Friday, February 8, 2008

Chapter Six

A month turns into 6 weeks and schools continue to be closed. Public gatherings are still prohibited, and people are getting creative in addressing their cravings for social interaction. Some far-sighted tech people have moved resources and manpower around to keep the Internet up and running; it now thrums with social conversations and not just frantic searches for flu and survival information. Two of the newest uses for the Internet include mega-churches offering interactive, online Bible studies (as well as mp3's of sermons), and school systems offering interactive "virtual classrooms."

To deal with bandwidth problems, the Federal government took the unprecedented step of limiting First Amendment rights and shut down pornography sites and ask providers to temporarily disable websites that are low traffic/high graphics and/or have "questionable" content. A lot of sites that were strictly "store fronts" were also shut down. Ebay, all the department store dot coms, etc. Only the big bookshops remain (such as Borders and Amazon), but they are in danger of closing due to shipping issues. This has many wondering how far the government is likely to take their statutorily granted Emergency Powers. A lot of personally owned mainframes go offline and take the websites housed there with them as well, either because of technical problems, unpaid bills, or because they are shut down.

Because of moderate mitigation measures compliance, some areas of the country are doing marginally better than expected. Infection rates have leveled off though CFR remains high. In those areas, the health care system has been overwhelmed but hasn't actually collapsed except in a few extremely dense population centers. In some locations there is talk of reopening some public venues ... assuming the businesses are still afloat. There are even rumors of the schools reopening in four to six more weeks.

In areas where mitigation measures weren't applied quickly or seriously enough, or where compliance was low, there are definitely problems. Health care systems have basically failed or "collapsed under the strain" depending on your perspective. In some cities food riots -- and riots due to civil unrest -- have destroyed whole sections of towns and turned them into no-man-lands where only heavily armed National Guard troops will go. Looting has become a way of surviving. Dead bodies have to be collected by hazmat teams. The nightmare even spills over into the lives of those families that did prep. How do you tell your neighbor to go away when they come begging for food for their child? What happens when the adults in the house get so tired that trying to arrange security measures is a joke? What do you do when the riots that started on the other side of town slowly work their way to your front door?

The Federal and State governments, while trying to maintain civil liberties, have had to make difficult choices. They implement their Emergency Powers and travel in and out of the more troubled cities is curtailed - using force when necessary - to protect the lives and property of as many citizens as possible. This doesn’t, however, prevent a migration of people trying to escape to somewhere "better." People leave by back roads singly, or in groups small enough, to avoid detection.

Scott and Sissy see civil unrest in areas of Tampa that have historically exhibited this tendency, especially the College Hill area which had also experienced riots in 1967, 1987, and 1989. Law enforcement is able to keep it in check more or less with the help of the local fire departments, but the arrival of National Guard troops is both anticipated and welcome. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your view, a major military base is located in the southern part of the county with a large number of military personnel and veterans living throughout the area. The veterans are stepping back up to the plate and are using their military training and technical know-how as a temporary workforce to replace ill and absent workers in critical areas like utility management and repair.

That's the good news.

The bad news is while Tampa has experienced far fewer of the extreme hardships experienced by those that did not prep and those in cities that did not institute mitigation strategies quickly enough, they are not totally escaping the realities of a pandemic.

Many of the things that were taken for granted prepandemic are being impacted to varying degrees.

One of the first things that happens is that people with pets have to make choices on who will eat ... them or their pets. Rather than watch a beloved pet slowly starve to death many people set them free. The birdie pets are the first to succumb. Most of those birds haven't a clue how to survive in the wild, if their food is even available ... if they don't die of starvation or the bird version of H5N1, they are quickly brought down by predators such as domesticated and feral cats.

The fish and wildlife management people will have a time post-pandemic dealing with all of the exotic species that have been turned loose in ponds and streams. They’ll also have to hunt down the larger ... already illegal ... "pets" that are set free in places like the Everglades and the Ocala National Forest.

Cats always seem to return the quickest to the feral state. Many of the cats that are allowed to roam free are doing well, if not quite as sleek and well fed as they were before. Worse though is that cats have been discovered to be carriers of the influenza strain. No one is quite sure if it is the super-strain that is now H2H2H, but the suspicion is enough for many felines to be shot on sight by fearful homeowners.

Formerly domesticated dogs now run in feral packs. The small lap dogs and the very old, very young, and those with health problems that were once coddled by their owners quickly fall victim to the realities of returning to the "wild." The packs now roaming free consist mainly of former guard dogs and dogs originally bred to fight or hunt. They are frightening to see as they roam down your street. People quickly learn to stay indoors if a pack is in the area and to avoid night travel and traveling at dusk when the packs are at their most active. There are some horror stories of people caught out alone and attacked by dog packs; but at least there haven't been any Cujo type stories of dogs breaking into houses. At least not yet.

