tuned in the Internet and sure enough, they are becoming more common in urban areas all across the US. I'm seeing a budgie every day, so it may be more than one.

Imagine my surprise when I walked within a couple of feet of a ring-necked turtle dove two days ago. According to my handy Audubon Handbook of Eastern birds, this beauty is found from South Florida to Alabama, so this one floated in on the wind most likely. I have a large bird feeder on the pipeline behind the casa and I'm seeing this dove or maybe another each day. See a detail here:

Yesterday, I drove my fuel-efficient hooptie down to the Discount Tire shop on North Garth road to get the tires rotated and balanced. Since it was a beautiful day in the low 70's and I had a forty-five minute wait, I decided to pass time by walking down Garth road to the Mall and back instead of sitting on corpulent duff in the lobby. Of course I had my trusty camera with me and doing my best to ignore the still-plentiful debris from the storm; I sauntered along the shoulder, busy people in busy cars whizzed by and I, on a mission to enjoy myself, captured a photograph of a Great Egret in the retention pond on the south side of Tractor Supply. It was a beauty and totally absorbed in its mission to capture a tasty snack, totally ignored me as well. Fine, as I just wanted to capture its image.

My bride and I felt a burning desire to garden, so we meandered over to Lowe's to see what the nursery truck brought. We came away with nine Double Knock Out Rosa 'Radtko' rose bushes with bright red blooms! I can't wait to see all this color around our patio. That infamous and devastating storm all but stripped our landscape and we are eager to get it back in shape. We are also taking this opportunity to redo and reshape our garden to something different, so it's not all that bad after all. Here is their website if you would like to investigate this great flowering bush:

Let's give it a week folks and see what Baytown looks like then. Hopefully more of us will get our mojo back to normal.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

And a Hard Rain Fell

It’s hard to believe that one week and a day have passed since Hurricane Ike rudely elbowed his way into our lives. I hated that storm as much as I thought I would, but we dug down deep and revived the Texas pioneer spirit that lay deep within our being to simply…endure. And endure we did, sleeping uncomfortably in the night heat, dragging and cutting tree limbs and attempting to recover from the stupor and shock caused by H-IKE. We are not used to this abuse and as tough as we would like to see ourselves, in many ways we failed miserably.

Most were very fortunate damage-wise, but we are also very spoiled in our modern ways, so any change in the way we normally do things, is an inconvenience and a lot of hard work to boot, especially when you consider cleaning up the tree damage. Here it is a week after the trees fell and my fingers are almost too sore to type and there is still work to do.

Frankly, we are sick of all this destruction and drama and want to forget it and move on, but as someone said, we are amongst the fortunate who still have a relatively unscathed house to go home to. Not so, our brothers and sisters who have lost everything. Bolívar Peninsula, Smith Point, Jamaica Beach, Anahuac, Galveston and Baytonians are living in temporary shelters until only God knows when and here I am typing away in my air conditioned study like the storm never happened.

We are feeling a sort of survivor’s guilt as we return to our normal routine and it should be satisfying, but it’s not an altogether good feeling. Normally sequestered away in our comfortable homes, the big blow drove us out into the streets and into close proximity with neighbors we commonly ignore. This was therapeutic, as we discovered most everyone was more than ready to open their arms in generosity and give freely. We made new friends and healed old wounds; a silver lining in a black cloud.

Neighborly interaction was surely a welcome change in many ways and Baytown got our Neighbors Night Out, early. Unfortunately for some, there is no useable dwelling to return to, so for these folks I ask, what can we do to make life easier for you? Forget Katrina - Baytown and surrounding areas I ask what do you need from us survivors? We are caregivers and we want to help.

Looking back at my frame house on Ashby Street and Hurricane Alicia in 1983, I was much better prepared for this newer spawn from the pits of Hell, but still made a lot of mistakes and miscalculations on preparedness. The weather and news people did their part to the letter T, but I really wasn’t listening. Don’t get me wrong, I watched everything they had to offer, but if I would have really listened, I would have had a bona fide Hurricane kit, like I was told repeatedly to have on-hand and I… didn’t.

