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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Texas Cleanup Part 5: Coming Home

I changed by not changing at all.
Small town predicts my fate.
Perhaps that's what no one wants to see

 

So it was sad to leave.  I remember taking a slow jaunt back to my rental van just because I didn't think I would ever come back to Galveston again.  At least not in the same way that I saw it in my 12 days of being there.  I knew it was the end for my trip and that stupid dumbass reality was going to start back up in a couple days. 

So despite not having Sara Evans come and take a look at our shelter and me "hitting things off" with her at registration and thus taking a walk in the moonlit beach and then making violent love on the beach with our Halloween costumes (her: slutty country singer, me:  Charlie Brown) being half ripped open, the trip was an absolute blast.  There was never one time where I wanted to go back home.

After out-processing with the Red Cross, which is a complete bitch of a time because they give you all these stupid interviews to make sure you're mentally stable, I was linked up with three other guys from the Red Cross.  After being used to the people in Galveston and my own team these three guys seemed like aliens to me.  I think they might have been aliens too because they seemed kinda nuts.  All four of us were leaving out of Bush international airport (which is a really crappy airport) and we all were staying at the Paradise Motel the night before we left.

We were wondering about the Paradise Motel before we got there because it was located right next to the freeway and next to the airport.  It was also located in Humble, Texas which is indeed very, very humble.  Inside my room I had a black light and somewhat strong smells of weed.  The door had its lock nearly pulled off the hinge and the sheets on the bed were very questionable.  I flipped through the channels and sure enough the Xtasy channel was already ordered (compliments of Paradise Motel) and there was even a copy of Blazin' Hardcore 4 in the DVD player.  Clearly, all I needed was a hooker with a smorgus board of STD's and I then I would be living the life of a politician. 

Coming home was probably the weirdest part of the whole trip.  Going from a place that was ravaged by a hurricane with 90 degree heat and junk everywhere to 55 degree weather, autumn colored leaves, and what seems like perfect neighborhoods was truly a bizarre sight.  The night I came back I was still fired up and ready to do something but I didn't have anything to do.  I remember driving on through my neighborhood the day after my trip and thinking how truly bizarre it was.  I was completely dazed by the fact that there was no trash anywhere and no generators being run.  Sleeping that night was startling because it was the first night where there were no fans or generators humming in the distance.  It was just silence which I guess I had been without for 3 weeks.  I woke up at least a couple times thinking that I got clients waiting for me and it took me a couple minutes to adjust to my own room. 

Observations

  • It seems like at least half of all Red Cross workers smoke.
  • Everyone seems to get a Texas accent when they come home.  I don't know if Oregonians or Washingtonians(?) have accents but they all seem to have strong accents after 3 weeks in Texas.  Not me though, I don't have an accent :)
  • Galveston radio stations have an extreme love affair with John Melloncamp because there was a time where I flipped on three radio stations that all had the Cougar himself
  • Everyone seems very polite down south.  It makes "Minnesota Nice" seem like a passive aggressive snobfest which it probably is.
  • Air conditioners cranked up to 11... I already covered this.
  • The ramps in Texas seem to all be built up and over the highways which makes for an interesting exit when you're 200 ft above the freeway on a single lane exit going to another freeway.  It's like they have spaghetti in the sky
  • Also in Texas they don't warn you about exits until they are RIGHT THERE.  It's like "Exit 45...NOW"
  • Those cockroaches are god damn huge in Texas.  I had one in my hotel bathroom and we had a lengthy conversation about the buyout. 
  • Texas likes football

Texas Cleanup Part 4: Registration

On the way back home...
How long did it seem?
3 days or 4? snow glazed all the trees

 

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When we arrived at the client shelter which had one tent of about 80 clients.  The shelter was on the grounds of an unused elementary school and in the middle of a torn up neighborhood.  The night shift Red Cross people were showing us the ropes and everything seemed manageable.  The clients were the people who had their homes destroyed by the hurricane and we were there to simply help them out in anyway possible.  This shelter had showers, laundry, 3 meals a day, and air conditioned tents.  For some people this was better than what they had before the hurricane.