Because so many predators have been released back into the food chain, many of the nuisance rodents are back under control. Mice and rats are kept in check by felines. Larger animals like raccoons and opossums are falling victim to the dog packs and are not being seen as often, except up a tree. There are sometimes fearful sounds of animal battles at night, but no one goes outside to investigate or shout at them to shut up. The sounds are now just part of the night.

It was back at the 3 week mark into the pandemic when people really started getting scared and fuel costs began to escalate exponentially, the impact of absenteeism began to be felt in the economy. The businesses that managed technical type operations felt it first. Most had managed to include enough cross training in their mitigation plans and they were getting by ... but they were just getting by. For every two people who are ill or absent there is only one replacement.

Municipal services and utilities have been as vulnerable to absenteeism as the private sector. One of the first things that Scott noticed was that garbage pick up became irregular. Luckily, they planned for this and set up recycling barrels for those things that could not be burned or re-used in some way. Sissy was certainly relieved to have most of the excess packaging on their pantry items gone. She removed most of the excess packaging from her storage items during the original prepping phase. This proved to be a huge bonus as it has saved storage space and is now saving garbage space.

Also, Scott set up a burn barrel to try and deal with paper and plastic garbage, especially the stuff that had any residual food particles like paper plates. In fact, Sissy stopped using paper plates because of disposal issues. They saved the remainder of their paper goods for use later "just in case" and have reverted to washing and drying the dishes like they used to. They even started using cloth napkins that can be shook out and used multiple times before they need to be washed. Scott doesn’t like to use the burn barrel often because of the possibility of attracting unwanted attention, but piles of garbage attracts the dog packs, not to mention opossums and raccoons. They are stuck one way or the other, so they do as much burning after dark as they can and keep the flame as low and as unnoticeable as possible. They hope the smoke is less visible at night, but there is no way to minimize the smell of burning garbage.

Despite their attempts at subterfuge, some neighbors did realize what they were doing and one lady with a large empty lot next to a water-filled canal offers to let people burn their trash there so long as they help keep the place picked up. Her offer is quickly accepted by most of the homes on the street. One benefit to this is that a constant fire means fewer matches and lighters have to be used up ... people manage to somehow time their trash burning so that there are only a couple of people at the lot at any given time. The older adults in the neighborhood are looked after too ... all they have to do is leave their trash on their doorstep or down by the road and someone picks it up on their walk to the new burn-site.

But everyone is careful. The rainy season has passed and lower humidity levels mean things are drying out; no large fires and no unattended fires. That is the rule by mutual consent. Strangely enough, there is enough cooperation that things are working. The garbage service does eventually settle on bi-monthly pick-ups though they have stopped picking up yard debris. They will only pick up household refuse that has been divided up by recyclable and non-recyclable. But having to wait two weeks for a garbage pick up is a smelly pain, so everyone continues to use the burn site.

And speaking of yard debris and food refuse, a couple of houses have started their own compost piles. There is yard debris in plenty to use. Since so many people are being kept home, that leaves time to fill in and a lot of it is spent in the yard picking up. There isn't much useable food refuse to put in the piles; all the fresh produce has been used up. This makes the compost piles less vulnerable to animal invasion; but it means that most compost piles work more slowly than if they were well balanced in content. The piles don't break down as well or as quickly, and have fewer nutrients.

It is much worse in other cities. The news reveals there are places where the garbage has lain so long on the sidewalks that the smell of it decomposing is making it difficult for corpse dogs to find bodies of people who have died unattended of the panflu or from collateral causes. That fact alone has shocked a lot of people who were thinking that the pandemic would be short-lived. Another nasty shock for people is that their finances are deteriorating at an alarming speed.

Most people in Tampa are still getting by, but barely. The Chapmans are very lucky to have had the foresight to make financial plans based on a possible catastrophic event. They'd be totally sunk if they had not.

In part, because of the rising fuel costs and the escalating food costs, many of their tenants have been unable to pay their rent in full. Most continue to try but it is in dribs and drabs. So far entitlement checks, such as for housing assistance, are still being issued. The problem is that if tenants are paying weekly rather than monthly, Scott has to go out to the properties more often to directly collect the rent. Which means more opportunities for infection and higher fuel consumption. Those tenants that refuse point blank to even try to work with them have received their legal notices and the paperwork is taken to the court building downtown. At this time it is unclear whether the courts will act in their normal capacity and evict people for unpaid rent or not. The verdict is still out. Even if an eviction is processed, evictions are low priorities for law enforcement and no officers are available to serve the final notice and to formally escort the tenants off the property per state law.

The banks are also start to limit transaction amounts and hold checks longer to make sure they clear before making funds available. This is a result of having trouble maintaining cash levels required by the Federal government. They are also seeing a lot of NSF checks come through. There hasn't been too much panic in the banks yet because strict controls were put into effect early on, but people are quickly using up their savings or running up their equity lines. If they have any equity that is. The recent fall in housing prices took away a lot of people’s main source of liquidity. The worst is that some of these people doing this have no way to replace those funds. Many of them are either out of work or retirees living on fixed incomes. And the credit card companies and mortgage companies haven't just gone on holiday. So far, there is no word from the government on a moratorium on payments.