We did draw multiple containers of water, so the twelve hour loss of water pressure did not inconvenience us. We own a gas stove also, which the electrical loss did not effect. We ran out of paper towels quite quickly and of course ice, which only a generator would have helped. Scented candles make a person nauseous after four hours – make a note for the future.

I own a generator now. I should have saved every spare dime and had one before I needed it, but like I said – I wasn’t really listening. If it hadn’t been for the cold front, I think there would have been a Looney wagon chock full of Baytonians headed for Rusk, maybe a hundred wagons.

We were told to shelter in place and hunker down. Stay off the streets and obey the curfew and we did for the most part. Cell phone communication was nil until Monday and then spotty, so our only communicative link came from our battery powered radio and 740AM-KTRH. Baytown was rarely mentioned and then usually by a desperate call-in listener wondering what we Baytonians were supposed to do for aid. We wondered also and I realized for all the hurricane preparedness our city leaders went through, the one item we were short of was radio communication for this immediate area.

We need an emergency radio frequency Baytonians can tune into to find out what is available and where to go for us specifically. Years ago any disaster area had a Civil Defense radio transmission vehicle with loud speakers and since folks primarily got their instruction via the radio, it was common practice to tune into their emergency radio station for instructions. But we have the Internet, cell phones, television and technology – right? Wrong. Without electrical power, we are immediately thrown back to the days of 1920’s America, boiling water on our hibachis, cooking meat on a stick and trying to figure out how to make coffee like one of the Sacketts.

I have no doubt our city leaders were busy as a one-eyed cat watching nine rat holes, but I have no evidence. They were as silent to me as a Baytonian - as my no-signal television. I give them every benefit of doubt though and only pray that we add a mobile radio station and instructions to our emergency response plan.

If I could make one major change in the way electricity is supplied to the end user in this town, it would be to move all power lines underground. This would avert a multitude of future storm related outages and beautify our area in one fell swoop. Case closed.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

I’m mad too Eddie!

I drove down to the POD on Baker road in Baytown this morning at 0730 as KHOU TV said the POD was open and I wanted to see one in action. I personally am not in need of MRE’s, ice or water, but for knowledge sake, I went down to see one in action.

What a total bureaucratic mess. There must have been 25 uniformed government employees meandering around the parking lot, moving cones, etc., but the POD doesn't open until 10am. I am told this POD is run by Commissioner Garcia.

Cars were pouring in only to be ignored with no directional signs or human direction and when I asked a parked Constable at the far end of the road what was going on, he told me it was open. He didn’t appear to have an inclination to do more than sit there.

I told him the entrance was coned off and he said "No, it’s not". I drove back the two hundred yards to the entrance and observed the steady row of cones across both entrances, exited my vehicle, walked across the parking lot to the six armed guards and asked what was going on (they were honest to god, trying to change a flat tire on a truck – all six of them) and they told me the POD didn’t open until 10 am.

I drove back to the end of the street where the Constable was sitting in his truck and told him the POD didn’t even open for 2.5 hours and he told me to get in line and wait. I looked at my watch and thought “2.5 hours from now they will probably have all the cones just right” and got in my car and left as more Baytonians poured onto the street to get relief supplies.

The POD needs someone to go down there and raise Cain. This is the same way bureaucrats managed the Vietnam War. Fiddle-fluffing around while people are in need is hardly the way to win a war effort and make no mistake about it, many parts of our area are war-torn.

I drove out to the Total Plant on Battleground road where I am employed and my Plant Manager, Darrell Bailey graciously let me have 10 gallons of gas (per day) to feed the hungry generators here. He is also feeding all the employees that need aid, three times a day and not MRE’s either. Chuck Perez and Oscar Garza, both BBQ competitive cookers are shoveling out Texas prize winning food for over 100 people each meal.

After my single experience this morning visiting a federal FEMA Pod (Point of distribution), I was ready to scream foul to high heaven. If this is the way it works in an almost totally dark Baytown, which I witnessed today coming over the Fred Hartman Bridge, one week after the Hurricane, then something is terribly wrong.

