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A Whole New World of Shoveling

Shoveling is my most favourite thing to do in the field. It can become almost meditative when you get a good rhythm going and quite euphoric when you look around, sweating and panting, and realise just how much of the earth you’ve moved. There are many factors that affect where a particular site’s shoveling sits on the scale of one to perfect, mainly concerning the surface to be shoveled off and the material to be shoveled.

An uneven surface catches the shovel, jars your elbows and wastes precious effort. The pinnacle, I discovered one glorious day in Haiti, is shoveling off tiles. Ignoring the odd squeak like nails down a chalkboard the shovel head slides effortlessly under whatever is to be moved. Combined with the step-pivot footwork technique perfected by volunteers in Gonaives you can clear crap from tiles in no time. The idea crap to be cleared, in my opinion, is small pieces of rubble; larger ones breaking your rhythm and smaller things like sand being too dense for a good throwing distance to the receptacle.

Today I experienced both a new surface and a new material: wet carpet and soggy drywall/plasterboard panels. Wet carpet is a fairly good shoveling surface, except that if you get the angle of the shovel head just a little on the steep side the friction is immense and your stroke stops dead. Drywall is also something of a two-sided coin. Mostly its brilliant, you can get great heaping shovelfuls and there’s just enough heft to it to be able to hurl it quite some distance quite accurately. The problem is the paper covering which sometimes holds it together causing the great heaping shovelful to be half-on-half-off. It then dangled precariously, slides further off as you struggle to save it and then usually ends up all off. Still the satisfaction is all the sweeter when your patch is finally cleared.

A fair amount of time can pass between excursions into the field for me these days so Project Minot is treating me well as this is the second time in just over a week they’ve let me outside. I’m tired and sore and smiling. I would have been any way but the tiny square of tile I found to shovel off in what was a basement bathroom just made my week.


And the results are in …

It was a close call but I would call the results definitive. Your favourite organizational device is – drumroll please – the binder with pen pouch option. However, controversy surrounds the poll as the fans of the clipboard say I biased people’s opinion by adding “with pen pouch” thereby making the binder sound more glamorous and skewing the vote. I admit, I was on the side of the binder, but the facts don’t lie. Although, almost as many people voted other and suggested a kind of box file combo, a clipboard-box where the writing surface opens like a binder to reveal a place to store spare paper and pens. Genius. If they have them in Walmart (likely) and I have my way (unlikely) the assessment team will be kitted out with them within the hour!

Clipboards vs. Binders

You can see from the title of this post the kind of day we have had in the office. We have experienced the full range of disaster-chasing emotions today; from the highs of new volunteer introductions and people stopping by to tell us about the progress they’ve made to the tears in my eyes as an older man, injured while working on the railroad, told me of his shame and frustration at not being able to take care of his own flood damaged home.

Consequently we are all a little hysterical and when we got into a discussion about the various merits of different organizational aids it got a little heated. And then a little ridiculous. We ended up crying with laughter for a good ten minutes and got no nearer to a clear consensus. So I am opening it up to you, dear readers.

Here’s the situation: you have a number of home owners who have requested help and you are going to visit them at their homes to carry out an assessment of the work that need to be done. You must take a copy of the work request form, an assessment form, pens and anything else you think might be useful. You must not lose anything. You must be able to walk around and fill out the forms. Answers in the form below …

… And Then it Hails

This part of the world is really being hammered by the weather just now. Today Bill reported the worst hail he’d ever seen and a possible tornado warning. This is after yesterday’s flash flood warnings and of course the massive flooding a few weeks ago. Teams out in the field joined together for easier coordination if things had gotten worse and hunkered down in a property with a basement to see if the tornado sirens would sound. Thankfully the hail passed quickly and the warning turned out to be just that and they jobs got back under way after a welcome half hour break.

In the auditorium today – home of the Minot Area Recovery Coordination Center and manned by me, Jen and Kat – I had the pleasure of lending my ear to a lovely elderly gentleman who, it seems, just popped in for a chat. The house he has lived in since 1956 is damaged beyond repair and is probably going to be demolished so no, thank you, he didn’t need any volunteers to come over and help him.

Except for one thing. Somewhere in the house was they key to a safe deposit box and he wasn’t sure the bank would give him access to it without the key so if he could put in a request to have someone go and track down the key that would be great. On second thoughts, he concluded, the bank probably has some kind of system in place for just this eventuality and perhaps he doesn’t need that person after all. So, on account of the house being demolished he doesn’t need any volunteer assistance, not even to find the key.

