We arrived at 10:00 pm to Key West Naval Yard. It was dark, there was recently a hurricane so the roads were single lanes or even blocked by debris and we had very little idea where we were going! When we stopped to ask for directions (yes, the old fashion way of finding something but GPS only works where there is adequte cell service!) some laughed and said “it is a BIG ship, with lights on, docked next to the pier, you can’t miss it”. We started seeing military guards and guard houses so knew we were getting close to the Navy yard. Then we saw her – bright lights and sitting proudly looking stately in her 60 years.
We knew Ron was going to get a ‘Cabin deck room’ by himself and knew that Carol (the FEMA Mayor of this ship/town) also had a Cabin deck but Allecia and I didn’t know what awaited us. Perhaps this was where the ‘austre conditions’ started that FEMA has everyone acknowledge several times throughout the hiring process. We saw the metal gangway (I guess there are no gangplanks on these ships and they seemed a bit offended when I asked!). The gangway was from the pier up two decks so was a bit of a steep climb even without our luggage. I was thankful I had ‘downsized’ my two 2 1/2 pieces of luggage by giving away my new fall jacket to one of the Security people in Tallahassee before leaving, threw a pair of tennis shoes in the garbage at the hotel (never liked the 2nd hand ones that didn’t fit anyway!) and also tossed a few shirts and many of my bigger bottles of hair and bathing products as we heard there would be limited room on the ship. I also sent home a large box of papers that, with 12 hour days 7 days a week, I had no time to edit my writings nor wade through FEMA policies that were online.
The kind crew hauled our bags up for us but it as on the ‘down low’ as they certainly were not doing that for the 650 people we were expecting to start staying on our ship the TS Empire State in the upcoming weeks. The ship would be home to other FEMA staff as well as other agencies that were helping in the clean up of Florida after Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Maria had hit Puerto Rico (PR) already and had missed Florida and to me, PR was a whole different world away…… Even though it was past 10pm, we were told we would be meeting/greeting Carol, Captain Smith and the 3rd mate – Killian for our mandatory ‘safety tour’ to acquaint us with the ship and learn to be famialiar with how to get around. There were less than 60 crew and then us 4 FEMA people with Carol. Unfortunately, the ‘meeting’ was in the Officer’s Mess which was 3 more flights up little narrow stairwells. Those on Facebook with me have seen these pictures which I want to post here once I can get to that! I am thinking of setting up a FEMA picture gallery on this site – but I digress!
Carol had been up since 2am so she did not want to go on the mandatory tour and after my 15th question about the ship, the captain, Killian and anything else I thought of, she excused herself to head to bed! She still calls me ‘chatty Kathy!”. Allecia and I were told that some ‘holds’ with beds held as many as 120 people but there were smaller ones on the Main deck (usually officers stayed in the 4 man ones). They decided that as long as we were OK with another female with a gun and taser (Federal Protection Services) we could bunk in with her in a four man room. One shower, one bathroom and two sinks with the 4 bunks. I choose the bottom bunk so I could just roll in, curl up and go to sleep. It was very cold as the AC was loudly and forcefully blowing in the middle of the room. I slept in my sweatpants, socks, sweater (it was my mom’s comfy sweater so I wasn’t going to throw or give that away). The next night I found where extra blankets were and was comfy in my cocoon.
Long days were ahead…A typical day was to awake by 6:00am, maybe shower – maybe not – and be dressed and down to a full hot buffet breakfast with my notebook and pen in hand for the early briefs/discussions over breakfast. The food service, three meals a day plus snacks and homemade desserts and many other items available all day – was amazing. We were not eligible for our per diem payments as we got our lodging and meals paid for. I was in heaven! Well, almost!
After breakfast in the mess hall, lowest deck even below the main deck even with the pier, we hiked 4 flights up to the Officer’s Mess where we set up a little office – Carol sat in a booth and had her laptop on a table in front of her, we had a printer sitting next to the salad bar which now held computer equipment and boxes (we NEVER throw away any boxes as they are ALL needed when the disaster is over and stuff is packed back up!!!!). This went against my ‘simplicity’ lifestyle of putting things together in one area and tossing the bulk but oh well. I learned to change to the FEMA away on a lot of things! Ron and I shared a table with our laptops facing each other and I was right there to assist both of them with emails, note taking for conference calls with other FEMA logistic groups, and then oversee the ship reservation email mailbox. I organized agendas and made signs for the increasing FEMA group that came aboard.