At first, 80 clients didn't seem terribly daunting but they were erecting another tent that day.  Apparently there was about 500 clients from Galveston who were bused to other cities in Texas before the hurricane hit.  These people were going to come back at some point.  Of course this rumor took off on it's own because some people mentioned 800 people, some mentioned 1,500, and some said that there were no buses.  This next tent pretty much guaranteed at least another 200 clients so we were going to be put to work.

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Janet and I were mostly at the entrance of the shelter area handling registration.  Registration was not my strong suit but there always seemed to be action there and the information seemed to flow through the registration desk.  We had to make sure that clients signed in and out of the shelter, register new clients, handle all the weirdest questions that one could think of, be the gate keeper for any of the numerous organizations that wanted to "take a look" or "spread their word", and look for people who were sick mentally and physically. 

The first few days at the registration was okay.  Problems seemed to find a way to being solved and we had our very own woman who was 'all about' registration.  We called her the 'registration nazi' because she was on top of everything and would work 14 hour days making sure everything was filed to her liking. 

The next couple days we had more clients at our shelter and they were building another 200 person tent with yet another in the works.  At this point things were starting to get crazy at registration and everywhere for that matter.  Those 6 guys from Florida who everyone was worried about were damn near a god sent.  These guys busted their ass making cots, unloading trailers, and doing any kind of grunt work that was asked.  What was even more impressive is the interaction they had with the clients.  They made everyone seem like best buddies and were not afraid to sit down and shoot the breeze with any of them.  Despite being understaffed I do believe that without these guys, we would've had one hell of an uphill battle.  I think back now and laugh at how worried some people were about these guys. 

Eventually we housed more clients and by this time we had 3-200 man tents, police officers on the grounds at all times, and a parade of departments who all wanted to enter the shelter on a daily basis.  Registration was becoming rough because of all the questions, looking for people, and registering people.

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When clients came to register they would walk up to our table usually with wide eyes and somewhat stunned.  They would sit and a lot of times, just start talking to you about what they lost, where they've been, and all the damage at their house.  At registration we heard a ton of stories and after a couple days these stories start to eat up at you.  I remember after the first couple days of registration I would get ready for bed and sit in my cot completely stunned due to some of the stories that I was told that day.  Sometimes clients would sit down coughing or showing signs of an infectious disease.  One guy had a huge scab over his entire left hand with one band-aid tied around his finger.  Turns out it was a bite of some kind and our shelter doctor had to take him away to look at it closer. 

After a typical day me and my team would find some sort of nice restaurant (whatever was open) to sit and talk about our day.  The Red Cross gave us $33 a day to spend on food and with the contracting outfit already giving us good meals, we were finding it challenging to spend $33.  Spending time with the team was very therapeutic for us because we were all able to laugh off whatever craziness we had that day.  One day Janet had a person trying to register who was an admitted sex offender, which is enough to cause a certain level of discomfort in anyone.  The four of us sitting in the restaurant at the end of the day were some of the greatest moments of the trip and we would laugh so much.  I was also able to watch TV at some of the restaurants.

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Now for me, sitting out the last two weeks of the Twins playoff run wasn't as maddening as I thought it was going to be.  We had no news at all on Galveston Island so we couldn't tell what was going on with debates or economies crumbling, or anything.  I had H and Hog both texting me scores and giving me running updates of whatever important games were going on while they were being played.  I rarely ever missed a game on tv, radio, and certainly not a boxscore the whole year now I was missing the best part of the season!  As it turns out the Twins and White Sox ended the season tied and in a one game playoff.  This was also the day that the Red Cross put us in a hotel, so I was getting psyched to actually watch it.  I ran up to my room and immediately turned on the TV to flip through the channels.  As it turns out, TBS was the only channel that didn't come in due to some weird cable issues but I think it was a horrible joke from God.  Janet was nice enough to let me follow the game from her fancy pants phone but as it turns out the Twins lost due to a solo shot by Jim Thome.  How do I know that was a joke from God?  Well we actually had a Red Cross staff member who also went by the name Jim Thome at our shelter.

Tom:  Is your name really Jim Thome?
Jim:  Well yes, why do you ask?
Tom:  Because you killed my club the other night.  I just want you to know that I'm going to be bitter towards you from now on just because of your name.