One of the primary reasons for the cash problem is that a lot of places that remain open are no longer taking checks or credit cards. Some still accept debit cards, but very few.

It’s a shock for people who were used to extending their ability to pay with credit to suddenly discover they are living in a cash-only world. Even those individuals who used to being able to write a check that wouldn’t reach their bank for a couple of days are having to change their ways. No one is willing to hold a tab anymore; not even a tab backed by a check or credit card that promises payment.

"Scott honey what’s wrong? You’ve got the scary-guy look on your face."

"I’m done. I am freaking done! Those jackasses down at the courthouse! I am tired of the stalling. They expect me to follow every one of their laws and procedures to the letter but they are refusing to follow through on their end."

"What on Earth?! Um, I assume you are talking about that eviction over on 13th."

"What else would I have gone down to the courthouse for? It’s a quarter tank of gas to get there and back." Scott snarls.

Sissy comes real close to snarling right back at him but she catches herself just in time.

"Scott, its obvious things didn’t go well today. But please don’t treat me like I’m the enemy. Its not helpful to either one of us."

"You just don’t understand. You get to stay home all day and …"

"Whoa. Stop right there. I don’t get to stay home. I have absolutely no choice about staying home as you well know. I haven’t left this house in weeks AND I’ve been trying to keep things going and as normal as possible so that you and the kids can have it as easy as possible. And I’ve been doing a dang good job of it."

"Fine, you do a great job here at the house, but its my responsibility to make sure we’ve still got a house to live in. I’m the one that has to bring in the money so we can pay the bills."

"And I’m doing everything in my power to make sure we don’t spend any more of that money than we have to. If you want to pop off about the knuckleheads down at County be my guest. I’m not terribly fond of their never ending policies, protocols, and red tape myself. But don’t pop off at me. I repeat, I am not the enemy here." Sissy spits right back barely hanging on to her own temper.

Scott and Sissy stand toe-to-toe ready, willing, and able to keep at each other when they both notice the kids looking at them like they’ve never seen them before.

They look at each other and back off and take a few deep breaths.

Scott says, "They’re refusing to serve the eviction papers because they say they haven’t got any officers available to serve the papers. Not only that, a lot of the judges are refusing to sign eviction orders citing hardship issues."

"What are they expecting landlords to do? Let tenants stay for free?!"

"Well of course. Don’t you understand? We are the bad guys here for expecting those poor souls to actually pay the rent they are legally obligated to pay. Oh, and did I mention? We have to keep their utilities on as well or they are gonna fine us for being disobedient meanies." Scott says in a voice dripping with heavy sarcasm.

"No way. Absolutely no way! What are we supposed to pay those utility bills with? Our looks!?"

"Do you really think that care? There was practically a mob of landlords and property managers down there. You know, it was awful strange that they had enough law enforcement manpower to escort a few dozen property owners out of the courthouse, but not a single one to serve eviction papers. The judges and the County Commissioners had their county paid body guards for protection, but they still can’t be bothered to do their job and respond to the people that put them in office."

"What can we do?!"

"Everyone one of us that got thrown out of the courthouse went over to Franklin Street and talked. We all agreed we were just going to have to do what we have to do. Chuck and Randolph were there too," Scott said referring to two other landlords that had properties in the same areas of town as Scott and Sissy. "First we are going to turn off the water and bolt it off at the building and the street. And if the tenant has their power turned off for non-payment by the city, we are going to have TECO come out and remove their meters and maybe even pull the main breakers. If TECO can’t or won’t, Chuck said he’d show me how to do it safely and leave it so that it cannot be jury rigged to steal power."

"What’s that going to serve? What if they still won’t leave?"

"Let ‘em stay at that point. I can’t force ‘em to leave without the court’s help. But damned if they are going to just live there in comfort draining all our resources. And no way will I be making repair calls there either. Being unable to pay but still being civil and trying to work out a solution is one thing. Being unwilling to pay and acting like a jerk on top of it is another."

"What if this is only the first trouble we have like this? What if other units go this way?"

"Oh I expect them to. No doubt in my mind. The courts just set a really bad precedent that we are going to have to deal with. We are gonna hurt financially. I didn’t expect anything less. But, I am not going down without a fight."

"How many units is this happening in?"

Scott and Sissy spend the next couple of days running numbers, seeing at what point they’d have to break into their savings to keep things going. They weren’t that far from that point now. But they were off setting that here and there by not paying utility bills and with the rent that was stilling coming in.

Their goal is to break even each month if possible. They figure if things get too bad, the government will call a moratorium of some type. All they have to do is keep their heads above water until they can figure out what to do next.

No comments: