In reviewing a few of my past blogs, two things have become painfully clear: 1) the length, frequency and conveyance of the little personal details of my corner of the spill response have gone the way of my ever-dwindling neuronal function; and 2) I haven’t done justice yet to describing the Houma ICC (aside from the snacks in the Environmental Unit who, by the way, now come to steal my Swedish Fish thanks to a few selected souls who have filled my gastronomical coffers!) So, I figured I would attempt to reverse these deficiencies and give my 3 loyal readers a personal tour of the Command Center, complete with historical perspectives (as I have been here for many of the evolutionary phases of the site). I promise to update everyone tomorrow on the status of the OMTU (btw, everything is great – turtles all getting excellent care. See CNN if you don’t believe me).
The Houma ICC is housed in BP’s Operations Learning Center in Shreiver, LA, just off of Hwy 311 (left at the casino/gas stop). It is a larger, somewhat modern-looking building (steel and glass throughout) with a large gravel parking lot adjacent to it. This lot has been built since the beginning of the spill to accommodate the 1,100 or so people who work in a facility designed to train about 100 people at a time. Finding a parking spot is the first challenge, as the lot is pretty much filled by 0700 (0600 is when the day shift officially starts). Daily, there are dire warnings from security to not park on Hwy 311, cones that magically appear overnight like toadstools to block the most inventive parking spots from the day previously, warnings to not get to close to the waterway in front of the building as the resident alligator may be curious (no lie), and more and more yellow tape to designate zones.
After battling for your spot, the walk to the front door is an experience in rapid constructional evolution (and, yes, one of my failings is my enjoyment of creating new words). The Louisiana State Police and Emergency Response have large motorhomes parked out front, complete with satellite dishes and generators. Trailers are magically appearing before our eyes on what used to be the parking lot (I vaguely remember being able to park on concrete, but it may be a fabrication). We are told that many different organization units will be moving from the ICC into the trailers, but they may be waiting for a Group/Unit Smackdown as it has not happened yet.
Once past this “shantytown”, you enter a tall glass entryway, where a barrier and security guards meet you. Everyone has ID badges with bar codes (a dream of mine for OWCN responses – a warning to future staff and volunteers), and you are scanned in on entry. You then have a choice – turn right to the dining area for breakfast, or go straight, through the main work area to the Wildlife Room to see if your workspace has been invaded by a renegade Wildlife person claiming space. I always split the difference, making a pilgrimage first to my alter: the coffee station. Typically, my first (large travel mug) cup of coffee, groggily acquired from the hotel, is gone, so I am able to truly appreciate the 2 large silver urns, 8 large pump carafes and 8 coffee pots awaiting me. It is almost enough to make one get overly emotional.
After refilling, I head back through the Main Room towards the Wildlife Room. This large main room area (approximately the size of two basketball courts) is the home to most of the Operations Section, some of the Planning section, the Documentation Unit and Situation Status unit. Data, forms, graphs and maps decorate each wall (the walls going up about 20-30 feet), large LCD monitors are positioned throughout the area for displaying maps, weather charts and the like, four large-scale copy machines are positioned strategically along the back wall, dry erase boards and easels are positioned near each group, tables are lined up all within the center of the room with laptops and associated humanoids positioned in front of each station, and two extra-large projection screens dominate it all – one typically projecting a map of the Gulf with “the blob” (e.g. the slick) graphically projected on it, the second showing the hundreds of vessels working on the slick in real-time. This area used to house most of the response personnel (with only some groups, such as Wildlife, being sent to the nether regions), but with the growth of the response, every single nook and cranny of the facility is currently being used. This is also the room where main meetings occur – the SitStat meeting (ooh, new lingo for you in the blog!) where the Incident Commanders give everyone info on what is going on, key announcements, etc. These meetings also have the feel of a large fruit salad, as everyone there has either a military uniform on or a colored vest designating which Section they belong to (red=Ops, blue=Planning, purple=information, etc.).
Once past the main room, you reach a back corridor leading to a number of smaller rooms and cubicles. This includes larger rooms for Air Operations, Incident Command staff, Comms, SCAT (shoreline cleanup assessment), Logistics, Information/Liaison, and a moderate size conference room, and smaller rooms (10×10) for the USCG Chaplain, Incident Commander, MMS/DOI and a smaller conference room. This last room is fiercely fought over, as it is one of the few quiet places that you can have a conference call (Typically we have our daily calls there – if not, the loyal members of the OMTU use cell phones and flee to different corners of the hallway, as the second-long delay between hearing someone speak and hearing it across your phone is a bit disconcerting – try it sometime). Space has become such an issue in the command post we now have rogue splinter factions of groups establishing office beachheads in the hallway – I even saw one person (no names to protect the innocent, but she is our UCD information officer who helped me out over the past week) use scotch tape to delineate a cubicle on the carpet (complete with door).
The Wildlife Branch occupies one of these larger rooms in this hall, and it is filled with tables, chairs and staff of USFWS, Louisiana Dept of Wildlife & Fisheries, NOAA, OWCN and IBRRC, and also has the wonderful ladies who man the Wildlife Hotline and Volunteer/Transport phone bank. All in all, there are tables and chairs for 22 and between 25-30 folks work in there. You learn quickly that you must not show weakness in this environment, as the vultures are quick to land on your still-moving carcass if you even make the slightest indication of packing up.
Moving from the Wildlife room (after ensure the sanctity of your spot by parking something of size in your chair), you can make your way down an ancillary hall past the bathroom (coffee nonewithstanding), medic, GIS and ICS software support to the “solarium” (my word, not theirs) – an adjacent massive hallway about 30 feet tall with sunroofs. This is a great place to pause for two reasons – you can actually see that mythical theory known as the sun, and this is one of the few areas that is not overly air conditioned. Honestly, before having the colored vests, I would arrive at 0600 at the front door in my stereotypic OWCN logo polo, enter the building, put a fleece jacket on, work, leave at 2100, exit the building, then take my jacket off (as it was 80 degrees outside).
Once in the solarium, you have your choice of destinations. Your first choice is a corridor with more smaller rooms (Environmental Unit, NRDA, conference room and massage tables – no joke. Massages are available from 0430 – 0730 and 1030-2330. Haven’t yet heard the siren song to get me to partake, but if I have another day like today…). The next option in the solarium is a utility room that has been in constant evolution. It started as just general storage, then also became where to go to send FedEx packages, then also became where office supplies were distributed, and now also includes where laundry service can be dropped off and picked up. Pretty cushy but, with 1100 people living in hotels, it does make sense. The other two rooms that you could enter are two larger rooms similar to the main area – filled with hundreds of people at tables. These folks are in what used to be called “overflow”, but now houses people working on a huge number of functions – dispersant use, alternative technologies, vessels of opportunity, NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinators (and the main reason why the Environmental Unit no longer has good snacks), other agency personnel, safety – the list goes on.
Finally, the tour would not be complete without heading back to the dining area. Again, for a facility that typically serves 100 people at a time, the cooks here do a remarkable job here feeding 10 times that number four meals a day. Food is available cafeteria style, and emphasizes Southern dishes (I am starting to embrace okra after a long introduction to the item, though I still cannot bring myself to select the grits in the morning). Seating here, as in the rooms, is also at a premium, and there are signs on every wall that say no meetings can be conducted in the dining area between 0700-0900, 1100-1300 or 1700-1900. Space, after all, really is the final frontier.
I am sure there are many other aspects, humorous asides and funny anecdotes I could convey but, as the word count is now 1546..1547..1548, I will stop. As promised, I will bring everyone up-to-date tomorrow evening on the actions and successes of the OMTU.