Deepwater Horizon Day 61: Out of the Box

Hi everyone, it’s Sarah back again, giving Mike the night off (and a few extra z’s).  I’m probably a pretty strange choice to be writing a blog about the activities of the OMTU, since I’m not in Houma, and haven’t been for almost a week.  Hence the title of this post… I’m officially out of the box.  Any box, actually.  See, in the OMTU we have an org chart – one of those fancy business-report type things (our Group Supervisor is a Mac guy, and, apparently, that’s what they do)(MZ’s Comment: Yes it is, Sarah).  On the org chart are boxes for all of the roles within the Group… when I’m in Houma I’m in the Mammal Unit box.  To appropriately work within the Incident Command Structure, it’s important to define roles and then to make sure that the appropriate people (the names in the box) are doing the appropriate jobs.  Sure, there’s some overlap, and if one issue is particularly hot (time-consuming), folks pitch in to help out, but it’s good to have a single point person for a particular topic.  Once you rotate out, though, your name is taken off the org chart and *poof* – you’re out of your box.

Having spent over a month in Houma thus far, I can say that it’s a pretty stunning transition to leave the Command Post and come back to “real life.”  In some ways, of course, it’s great to come home – see your family and pets, drive your own car, eat food that doesn’t come from a cafeteria line, and get at least 7 hours of sleep (well, if you’re smart).  But there are other things that aren’t so great.

For one, the first question that everyone asks is, “what’s it like there?” and you quickly realize it is impossible to explain the experience.  One other person from my office has spent time in the Gulf; when co-workers asked us what it was like, we just shrugged and looked at each other… Actually, even when you’re there, it’s pretty impossible at the end of each day to verbalize what you accomplished in the 15+ hours that you were working.  Also, when you explain that you spent the entire 15+ hours per day in an office building (now trailer) working on protocols, sending e-mails and listening in on conference calls, and you haven’t seen the beach or oil, people seem a little let down.  Add to it that you actually had fun and are hoping and/or planning to return, and they just smile and nod.  So that just makes you feel weird.

Second, it’s really, really, really hard (maybe impossible) to turn off that portion of your brain that is running through all things oil spill.  After all, you’ve been living it for 7 days a week, 15+ hours a day, and now you’re just walking away.  If you’re like me, you left a lot of things half-finished, or not even started, and you didn’t do the best job of leaving notes for your replacement to explain everything that they’ll need to work on.  There’s guilt involved at leaving things half-done (particularly when your replacement is a good friend!).  Once you have “free time” (which seems to happen primarily when you’re no longer sitting in on those 11,000 daily conference calls, although I did make a massive “to-do” list on my flight home), you continue thinking over the half-drafted plans and protocols.  In some of that free time, you may even work on some of them – just as a way to help out, of course.  It wouldn’t at all be because you still wanted an excuse to stay involved.  You also have a lot of empathy for the people onsite, as you know exactly how long and stressful their days are like, so there’s a desire to do whatever you can to help ease the load and make their days that much shorter and easier.

And that’s another thing.  It’s hard being out of the loop, especially when you’re used to being in it.  You might start hitting up news feeds to try and learn what’s going on (which typically leads to frustration when you find articles that are telling what you know to be only one side of the story, or half of the truth if it was a good reporter).  Or you might start making the occasional phone call to someone who’s still on site.  Usually with a good reason (the best reason being that they called you for a piece of information), but you’ll probably keep them on the phone longer than strictly necessary, just because it makes you feel like you’re still a useful, contributing member of the team.  It’s especially nice when your knowledge/answers can save people from doing duplicative work, or simplify a complicated process.

Finally, if you do have a return date, and you know you’ll be onsite again sooner or later, in many ways it doesn’t make sense to let go too much.  Yes, you want to rest, relax and refresh.  But you also don’t want to fall too far behind, since you don’t want to take too long to get back up to speed.  Striking that balance is an ongoing challenge.

So that’s what it’s like being Out of the Box.  I’ll keep resting up so that I’m completely prepared to rotate back in (which will be a little over a week from now), and I’ll try and get some of my “real” job done so that they’ll let me go back.  In many ways, though, my trip back to Houma and the insanity that is that world can’t come soon enough.

– Sarah

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