When #DevLearn met #Sandy…

What a difference a couple of weeks makes.

Two weeks ago, I was in the process of getting ready for the DevLearn Conference and Exposition in Las Vegas. I was finalizing a few drafts of pre-conference blog posts, curating resources already being shared via the backchannel, and finalizing materials for the two sessions I was looking forward to facilitating.

Then Hurricane Sandy paid a visit, and everything went straight to hell.

I live on the south shore of Long Island in NY, an area that has been strongly impacted by the storm. Thankfully my family and friends, while battered and bruised, are all OK. When I spoke with FEMA about the impact on our home, one of the questions they ask is “Did you incur any funeral expenses as a result of the storm?”. The question was like a blow to the stomach. Thankfully my answer to the question was NO. Hearing the question and knowing some people actually had to answer “Yes” really drove home that everything else is trivial by comparison.

A number of people have reached out to see if we’re OK and find out what exactly has happened. I figured I’d share some of my experiences from the last week, including how the DevLearn Conference wove it’s way into the chaos and helped me maintain calm within the storm.

If nothing else, writing this will be personally therapeutic. 🙂

MONDAY 10/29

Sandy has been called a ‘Frankenstorm’ because it’s power was in the convergence of a number of different things, including the Hurricane, high tide, and a full moon all happening at the same time. Last year we were hit by Hurricane Irene, which resulted in our home getting a few inches of water in the basement at high tide. Knowing that this surge from the storm would be greater, residents expected higher flooding. In my case, and many others, we grossly underestimated how much worse this surge would be.

In preparation for the storm I placed most of our basement storage in totes, and stacked other items on top of the totes. This is a fairly common tactic in areas where basements have a risk of taking on water, as the totes protect the contents from some standing water – ‘some’ being the important word in that sentence.

We started feeling the effects of the storm in the mid-afternoon, mostly in the form of wind. by mid-afternoon both of the trees in front of my home had fallen into the house, and the storm technically hadn’t even arrived yet. As you can see in the tweet below, at this point I still thought I would be able to attend DevLearn later in the week. Silly me…

By late afternoon we started hearing reports and warning about the magnitude of the storm surge. My wife took our kids to her sister’s house which while only a mile or so away, was much safer as we live only one house away from a river that runs through town. I stayed behind in hopes of protecting the house as best I could.

For most of the evening, I had a very positive outlook. I saw water rising and approaching our house from the backyard, but my basement was dry. When the backyard flood waters reached the ground-level sliding glass doors of my den, I used towels as best I could to minimize the amount of water that seeped in. Still, things seemed OK. I checked the basement as late as 9pm or so, and it was still bone dry.

I should also note that earlier in the day we had lost power, so everything outside was pitch black. I only was able to see outside what I was able to illuminate with a flashlight. In addition, due to the two trees that fell on the house, my front windows were completely blocked. I heard a cry of “Oh my god!” from in front of the house. I exited from the back of the house and immediately stepped into about 6 inches of water.

I came around to the front of the house to see what the neighbor was screaming about. and discovered there was about two feet of water coming up the street from the river, and even in the dim light of a flashlight, you could see it was rising fast. In less than a minute there was about a foot of water completely surrounding my house.

I ran back inside to see what more I could do to protect the den, and immediately stepped into about two inches of water in the room. There was water coming in from the glass doors, and more alarmingly, through the wall in the front of the house. At that exact moment, I heard a crash from the basement.

I ran downstairs and found myself in about 7-8 inches of water (despite the basement being completely dry about 10 minutes earlier). The crash was one of the stacks I had made toppling over. The water had risen to a point that despite the weight on it, the bottom tote started to float, knocking everything on top of it over. I grabbed a few items quickly and ran them upstairs, and while I did I heard two more crashes of toppling towers. By the time I got back downstairs a few minutes later, the water was about a foot and a half deep, and all of the stacks started to tumble. I scrambled to grab what I could, bringing things upstairs. Within minutes though, there was over 3 feet of water and everything in the basement was lost.

I consider myself to be a pretty level-headed person that usually focuses on the facts of the situation rather than the emotion. In that moment though, when I realized more water was entering and there was nothing I could do to stop it or save anything else, there was a hopelessness that was as paralyzing as it was defeating.

I exchanged texts with my wife about what was happening as best I could (voice cell service was very limited) until she finally seemed to fall asleep. The storm raged all night, and even though the rise in water seemed to stop at about 4 feet in my basement and a 4-5 inches in my den, the winds were still very dangerous. With high winds blowing through for hours, the risk of a much larger tree falling into my home was very real.