After spending all that quality time with my team I had to wish them farewell because their time in Texas was up.  I was a bit sad to see them go because we created a nice family-like bond between us.  I was always amazed at how someone who has traveled the world and who is very outspoken like Vicki could find a way to meet a guy like Vearl who had never been on an airplane before this trip.  We all seemed to have a very good team dynamic and there wasn't any drama between us.  I even had Vearl talk about "hotties" and "women with big boobs" on the last day of their trip.  I was very proud of Vearl.

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As it turns out, it seems like nearly half of our staff left with the rest of my team.  At registration it was just me and the new supervisor, Diane, who was left.  At this point registration was turning grueling because we were so incredibly busy at the desk.  It wasn't just at registration either because the whole shelter was greatly understaffed at this point with as little as 5 staff people in charge of a client base of over 300.  Staff became stressed, clients became stressed with the added numbers, and the workload was increasing more and more.

I talked to a bunch of people who worked with the Hurricane Katrina aftermath and they all told me that there is always one point where something gives from a mental standpoint.  Either you become emotional or angry or depressed but something always makes its way through.  For me it was when just me and Diane were at registration.  I remember seeing these 3 bags of garbage about 40ft in front of us at the desk.  These bags had flies buzzing around and it looked nasty.  I would make a mental note to take these bags back to the dumpster but I would always be caught up in something.  I would then make another attempt only to drop the bags and go to something more important.  Finally I started to take out the trash when the wind kicked up and blew some of the registration papers off the table.  I could feel that flame of frustration growing and that was when one of the clients threw a half full bottle of Gatorade in the unlined garbage container I just emptied.  I simply told Diane that I had to leave for a half hour, right now.  It was probably the first and only thing I demanded in months.  Diane also had to take a break because she was on the verge of going insane.

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(Same hotel.  Notice the chunk taken out on the top corner of the hotel.)

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Meanwhile the client number rose above 500 and things in the shelter were getting uglier with sickness breaking out and people getting frustrated with other people.  People were drinking the hand washing water instead of using the bottled water that we provided and becoming ill.  Sometimes the police would kick people out of the shelters for various reasons.  Luckily we had more Red Cross volunteers who came and rescued me and Diane from the madness that we were encompassed with.  Tom and Penny both came from New Jersey and we had Laurel and Brian who showed up wearing their UCLA garb.  So we now had 6 people in registration and things were actually manageable at this point.

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I hate to give everything a negative connotation because it wasn't like I was living in hell for a 12 days.  I actually loved being down at the shelter and Galveston and simply being part of something so huge.  All of the teams that we came down with fused into one large family and we would always give each other breaks throughout the day.  The guys from Florida, the Seattle couple, and the UCLA twins (even though they made fun of whatever northern accent I have) were so much fun to work with that I really felt guilty for leaving when I did.  When you start out a shelter that only had 80-some people and it grows to over 500, you feel like your a part of the place.  There was something to be said of working at our shelter because we were so understaffed but whatever staff we had were very good. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Texas Cleanup Part 3: Galveston

When the snow don't come
You can't swim in the lakes
Now it's hotter than hell
In a bed you won't make

The morning of going to Galveston we stopped by that abandoned Wal-Mart for some last minute questions and supplies.  The supervisor told us to pack away three cases of bottled water since the water in Galveston was either not working or undrinkable.  They also told us that we're going to need a lot of cash and insect repellant with with over 75% deet.  They made it sound like we were heading into Vietnam or something. 

It wasn't until we reached north Houston when we started to see large broken branches and after each mile we would see more and more damage. At this point it just looked like a powerful thunderstorm whipped around Houston which was barely notable.  When we drove through downtown Houston we noticed that some windows were replaced with plywood.

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I remember all those 80's shows would feature a cool looking office.  Man would walk in the office and immediately a drink would be served in some cool looking bar off to the side of the office.  There would be glasses and all the top line liquors around.  I've always dreamed about having my redneck equivalent.  It would feature all the bottom shelf liquors and have dixie cups sitting nearby.  A piece of plywood in place for a window would also be ideal.  I can only hope that there is some guy up there with dixie cups making the most of his wooden window. 

