Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Chapter Twenty-Eight

After the bombshell Scott lays on Sissy is dealt with, at least temporarily, it is nice to get back to less stressful concerns. The strawberry shortcake is a huge success. Sissy again dips into the gifts she set aside for the kids "just in case" and comes up with several things Sarah and Bekah really enjoyed as birthday gifts. Everyone stays up later than usual and Scott uses some of their hoarded propane fuel to keep a lantern running after the power goes off mid-way through a heated game of Uno for both light and some heat.

The next morning everyone is slightly bleary eyed from the unusually late night, but everyone is still up at their new normal time of daybreak. With so much manual-labor to take care of when the power is down, they really cannot afford to sleep any daylight hours away.

It is funny, here it is going into the seventh month of the pandemic and the new paradigm of working during daylight and sleeping during the dark hours has turned out not to be that difficult for most people to adjust to. Besides, with the curfew for both individuals and businesses, as well as the crowd restrictions, there isn’t exactly a lot to do when the sun goes down. This also helps save on fuel and batteries.

After Sissy sees Scott and the other men off for a long day of turning those four apartments, she continues to think about the various changes that they have had no choice but to accept.

The power going up and down is a pain. It would have been nice to have a consistent schedule to operate by, but that isn’t likely to happen any time soon. You just learn to keep water containers topped off and to waste as little as possible. Food leftovers aren’t really a problem, there is a lot less waste in general than there had been prepandemic, at least in Scott and Sissy’s neighborhood. Foods that require refrigeration are rarely available, and when they are they are used up as quickly as possible. Laundry continues to be the bane of many households. There just is no easy way to do any amount of laundry without the power on. From water to agitation to rinsing, keeping clothes clean is very labor intensive.

Of course, food availability is something everyone is anxious about, even for families that have prepped. "Preppers" as the news tends to call them – like they are some separate species – started using up their preps as early as two weeks after the first illnesses were reported. Three days to two weeks of preps simply was not enough and did little more than help the markets stave off collapse for a few extra days. It was something, but not much. Those that had taken their prepping up to three months have also found out that it depended on the weather and their geographical location as to how easy it was to get re-stocked after their supplies ran low. Now the six-month preppers are beginning to see an end to their long-term supplies. Many, like Sissy’s family, are trying to supplement their supplies with home-grown produce and foraging practices, but because it is only March, a lot of them are just beginning to set seedlings up for their spring garden. Even more, some locations in the US still see a significant amount of snow – at least enough to delay planting – well into April.

People are learning to operate on a lot fewer calories than most people had prepandemic. Sissy is thankful that she had passed the 9-month mark before everything hit the fan. Between the long term preps, the fresh foods that she is growing, and the barter items that her husband is bringing in, her last inventory shows that she will be able to stretch that out several months longer. Her personal concern is still for the lean months of the summer when it is too hot to grow most edible garden produce in her neck of the woods.

Fuel and transportation costs continue to be a crisis. Many refineries are shut down, either due to staffing or equipment failures. Those that are still running, are operating well below capacity simply because there isn’t’ enough crude oil coming in. Gasoline is extremely expensive, now going for a minimum of $10.00 per gallon if it is even available. In some area, like California and many northern states, if private citizens can find fuel to buy it is at least double that price. Many corner gas stations have closed down their pumps if they have remained open at all. Alternative fuels are not doing any better. Most of this year’s corn crop is earmarked for heading off mass starvation here in the US. That means that even if the ethanol plants can be up and running, there simply isn’t anything for them to process. The same is true of bio-diesel. Bio-diesel is primarily a recycled product . . . no used cooking oil to recycle, no bio-fuel.

There are rumors of some "white lightening" manufacturing going on further south where the sugarcane crops grow. Sugar cane as well as many starch-to-sugar plants like corn, potatoes, etc. can be converted into homemade liquor. The higher proof the resulting liquor is, the easier it is to use as a fuel. Local law enforcement usually looks the other way so long as the stills are being used to create "fuel." But, if they are making drinking liquor then they get shut down pretty quickly. There is some corruption, like kickbacks and bribes to keep from getting raided, but most people are careful not to stir up trouble. It is too hard to come by replacement parts for busted stills. And no one wants to draw the attention of local gangs.

Some of the most difficult changes though have been of a social nature. Families must unite on a constructive level to get through difficulties. The pandemic crisis is really highlighting some of the problems in marriages and parent/child relationships. Single parent families struggle even more than before. It isn’t very "liberated" to admit, but a woman alone, or even worse a woman alone with children, runs a far greater security risk than does a two parent or two adult household. It isn’t about finances, it is about the realities of the physical logistics of survival.