In other words, sleep wasn’t really on the agenda that night.

So what’s a guy to do in the middle of the night with no power or light while he waits to see if a tree comes crashing into his living room or to see if the flood waters rise even more with the next high tide? I essentially had two choices: Drive myself insane being powerless to do anything but wait it out, or find something to do with myself.

Enter DevLearn, my (virtual) place of calm in a sea of chaos.

As strange as it may sound, while the whole world seemed to be crumbling around me I got out my laptop, tethered it to my iPad, lit some candles so I could see the keyboard, and started surfing the DevLearn backchannel. I wrote and published a few “Getting ready for DevLearn” blog posts I agreed to do for the eLearning Guild. I updated my Curated Resources post for the conference for what had been shared already.

Sure, this allowed me to pass the time overnight, but more importantly, it enabled me to have a place of normalcy in an environment that was anything but.

Tuesday 10/30

The winds were still a factor on Tuesday morning, but once the morning high tide had passed, the threat of additional flooding seemed to be past us. As daylight arrived, I decided to take a quick walk around to survey the damages, and was shocked by what I saw on my immediate block. Overnight, my town looked horrific.

Luckily I was able to borrow a generator that morning and get two pumps started to begin pumping water out of my basement. While the pumps were running, we immediately started removing things in the house that were damaged and wet. Our immediate concern was trying to avoid household mold.

That involved not only getting all of the water-soaked trash out of the house, but also tearing down walls and insulation so that the areas behind walls could dry out. We had to rip out carpets, throw out furniture, and discard anything that encountered the water.

We also spent much of the day trying to contact friends and relatives and see if they were OK. Cell service was very spotty all week, so this was most commonly done via texting. Luckily, all of my friends and family were uninjured, though my aunt and uncle lost their cars and the entire first floor of their house, and my brother-in-law took on even more water than we did. We also started hearing bits and pieces about the towns closer to the coast… stories that made our hearts weep and made us realize that we were in fact, very lucky.

By the end of the day, we had gotten a good amount of garbage out of the den and basement. And when we looked at what remained, we realized we hadn’t even made a dent in it. This was going to take a while.

Meanwhile, the generator pumped all day, slowly bringing the water level down. By evening, there was about a foot and a half remaining. We wanted to continue pumping until all the water was gone, but once the sun went down, it almost instantly went pitch black because of the power outage. It was at this point we were notified that looting was very common, as were break-ins, and of course, generators were being targeted. As our borrowed generator was not secured, this required me staying up most of the night watching over the generator. Good times.

Wednesday 10/31 – Halloween

By about 6am we finally ran out of gas. With a few inches of water still remaining, getting more gas and starting the pumps back up was a priority. Of course, ‘getting more gas’ was easier said than done. Most Long Island gas stations were completely sold out.

I found a station that had a line of cars about a mile long and got on it. You could almost feel the tension and panic in the air as people waited. It was awful.

Again, I turned to DevLearn as a source of normalcy. I pulled out my iPhone and started to review the backchannel feed. I read through a number of blog posts and shared articles. It was a great way to pass the time, and provided a wonderful source of calm. It took about 2 and a half hours, but I was able to get gas. I went home, restarted the generators, and pumped the remaining water out of the basement.

Wednesday was also Halloween, and obviously the kids were very disappointed. We decided to try and give them some level of Halloween, even if trick-or-treating wasn’t an option. They put on their costumes and my wife took them over to a party in a neighboring town that already had power restored.

Each year we take a picture of our kids in their costumes in front of the house. This year would be no different; in fact in some ways, it’s even more halloween-y this year. The kids enjoyed themselves despite the limitations. It amazes me how resilient they can be.

While my family was off trying to enjoy Halloween a bit, I returned to the task at hand. It’s a very demoralizing experience to throw away valued mementos, and to tear down parts of your home that you’ve built.

Again, DevLearn was there to help.

While working, I was getting notifications from my phone. They were mentions from the Twitter backchannel. Brent Schlenker had mentioned me during his opening comments, and people were reaching out via the backchannel. It was very moving and to a certain extent, broke through the isolation I hadn’t been aware I was feeling. Suddenly, I didn’t feel as alone.

Being in contact with the conference via the backchannel, and connecting with good friends via social media was truly a lifeline that gave me strength. I can’t even put into words the magnitude of support my friends provided when I needed it most, and I will forever be grateful for that.

As night came and my wife and kids settled into bed, I again found myself needing to occupy my mind. I have been staying on the main floor indefinitely based on the looting going on. So again, I brought out the laptop, connected it to my iPhone, reviewed the DevLearn backchannel and updated the resources.

