Packing for Pear-Shaped: What to Bring to “The Big Uh-Oh”

Photo: Lt. Kevin Doremus / NOAA Click for download, licensing and other information i NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion N42RF flight deck as seen during a flight into Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 24, 2017.

When my team shows up, something has probably gone very wrong – but we’re at least equipped to deal with it.”

I was the first one on the conference call. I hate conference calls. I jotted down the date and time in my notebook and a few things I wanted to ask while I waited for the joining beep to let me know I wasn’t alone. The first beep belonged to a member of our senior leadership.

Our elevator conversation turned directly to Hurricane Harvey; the first of the season’s heavy hitters had just made landfall and things were grim in Houston. Rising floodwaters were creating complex challenges for the responders, while touch and go flights at the Coast Guard air station were happening non-stop, as rescue crews offloaded scores of displaced Texans during a hammering rain.

“I hear our people are sleeping on cots with no food or water and no showers,” said the other voice on the line, an awkward, strangled sort of laugh escaping his throat. “Yup, if you don’t bring it, they ain’t got it! Good luck!” To my knowledge, he hadn’t been in the field for many years.

I glanced first at my phone and then at my suitcase, zipped and ready by the front door, recalling the packing advice I’d received when I was getting ready to deploy to Hurricane Katrina all those years ago. “Well, you better bring a backpack because the aircrews hate suitcases!” he’d said, speaking of our rescue helicopters which we sometimes find ourselves in, traveling to the scene or documenting the mission from. Not only was this wisdom unfounded, it reframed my expectations to the negative. In that moment, I was no longer thinking about how to do my job. I was caught up in false logistics, his fixed perspective conjuring a dark vision: my bag being flung out the open door of the helicopter against the flashing lightning of a terrible storm, the pilot looking back at me from the cockpit with doom in his eyes as he slowly drew a thumb across his throat….

The conference call for Hurricane Harvey began. I took my notes and asked my questions. When the call was over, I dug out my old hiking pack from the closet, unzipped everything, eased all the straps and spread it out on the floor, critically eyeing the cargo space. An hour later, I’d moved everything from the suitcase over to the pack and added a towel, a stash of granola bars and some MREs. It barely fit and it was unwieldy as hell, even cinched against my back. Naturally, it rode ugly – when you camp you’re meant to pack light.

I took a second look at all those compression straps dangling like participles and tried to picture the snag points on all the airport conveyor belts this bag was gonna meet. Then I thought about mission infrastructure. The response I was headed to was full of motivated people whose sole job was to get the lights back on and find lodging for people, and I was coming in on Day Three. There was no need to go in equipped like a recon scout. Twenty minutes later, everything was back in my suitcase and the pack was hanging in the closet, where it belonged. The moral of the story: I’ve always packed smart and I’m always fine. What I need to stay healthy and happy fits in one Eagle Creek suitcase – and no, I’m not paid to say that. They just make really good travel gear and I travel a lot. (And not once has my bag been chucked into the bowels of a storm by a murder-eyed aviation rescue swimmer.)

So, what to pack?

Lucky for me, I work in coveralls. (“You know, the uh, the super suit. The magic jammies.” FBI agent Bill Maxwell, “The Greatest American Hero.”) I bring two sets of those. I can wash them in the tub or sink if I need to. I pack two pairs of jeans and some polo shirts to travel to and from the response in, as well as something to wear to dinner with my co-responders when operations eventually ease. Pack an appropriate jacket for the weather and set aside a comfortable pair of shoes to travel in. Three zippered mesh travel cubes (also by Eagle Creek *cough*) hold eight days worth of clean and neatly folded socks, t-shirts and shorts. I have a toiletries kit with a door hook on the back and a laundry bag to keep dirty things separate. Packing is the same process every time. I can be checked in or out of a hotel room, packed or unpacked, in about 10 minutes.

My backpack contains my laptop and power cable, my water bottle and coffee tumbler, a selection of pens, a Wi-Fi puck, two charged battery packs and an assortment of cables. There’s also a pair of reading glasses, a small flashlight, a small roll of duct tape, a roll of quarters, a multi-tool – no knife or lighter though, thanks TSA. If my pack was bigger, I’d carry a collared shirt, a change of socks and my toothbrush to allow for lost baggage. Alas.

Lastly, I bring a medkit full of anti-cold and allergy medicines, various teas and headache remedies, adhesive bandages, safety pins, a sturdy plastic envelope for hotel receipts and important documents and something fun to read on the plane (because no one brings Infinite Jest along for a laugh). And, since the Spring of 1991, I always carry a notebook of some kind (Pro tip: The key to life is writing stuff down).

My laptop is tricked out to my liking and I get involved in its layout. I conduct regular software updates and keep it organized to the nth degree. I stay familiar with the latest apps in order to be aware of what’s new, but I only keep those tools that have proven useful in order to save on memory. I thin out my bookmarks every once in a while and clean out my email once a month. (I also hoard relevant communication articles to my download-synced Dropbox and Evernote accounts and read those over coffee on Sunday mornings, but that’s because I’m married to my job.) I’ve watched way too many PIOs fumbling their way through their own factory-default machines, strangers in their own skin, uncertain of what this pop-up window means, or how to access that specific program or how to add a wireless or networked printer. Your laptop is your bread and butter. Know how to use and take care of it. Hit up a tech-savvy friend and offer to buy her lunch if she’ll show you some shortcuts.

Speaking of shortcuts, let’s talk Go-kits for a minute. My teammates and I make a lot of jokes about ours and we regard it as a beast on a leash. It’s a 60-pound Pelican case on wheels that we named the Honey Badger. (It’s a long story, Google the video with the most hits.) It contains enough equipment to properly document a revolution. We have four of these kits, identical in content, subject to scheduled maintenance and routine inventory. Inside each kit there are two backpacks; one for the digital still camera, a long and short lens, extra memory cards, plus a charger. The second is for the video camera with a boom mic and a light duty tripod. There’s a portable printer with extra ink cartridges, two ICS-themed vests, a GPS, spare power outlets, a roll of duct tape and a full set of response reference guides: the National Response Team Joint Information Center model, the Incident Management Handbook, and the PIO Job Aid.

When the Badger is not in use, it’s restrained with TSA-approved locks and, like Chuck Norris, it does not sleep. Instead, it waits patiently by the office door. We don’t pile boxes on the Badger, stuff it in a closet or pilfer it for our own use. It’s a go-kit, not an afterthought. (That’s a podium pounder, people!) When my team shows up, something has probably gone very wrong – but we’re at least equipped to deal with it. With what we carry in our backpacks and the contents of the Badger, we could set up a JIC just about anywhere.

Lessons learned: Expecting the worst and hoping for the best is generally a safe guideline for packing (just don’t overdo it.) Know your way around your personal technology. And lastly, having a go-kit ready means you spend that much less brainpower being ready to respond — and you can get started in on the big picture sooner.

Talk to me, Goose.

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