I've been in Houston before visiting friends and I really don't care for it at all.  For it being the 4th largest city it sure doesn't have much going for it.  When you compare Houston to Chicago or New York, I nearly throw up because of how cool both Chi-town and NY are and how boring Houston is.  I would probably rate Houston a tad bit above Gatlinberg, TN and just below Humble, TX.

Anyway, south of Houston is where we were finding more and more billboards being blown out.  We all made the note that McDonalds signs seemed to fare the worst because nearly all were damaged south of Houston. 

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Then we'd see some very weak houses with tarps over the roof.  Construction equipment was becoming more frequent and there was more and more crap on the side of the road. 

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About ten miles north of Galveston we began seeing boats laying on the sides of the freeway, the median, and pretty much all over the place.

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When we reached Galveston Island it looked very concerning.  There was piles of trash stacked up in front of all the homes and businesses were throwing away all the drywall and damaged goods into their parking lot.  There was nothing open and everything smelled like a plugged drain that hadn't been pumped in two weeks.  All the traffic lights were out too so defensive driving was a must.  It was way too easy to have your eyes drift toward a graveyard or some strange debris and you end up rear ending someone. 

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Everyone in my team kept mentioning the "Galveston song" by Glen Campbell.  My parents even mentioned it but I've never heard it before.  I just youtubed it just now and now I wish I was never that curious.  Good lord that song sucks.  The Wreak of the Edmund Fitzgerald blows it out of the water...er...pardon the pun

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In this picture you can see the small boat caught up in the tennis court fences but what is really interesting is the dirt on top of the chain link fence off to the right.  This dirt is the high water mark for when the storm surge hit.  These tennis courts were about 6 blocks away from the Gulf.

We stopped at the local chapter headquarters where we met our next supervisor who looked like she hadn't slept in 3 days.  She was dealing with 30 problems seemingly all at once and the four of us were trying not to cause  her to snap.  She explained the shelter that we'd be helping out and that there are only 6 staff people right now.  The 6 were all from Florida and were brand new to the Red Cross and she seemed worried about them.  As if they were trouble or something.

We shrugged it off and went to our own shelter where we were being housed.  Because there was so many different disaster relief organizations down there (EPA, Forestry, State Troopers, FEMA, Salvation Army, Southern Baptists, and more) they had a huge shelter for all the disaster relief agencies to stay in.  The shelter was a tent, and air conditioned tent no less which housed about 400-some cots

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On my plane trip back home I sat next to this U of M professor who made one of the funniest statements,
"I do believe that Texas summers are in fact colder than Minnesota winters."
See, in Texas they don't simply turn on the air conditioner but they have every room ready for emergency meat locker storage.  It's absolutely insane how cold they make these rooms.  When I started packing for my trip I briefly wondered if I should bring a stocking hat for if I should get cold at all.  Then I thought,
"I'm going to southern Texas, what would I do with anything more than a t-shirt?"
I figured it was a good point but I actually could've used one.  This shelter was waaay too cold at night and I would shiver my ass out the door just to warm up.

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Outside the PVC meat locker we had a contracting outfit in charge of showers, washing stations, laundry, and food.  Other than tents, we were not roughing it at all.  The food was great and in great quantity because you almost needed two plates to hold everything. 

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Laundry was especially cool because you stop up to this tent, hand them your bag of laundry, and take a number.  Later that day it would be cleaned AND folded.  Upon learning of this I called up my mom and she thought I would never leave.  Folded clothes!!! 

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Here's where I tease you and say, "Next, I'll talk about what it was like at the client shelter...but that will come tomorrow."  So yeah, stay tuned or whatever.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Texas Cleanup Part 2: Bored

May not seem exciting the way those others do
I'm emotion, my devotion
You will need some day as I need you

 

I arrived at the Red Cross headquarters for Hurricanes Ike and Gustav in suburban Ft. Worth.  Like I mentioned before, it was an abandoned Wal-Mart with about 200 miscellaneous Red Cross workers stationed at one of the 20 stations sprawled across the floor.  The place was humming and walking in was like walking into a giant office complex without the cubicles.  The place had charts, graphs, maps, and easel post-its all over the walls and wires strung out all over the place.