There are people – both male and female – who are taking advantage of the situation. But there are also marriages and relationships that have been saved by the enforced time and proximity faced in SIP and quarantine. Then there are the creative approaches where more than one adult, some with children, team together in a communal setting that has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with survival. Sissy wonders how long these relationships of convenience will last once the pandemic and the subsequent economic upheaval is over. Only time will tell.

But as she sits on the porch to take a break and enjoy a cool, orange blossom scented breeze wafting out of the grove, she realizes that overall – at least in this neck of the woods – life still progresses in similar ways to what it had before. You love, you work, you strive to provide something better for your family and yourself. The pandemic is a temporary event with a finite ending at some point, even if no one knows when that is yet. There will be repercussions to deal with afterwards, but even then people will survive and some will strive for success and some will allow life to just take them where it will.

Maybe tonight, if any of the local stations are up and running they will sit and listen to what is happening outside of their city. Sissy says "maybe" because her attitude is that it is good to stay informed, but tired people need rest and lately the news isn’t very restful. She is still very careful of her family’s health as she doesn’t consider any of them back to one hundred percent yet, not even herself.

As the family sits down after a dinner of Bean and Vegetable Burritos created from homemade flour tortillas, canned pinto beans, and vegetables from their garden they turn the solar radio on and try to pick up the closest radio station which is WUSF 89.7.

They can’t raise that station at all so realize that the power outage more than likely stretches all the way to the main USF campus. This is bad news because the nearest hospital, University Community Hospital (UCH), is directly across from the university. All of those tents around the hospital are going to lose their power. Luckily there is a full moon tonight and the sky is fairly bright. When the power goes out and there is no moon, pitch black doesn’t begin to describe how dark it gets.

Scott skips back up the dial to WRBQ 104.7. It is a popular radio station from prepandemic days that played a mix of music from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Though part of a large corporation - CBS Radio Broadcasting – and affiliated with radio stations across the country, they are still very community-minded and their business continuity plan reflects this as well as an unusual commitment to their staff. One of the disc jockeys that has been in the bay area since the mid-70s is also part of the station’s management team. He quickly organized the staff, and most of their families now live and work out of the station building on Gray Street.

They park the radio dial just in time to hear the announcer come on and say "This is your nightly, in-depth news report broadcast from Q105, serving communities in the Tampa Bay area."

In local news:

You can expect tighter gas rationing at the pump within the week. Gas purchases will be restricted to ten gallons per visit, down from the 15 gallons that it has been since November. Gas stations that are still in business are being encouraged to reserve at least one pump for walk-up customers. Safety Note: Walk-up customers are reminded that they must use appropriate fuel containers.

A local man is trying to make the legal case that using deadly force against individuals in the process of stealing from a family’s garden falls under the same laws that allow a home owner to use deadly force against an intruder that enters their home; or the new Looter Laws. The man points out that in these catastrophic times when what a family gets from their garden can make the difference between life and starvation, stealing from the garden is a deadly threat and a homeowner has the right to respond accordingly. To the consternation of several civil rights groups, this movement is receiving wide support through out the state, including the support of many law enforcement agencies and private citizens’ groups.

All of the bay area Bank of America branches have converted to drive-up-only facilities. They follow several other banks in this area who have been forced to close their customer service areas in the wake of last month’s rash of gang-style bank robberies. A statement directly from B of A headquarters in Charlotte, NC states that while Bank of America understands the inconvenience this may pose to some customers, it is a necessary step to ensure the safety of customer assets as well as respond to new OSHA work environment regulations. The statement continues further by encouraging all current B of A customers to take advantage of their broad range of online banking services.

According to a spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the bay area can expect to see an increase in haze and a lowering of air quality as the fire in south Florida continues uncontained. The fire is believed to have started in a mobile home community when a gas grill exploded. The fire quickly spread through the closely spaced trailers of the retirement village and has now engulfed over 100 acres of homes just outside Naples, FL. Cool, damp weather is preventing the fire from spreading too rapidly. The National Guard is assisting in evacuation efforts and local volunteers are constructing firebreaks in an attempt to prevent the fire from reaching the Picayune Strand State Forest. Picayune Strand is home to the only stable population of panthers east of the Mississippi, one of the few native wild cat populations apparently unaffected by the current panflu strain.