Normalcy. I was happy to have it.

Thursday 11/1

Thursday was more of the same. Hauling out garbage, taking down walls, and generally trying to win the race against household mold. I also wanted to see if I could restore hot water to the house.

I have lots of skills, but being ‘handy’ around the house isn’t really a strength. Still, I needed to try something to make the house a little more livable. I wasn’t exactly sure where to start with the water heater, but before I googled it, I noticed a sticker on the side of the heater. It diagramed, in very simple terms, the process for relighting the pilot light and restrating the waterheater. Within about 10 minutes, I was able to get it started.

No training, no courses. Just the right amount of support built into the task I needed to perform.

Go figure.There’s a blog post there…

Later in the evening I received a text from my friend Jane Bozarth, who was attending DevLearn. She and I (along with Clark Quinn and Cammy Bean) work together to help facilitate the weekly #Lrnchat discussion. I had arranged to facilitate a live gathering of #lrnchat during the conference. In the chaos of the week, it had completely dropped off my radar.

Jane stepped up, and quickly through together a chat topic and questions. The topic? Learning from a disaster. Perfect, and very inspiring. I spent the evening delivering a generator to my mother, but was able to partitcipate in the chat. Again, normalcy, and connectedness. Thanks Jane.

In fact, some of my friends ‘toasted’ me (or maybe ‘roasted’ if a more accurate word) during the live #lrnchat, going so far as to buy a six-pack of my favorite beer, and then proceeding to pour it all into a garbage can in support. Lord knows none of them would EVER drink a Bud Light Lime. More for me.

Both my wife and I laughed for the first time in days at that, providing a much needed release.

Thanks guys.

As night came, so too did the new routine. Wife and kids settled into bed, tethered laptop out, reviewing the DevLearn backchannel and updating the resources.

Just as I would be had mother nature not stopped by and turned my life upside down.

Friday 11/2

By Friday we started to see our first real progress. My uncle and cousin stopped by with a chainsaw and the three of us took all of our pent up frustrations of the week out of the two fallen trees in front of my house. It was nice to have a front door again.

DevLearn drew to a close that afternoon, and again I was greeted by acknowledgements and support from the conference backchannel.

People reached out to thank me for my work, offer words of support, and check-in to see if my family was OK. It was a very humbling and helpful to keep me motivated.

Throughout the day Friday we were able to rip out the remaining walls needed to air out our house, and get even more trash out of the basement.

Progress. I’ll take progress.

Saturday and Beyond

The weekend shifted our focus a bit. With the debris and demolition nearing completion, it was time to move on to ongoing needs like heat & power, and rebuilding our home.

Getting heat was first and foremost, as temperatures dropped in the latter part of the week to near-freezing temperatures. My burner was completely submerged, and will need to be replaced.

However, just last night my brother-in-law and his surprisingly creative electrician friend were able to get some of the heat working as long as we run it through our generator. You can’t put a price on knowing your kids will not be cold.

Restoring power will likely take longer. We’re in a hard hit area and they expect we will be without power until at least November 11th. That’s completely out of our hands, so we’ll just wait and hope for the best.

Rebuilding will of course take longer. I’m expecting it to take at least two weeks for my insurance company to call just to set an appointment for an adjuster to come look at my property. That may seem outrageous, but it is representative of the widespread destruction in the area.

How Can You Help

Despite what I’ve described in this lengthy post, I am very aware that I’m one of the lucky ones. We have damage, and it will take a long time to rebuild. But it is nothing compared to what towns closer to the water are dealing with. Check out this New York Times report from Long Beach, and you’ll have a better understanding of what I mean.

These are the people that really need our help. One of the easiest ways to do so is donate money to the Red Cross. I also want to thank The eLearning Guild for mentioning the Red Cross’s Text Campaign (Text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation) through which several additional thousands of dollars were raised.

To those friends and family that I connected with virtually via the DevLearn backchannel, facebook, texting, or some other networked means, I want to say from the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU. Your presence at the other end of the connection was a source of normalcy and calm that I do not think I would have otherwise been able to achieve.

To the DevLearn community, I want to say thank you for allowing me to be a part of the conference, which gave me an outlet I so desperately needed.

And to my dear friends that have been with me throughout this ongoing ordeal – and I hope you know who you are – words can not express the love and appreciation I have for each of you. You were a source of strength that I pulled from multiple times a day.

In summary, I and my family are OK. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Others still can not see out from the darkness, and can use your help. If you can, donate today.

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