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I soon found a sheltering team which had a couple team members bow out for various reasons.  I greeted everyone on the team and based on their accents I figured this was a team entirely from Texas.  All four middle aged people had drawls and they all seemed very fun and happy.  To my surprise no one was from Texas or even close to Texas--two of the people were from Oregon, one from Vegas, and the guy with the deepest drawl I have ever heard was only ten hours away from me in NW Missouri. 

Everyone I just met got back from Texarkana where they opened and closed a shelter in about ten days.  They told me all the stories and people that they met while in Texarkana.  They mentioned "Big Momma" and all the sugared up kids in the shelter.  They also mentioned the 2nd hurricane that came through while they were trying to fill a perscription  I spent the first few days in Ft. Worth listening to my team talk about their lives and their experience in Texarcana.

Eventually one of the four people I met bowed out due to family illness and our team was down to four.  We had Vegas Vicki who was very outspoken and one hell of an effective leader.  Vicki scored us hotel rooms, awesome working hours, and she was one of the most effective managers I had ever seen.  Coming from Oregon we had Janet who was a blast to hang out with.  If she wasn't breaking her ankle on curbs and talking to sex offenders, she was helping me make fun of people which is always fun.  Then there was Vearl who was a 68 year old farmer from NW Missouri.  Vearl was the person who I identified the most with because he reminded me so much of my grandpa and he had a story for everything.  Making fun of Vearl was especially fun too because he would look off into the distance and finally throw his cap at you. 

We all quickly bonded and began waiting for a call for our assignment.  We specialized in sheltering which means that we were basically being managers of a shelter until the shelter wasn't needed anymore or we had to leave.  I felt relieved that they had done this before because I had that Maroon 5 scenario fresh in my mind.  So we waited.

First day---no call
Second day---no call
third day---no call

We waited at this nice hotel for three days.  We couldn't afford to explore Ft. Worth at all because we had to be close to our packed bags if we got a call to be somewhere fast.  The Hotel was beautiful but it was in the middle of nowhere.  We couldn't walk around anywhere and it was hard to get involved into anything with the threat of the phone ringing and canceling out whatever plans we would have. 

After three days of waiting I was starting to get a bit concerned.  I mean wasn't the Red Cross practically begging people to help out?  If so, I'm here, Hello!  I used the rest of my vacation to be here and now I'm being told to wait?  I was starting to wonder if I would be deployed to Texas only to wait at a hotel for three weeks and not have a chance to actually do anything.  If that were the case I'd be devastated and feel completely worthless.

Dad:  So what kind of stuff did you do in Texas?
Tom:  ugh, nothing.  I just hung out in a hotel for three weeks waiting for something to do.  It was the worst experience of my life.

Frustrated with the lack of doing anything, Janet and Vearl decided to go home because they didn't want to sit and wait around longer.  I don't blame them because they had already opened a shelter and this was complete bullshit to make us wait around like this.  Just before we were about to give hugs goodbye to Janet and Vearl, this supervisor came running in and told them that they were not allowed to go home.  They had to wait until it was cleared with the supervisor before they went home.  So the four of us drove back to the hotel frustrated and wondering how long we'd be staying in this hotel. 

Then the phone rang, it was headquarters.  Apparently we were being assigned to help start up the shelter in Galveston Island which was a bit of a shock to us.  We heard rumors that they would need help in Houston or Beaumont but for some reason Galveston slipped our mind.  They told us to be prepared and that the mosquitos were horrible.  It was almost as if they were trying to scare us from going down. 

I think my group was a bit annoyed that we would have the Galveston shelter.  Janet and Vearl must've been especially annoyed because they were minutes away from going home and now they heard that they were being sent to the place that sustained the most damage.  Because I was so bored and hadn't done a thing, I was pumped and excited to go to Galveston.  I didn't let my team know this because I'm sure Vearl would've choked me to death but I was ready to see some weird things.  I was finally going to do something.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Texas Cleanup Part 1: Arriving

They're never going to make it easy
Of this you can be sure.
I greet you from the wilderness,
I'll stay inside your door


I remembering waiting at the light rail station on Monday morning.  It was about 4am and I was slowly walking around my huge duffle bag wondering what the next two weeks were going to be like.  I honestly didn't have any idea so I anticipated the absolute worst case scenario which involved me and a coked up Ben Stiller locked in a cell with nonstop Maroon 5 being played over some hidden speaker.  Hell, even that would be an experience and give me some perspective that I was craving.