Six federal guards to change one truck tire? You have got to be kidding me!

I fired off an email to City Manager Garry Brumback, Assistant City Manager Bob Leiper and Mayor Stephen DonCarlos to get down there and raise Cain for every Baytonian in need. We need an advocate, a General AND a Colonel right now, not government sloth employees, sluggishly adhering to some goofy time table and schedule.

Hurricane blues before the big blow

I am remiss to even think about how inaccurate and tiresome this article will appear when folks read it after Hurricane Ike blows through. Here it is Friday morning, the twelfth of September; we are expecting the wind to pick up in about five hours and the feeling of controlled panic/resolve and gut-grit are wafting through the city.

Anyone can readily see that this storm is going to be Alicia all over again and for those of us who were subjected to her fury; this won’t be a picnic or a near miss like Rita, Eduard, or any other storm since 1983. This one feels serious. Everyone knows it. Some are vocalizing it to ease their dread, some are warning to do all we can to prevent loss of life and damage to property, but no one is joking about how tough they are or how this storm is nothing to worry about. We don’t even want to think this will be Carla again.

All other hurricanes are forgettable to me since Alicia. I sometimes get Katrina and Rita confused with which was which and that is why I call them forgettable. I remember Tropical Storm Allison and I remember that I once again marveled how Baytown seemed to be in a high-pressure bowl with the storm rotating around it, dropping more water everywhere than it did here. I think we got about 9 inches and that was plenty.

My neighborhood is taking this storm warning to heart. This morning I looked down the street and for the most part, driveways are vacant. Many folks figured the wisest course involved making a surprise visit to a relative. Many of us here in Chaparral Village are communicating phone numbers, prayers and promises of support through our crime watch mailing list. We are stocked up on salsa and tortilla chips.

I really have mixed feelings about this one. The old impression of adventure is totally absent though, as only someone with no hurricane experience wants to actually see and experience a real one. I dread the damage and the loss of electricity which always accompanies these giant malevolent storms.

Yesterday, Thursday, the city issued an evacuation order for zip code 77520. This was a tad misleading in my opinion and needs to be accompanied with an explanation of city elevations. Some of 77520 is about three feet above sea level but a lot of it is outside a Category 3 flood zone. Nevertheless, this is not a hardcore complaint as we are making terrific progress in disaster preparedness.

Judge Ed Emmett released a statement concerning security from looters and this is one reason I see a giant step forward for evacuators. When I was a twelve year old kid living in Toledo, Ohio, we suffered a terrible tornado on a Sunday morning. It came with little warning and in my Aunt Pauline’s neighborhood many houses were devastated. She heard the sound of a locomotive and dove behind her couch as the front window exploded.

The poor woman was trapped by debris and broken shards of glass behind her own couch and had to be rescued, but survived, thank the good Lord. The area was declared a disaster area and the State of Ohio brought in the National Guard. The Guard was issued live ammunition and signs were posted everywhere that “looters will be shot on sight”. I know those days are long gone, but it sure made an impression on me as a twelve year old. Ray Nagin made a similar statement during their last hurricane when he told the residents of New Orleans that looters “will go to prison” and he told folks to “get your butts out of town”.

I like that no nonsense approach. He made it plain that no looting of any kind was going to be tolerated and as far as I know things went very smoothly in the “Big Easy” this time. Ray Nagin has learned that tough times call for strong words and leadership. I was also pleased to see our Mayor Stephen DonCarlos on television explaining that Baytown was not only prepared, but city council was “on it” with constant meetings and decision-making.

My wife facetiously asked me to call Bob Leiper and find out if he had any private and secret advice on evacuation. I told her I could just see Garry Brumback whispering to Bob to give me an ultra-secret encoded phone call and tip me off before the rush started.

Hopefully Baytown will have picked itself up without loss of life by the time you good Baytown folk read this and may God bless our city.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

"It's a Beautiful Day, Men"!