Four guys drove down from Tallahasse to Key West bringing some supplies with them along with the vans that we needed to courier people from the pier (limited parking due to the Hurricane damage to the pier and also due to safety) to their vehicles as well as to their work sites registering people for benefits. A FEMA Corp team of 5 also joined us led by Jack! Once we knew about a reservation for X number of people coming to the ship, Allecia would assign them berths. What actually happened, is people would just show up and we would give them a place to sleep. They loved the food also but some had an issue with climbing into their bunk (top middle or bottom).
I was excited to get off the ship and see my first intake center where survivors were going to sign up for benefits. In Minot, we all went to the auditoreum so each large building we passed, I was surprised when we didn’t stop. Then, we stopped by a large building but Carol led the way in the opposite direction. There were large groups of people standing in the shade of the large building and lines going to two tents! Yep, those were the intake center. One tent was where they waited, in fan cooled, shaded ‘comfort’ with bottles of water given out and then they got to move to the other tent where their info was taken on tablets when the internet reception was working. We heard some survivors waited 6-7 hours in line to get registered. As this was the 2nd hurricane, many resources/people were working still in Texas with Harvey and throughout those states while also trying to spread up to wildfires and other disasters going on. Tempers flared with people saving spaces in line for family members who just cut in line and such. Armed guards needed to set up a ticket system like in Target, take a ticket when you get there so no one can budge the line. Oh my! It was fascinating to hear the FSP gal’s stories of how her day went whether guarding the pier at night or helping with the intake center.
After a week, the ship was not filling up as fast as what people thought it would. There was another ship, the Kennedy, that parked right behind the TS Empire State and they held mainly Secret Service and other DC Security people anticipating the visit of “Officials” from Washington. Also, people that were ‘suppose’ to stay on the ship, ended up getting hotel rooms or didn’t deploy to Key West. We did get the direction that other FEMA groups would need office space to work out of so we ordered a JFO kit to come. A JFO kit has everything a 50 person office needs including tables, chairs, partitions, waste baskets, microwaves, tray stackers, etc. We ordered 3 JFO kits and found a building to rent. I was excited to finally be able to ‘work’ in Logistics unloading a truck, moving tables, and setting up a space. That is what I thought I would be doing for my whole FEMA time – not that I wasn’t very grateful for the ‘office’ assignment. After several hours helping the guys unload, I was happy to go back to the ship and look out over the ocean.
We started getting nervous when we heard that the ship may be needed in Puerto Rico. Hmmm, what would we do??? We ignored the possibility until it was clear that the ship just wasn’t filling up like they thought and this ship was badly needed in San Juan. There was a joke going around the ship that we all would wake up one morning and the ship would be sailing away to PR. NO WAY was I going to be on that. I liked the mainland! Then we started looking at other options and decided we did like the ship and did like giving people a place to sleep and we were experienced………so Carol proposed four of us (Carol, me, a new IT person and Allecia along with the FEMA Corp team) go to PR and do reservations on the ship. Ron and others would stay in Key West and run the Office.
Looking at all of our luggage and the needing to haul it all down, take it to the airport, fly to PR, handle the luggage again and re-board the ship, we decided maybe sailing with the ship wouldn’t be so bad! The Captain was agreeable, we needed to provide passport info (in case we ended up in a non-US place????), we had to fill out medical papers and papers that verified we had additional safety training. The date was set, I made a few phone calls to say good bye and barely slept the night before we were to set sail. In Key West, with the IT set up, I was able to email from the ship, my phone worked and I was able to Face Time almost every day with family. The things we were hearing about PR was NO phones, internet or communication for possibly weeks. We knew the sailing trip would be 2 1/2 days so likely would be out of communication then.
As of September 28, 2017, I changed once again to my third Hurricane and was now setting sail to help out with Hurricane Maria. I had now been gone from home 30 days but no rotation home was in my future for awhile. Stay tuned for the sailing voyage and hopefully pictures!