I had signed up for hurricane disaster relief through the Red Cross and I was about to be deployed for about 17 days.  I volunteered to help out last year for the 35W bridge collapse and I loved the experience.  I was doing very remedial work in building a database for 'in-kind donations' but I loved how everything was structured.  Everyone had ideas and everyone seemed to listen and there were no power struggles.  It was refreshing.  They also fed us Outback Steakhouse and that was so bitchin that, like a bear that has been fed by dumbass tourists, I wanted to come back for more. 

I remember laying in bed about a month ago wondering what I could do to make 2008 memorable.  I was getting sick of the predictability of life and the pattern that everything was falling in.  I didn't know what I was going to do.  Usually I just think of Sara Evans in a vinyl suit and I fall asleep with a smile on my face but really, it's not until Sara Evans is in your bed is when you are fully satisfied...right?  A week later I got a email from the Red Cross and that they were "desperately" looking for volunteers to help out in the hurricane Ike and Gustav aftermath. 

I was all over this.  I was going to actively try for this.  After all, the Red Cross would pay for nearly everything, I could take a 3 week break from work and recharge, and I simply like the idea of helping.  To me there's something very refreshing to travel in exotic places with the only task being to simply "help out".  Also the pranks that me and my roommate do to each other has escalated to her flat-out punching me in the balls and me trying to flick her chest.  Basically such a trip would give my testicles some time to heal.  Plus I get to take a back seat on managing and instead allow myself to be managed which would be a great change of pace from work.  I was all about this but getting 3 weeks off would be tough.  Especially since I only have about 7 days of vacation left.

I asked my bosses and surprisingly they were very supportive.  Not supportive enough to give me more vacation time but supportive enough that I could take three weeks off and come back with my job waiting for me.  I really didn't care, the worst case scenario of annoying ass Ben Stiller and the primate sounds of Maroon 5 seemed like the penance that I needed to pursue. 

I arrived in Ft. Worth at about noon and I called up the number that I was explicitly told to call once I got my bag.  The number led me to a voice mail to which I left a message,

"uh yeah, this is Tom and I was supposed to call this number once I got in.  Uh I would like to know what to do next."

I then waited a couple minutes and became very dissatisfied with my message and a little annoyed that the number they gave me led to a voice mail recording. 

I called again and I got this really irritated guy who told me that I called the wrong Red Cross number and he was nice enough to give me the correct number to call.  I was now playing my favorite game, telephone-go-fish in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport no less.  On the fourth try I finally was given directions and soon I was on my way to the Red Cross headquarters which was an abandoned Wal-Mart in suburban Ft. Worth.  I was getting ready to do whatever it was I was that the Red Cross needed the most help in. 

I know, I know I haven't gotten to any juicy parts yet.  So far all I've done is fantasize about Sara Evans and talk shit about Maroon 5.  So to save you guys from one endless biblical post I'm going to split it up so I can get everyone's attention.  Not to mention it's 1:30am and I really need to get to bed because I have 3 weeks of email waiting for me at work.  I'll have more tomorrow and maybe even a picture or two.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Malaria-less

Hola,

So far Galveston has been a blast. They warned us about mosquitos on the way down here. In fact, this dude at a Houston gas station was nearly threatening me with the possible outbreak of malaria going around. After being here for 8 days I can safely say that either the mosquitos are all dead or Texans are very dramatic and whiny when it comes to mosquitos. I bought this 100% deet stuff and have only used it a couple times.

We have about 850 clients staying in our shelter on Galveston Island and it's been tough. We've been understaffed and the conditions are not the best (to say the least) but it's downright amazing what we've done. I broke my camera....but I got a newer, better one instead so I'll post some pictures when I get back.

Just wanted to say hi and that I dont have malaria and I haven't been raped yet.