I start off my workday each and every time I walk through the Plant gate with these words "Morning men, it's a beautiful day". "Morning Bert" is usually what I hear chorused from my two favorite guards, Charles and Bob. Charles and Bob are both well read and never miss an opportunity to entertain me. It's like they've been waiting for me to come in and we look forward to the verbal jousts. "Where you been, Bert? About time you got here." says Bob. I look at my watch. I'm fifteen minutes early. Charles grins.

Charles usually has a nugget of trivia (read: hardcore statistics or difficult to come by knowledge he has personally ferreted out) he feels I should know, or a very, very good book recommendation and Bob - well, Bob is named Bob for a good reason. Bob's peculiar, but in a good way.

It's been my experience that anyone named Bob is probably going to be worth investigating as a friend. Bob's have curiously strong personalities and "Roving Guard" Bob is no exception. Bob always has something interesting up his proverbial sleeve, often humorous or mischievous and Bob, true to form, never let's a chance go by without dropping an anecdote or revealing observation my way.

Off I go, down to the Unit where I labor with pyrophoric chemicals, which incidentally is nothing to take lightly. I like this morning walk as it gives me time to ponder the upcoming schedule for the day and take a quick look at a couple of inventories I routinely maintain. My job is basically about "critical tasks" and leaves no room for error.

Entering the control room, usually around 4AM, I greet the night crew, as they finish up their twelfth hour. "Morning men, it's a beautiful day". The responses vary from "How can you tell?" to absolute silence. I do get a few "Mornin's" and some repeat parrot fashion my greeting, but most simply have nothing left after working all night and don't render a response.

Occasionally someone will ask me how I know that it is a beautiful day when the sun hasn't come up yet, which I find mildly amusing and I always explain that we dictate what the day is by our attitude, not by whether the sun has risen. This is almost always received with indifference and silence by my coworkers.

It is true nevertheless and I continue to say it. One of the most frequent responses I hear after saying "It's a beautiful day" is "in the neighborhood". I think this is Mr. Rogers coming back at me, but I can't recall him saying these exact words. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't, but at least my coworkers are trying to get into the moment.
Outside the sun is announcing its arrival on the horizon. It's a slight bluing of the skyline; the stars are still shining their LED light display and a hint of Fall is in the breeze. Beautiful. It IS going to be a beautiful day, but even so, many will not venture outside to see it. Never mind. Today is what we make it, sun or no.

Now and again a friendly challenger will yell out "What kind of day is it?" and of course, I'll respond in the way they expect - "it's a beautiful day", they nod, satisfied and go on their way. Then there is the oft heard "What's beautiful about it?" and this warrants my standard question of "Well, that's up to you, isn't it"? Life is what we choose to make it folks and that's the message I try to spread.

This particular morning I'm back at the front gate and I chat amicably with security savant Charles while Bob is on patrol. In his usual entertaining and professionally thorough manner, Charles explains the variances and improvements of the new overtime meal caterer - Ken's, over the previous company - Angels. He goes into exhausting detail comparing the menu variations and expounds on how delicious each item is. He particularly enjoys their breakfast options, which minus the scrambled eggs, he says, would make an excellent supper meal. He states this as absolute fact and I enjoy his confidence.

Without prompting, Charles explains that for a measly nine bucks - exact cash only, I can secure one of these tasty combination's, say a #16, if a legitimate overtime meal is ordered at the same time, but as a company security policy guardian, he is duty-bound to inform me would be impossible to have it delivered independently. He also advised me that he drops by Ken's on occasion after a hungry night of labor to sample the delicious cuisine first hand. He's not only a man of opinion, but also a man of experience and once again I am impressed.

I was on my way out the door when rover Bob pulled up in his mobile command post golf cart, blue blinking light and all. "Morning, Bob. It's a beautiful day", I said. "What are you up to Bert? You are up to something. I can tell" says Bob and laughs as he walks into the guard shack.

Oh well, it's still a beautiful day, even if I can't slip one past Ole Bob.

What, me read? Isn't that a 4 letter word?

I had an appointment this week at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center to have an echocardiogram, which by the way is an EKG ti...