Oh. Ok, cheerio then.

And although this little tale might raise a little chuckle, as it did from me as he headed out, this just underlines the emotional impact of a disaster like this. A lot of the people who come to the desk to register for assistance want to talk to someone as much as they want to get their house in the job queue. They want to be able to complain to someone who isn’t in the same desperate situation, because they don’t want to burden the loved ones who have just as much on their plates. They want to be able to cry and then go home and keep being strong for the family.

I thought it might be easier responding to a disaster in a developed country but it’s not. Just because you were rich (in global terms at least) before disaster strikes doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when it’s all taken away.

Gutting With the Governor

Not only did we have 23 people out in the field today – a new record for Project Minot – but one of them was none other than the Governor of North Dakota, Jack Dalrymple. He is spearheading a campaign to give state employees one day of paid leave to volunteer in the Minot area with flood relief programs. Today’s group obviously enjoyed themselves as they penciled in another group of seven for tomorrow. At this rate we will at least start making some headway with the ever-increasing work requests.

In other news the Project Minot inbox is now open so if you have any questions about the project or you’d like to volunteer drop me a line at projectminot@hands.org. Hopefully tomorrow it will be brimming with requests as I posted it in messages on college Facebook pages throughout North and South Dakota. Fingers crossed!

When It Rains It Pours

Thank goodness volunteers were working to gut the inside of a home and garage today as Minot was hit by torrential rain and thunderstorms. 16th Street re-flooded and was closed for most of the afternoon. The water table is so high here home owners are pumping out their basements only to go in the next day to find two feet of standing water.

In the auditorium I’m finally getting a good handle on things. All Hands is running the Recovery Coordination Center hoping to keep a central database of all requests for help from local people. These requests can then be referred to any organization as and when they have volunteers available with relevant skills.

This is also the place for spontaneous volunteers to drop by, register and head straight out to work. Local people with just an afternoon to spare can come along and give their time to help their community get back on its feet. Today was a busy day with people back from yesterday, new volunteers showing up and a guy all the way from Illinois who will be staying and working with us until the weekend. Fingers crossed with a little more promotion numbers will peak and we’ll be able to start really motoring through the work.

Into The Flood Zone

For the first time in a good number of weeks I strapped on my newly acquired wellies and headed out into the field. Every member of staff at All Hands was a volunteer first and it really puts the office work into perspective when you get the chance to get out there and get your hands dirty. I had spent my time in North Dakota processing, logging and filing work requests from some of the thousands of people who were affected by this flood but the reality of the impact the water had on the houses was a world away until I turned onto Central Avenue this morning.

Having come from an area recently ravaged by a tsunami I expected Minot to be in much better shape than Tohoku. I imagined the water gently rising in the streets, lapping against the windows and then gently receding again. Instead, house after house stood empty with dirty tide marks up at the 8 foot mark. Wooden decks had detached and crashed into neighbouring buildings. Gardens and neat green lawns had been swept away and replaced with mud. All along the roadside piles of debris stand waiting for collection, basically entire lives broken down and put out like trash.

The house we went to was scheduled for a FEMA inspection tomorrow. For this to happen the inspector must be able to measure each room and count the electrical sockets. The house was soaking wet and rapidly turning into a mushy, moldy mess. A group from a church 60 miles away had driven the 90 minutes to help out and along with a couple of local individuals we set about shoveling out the soggy books, photos and furniture. The house was stuffed full of stuff. Bursting at the seams. And everything we touched slipped out of our grasps and fell apart. It was dirty, frustrating work but it got done. Along with the owner’s brother and 10 year old niece we cleared 10 rooms of stinking goop and soggy possessions.

My new appreciation of the circumstances this community faces may not actaully help me much tomorrow back at the desk processing forms though. We still have limited numbers of volunteers and ever growing requests for assistance. In order to fairly assign a priority level to each applicant I might just have to try and forget my muddy day on Central Avenue.

Volunteers Needed!

Unaffiliated, spontaneous volunteers have slowed to a trickle here on Project Minot. Help is desperately needed to get the clean up under way before the cold weather sets in – and here in North Dakota there can be snowstorms as early as September. Unfortunately there is absolutely no accommodation for people coming in from out of state and most groups are struggling to raise numbers due to lack of space.

One thing we are not short of is work requests. All of us here (that would be four people) have spent the day processing requests, scheduling residential volunteers to come in next week and trying to get the base ready for them.

The weather is taking turn for the worst already. It is a typical English summer’s day; grey and drizzly today. Time to go back to Japan methinks …

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