In other areas of the state:

School closures are again under discussion. Legislators are preparing to vote on an emergency measure that would shut down the public school buildings at least through August. This same measure would transfer classroom teachers to positions with the FLVS and the public broadcasting classroom system. If the measure passes, parents will be responsible for transferring and registering their children with the appropriate country program office. The Florida Education Association (FEA) and the National Education Association (NEA) are offering limited support to the changes as long as all teachers currently employed are given positions within the new system at the same pay and benefits as their previous position.

To address the 180 classroom days per school year required by Florida law, the current academic year will run non-stop through October of this year. The next academic year will follow immediately on its heels and continue until a 2nd 180 classroom days have been completed. At that point, a return to a more traditional school calendar is expected.

Universities and community colleges around the state are addressing their students’ needs with the same creativity. Starting with their summer semesters, the online class list will be expanded. USF has also announced plans to offer lecture courses as downloads for Blackberries and mp3 players. Many universities will offer multi-media lectures in real-time and for replay using programs like Windows Media Player and Quick Time. HCC’s courses that utilize WebCT will more than quadruple over preceding semesters.

A "volunteer for food" program called S.H.A.R.E. is being used as a model in the process of revamping and combining several state-level assistance programs. This is being done so that program abusers are weeded out and more people can be served in a wider geographic area. Participants will use volunteer hour vouchers to "buy" items from the program’s mobile grocery stores. The amount of food or household items available to each household will be directly determined by the number of volunteer hours that the family earns. There will be a minimum number of hours required to participate in the program, as well as required service hours in the agricultural division. Vouchers will have expiration dates 60 days after issuance. People currently receiving assistance will automatically be enrolled in the new program. People that have been on waiting lists or those who would like to apply to participate should call the assistance program office at 1-888-200-1234 for more details.

In other news, the State’s Office of Vital Statistics has reported the latest pandemic death figures. The numbers are disheartening. Despite stringent mitigation measures that have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic, the latest figures for a statewide population of 17,789,864 stands at 71,159 dead. This figure only includes confirmed fatalities from pandemic influenza. Deaths for other reasons, such as from violence and infrastructure collapse, as well as for other infectious and/or chronic diseases, have not been released.

The CDC has released tentative, nationwide death figures as well. The national death total stands at 3,371,283 for pandemic influenza. When asked whether they would release ancillary death totals, a source inside the CDC who wished to remain anonymous since they were not authorized to speak to the media, stated that the true number of deaths from associated infrastructure problems would not be known until months after the pandemic had officially been declared over.

Also in national news, everyone is reminded that while a moratorium on federal income taxes is in effect, tax forms themselves must still be filed.

Federal investigators have turned in final reports on why New York City has failed to respond to every mitigation procedure imposed since the beginning of the pandemic and how this failure has affected surrounding areas. CBS and Clear Channel Broadcasting are teaming up and will offer a synopsis of this report once it becomes public.

In other health news, authorities are reporting dozens of cases of trichinosis that have been popping up around the country. Trichinosis is is a food-borne disease caused by a microscopic parasite. Animals such as pigs, dogs, cats, rats and many wild animals (including fox, wolf and polar bear) may harbor the parasite. When humans eat improperly cooked meats, they can become infected with the parasite. Many people have been forced to hunt to supplement their family’s diet. Inexperienced hunters are believed to be the primary culprit behind the sudden upswing in cases. The symptoms of trichinosis usually start with fever, muscle soreness, pain and swelling around the eyes. Thirst, profuse sweating, chills, weakness and tiredness may develop. Chest pain may be experienced since the parasite may become imbedded in the diaphragm (the thin muscle separating the lungs from abdominal organs). The incubation period varies depending upon the number of parasites in the meat and the amount eaten. It can range from five to 45 days but is usually 10 to 14 days.

The US Meteorological Society has issued its yearly hurricane prediction. Its looks like pandemic-driven infrastructure failure is not the only thing that will interrupt utilities this summer. Scientists are saying they expect to see 17 named storms, 9 of them hurricanes. Of the nine, five are expected to be category three or greater.

In international news:

Reporters from within Asharq Alawsat newspaper report tribal and sectarian feuding through out the Middle East. The only common theme appears to be general belief that the "Zionist West" either orchestrated the pandemic for its own ends or is using the pandemic to subdue the rest of the world. Unfortunately, desperation and sectarian pressures are leading many to buy into the propaganda. Already many western interests and embassies have been destroyed during demonstrations. The US remains at a critical security-threat level in response to intelligence of several credible threats.

The WHO reports world wide fatalities have surpassed initial predictions. With no end to the pandemic in sight, a vaccine is becoming more and more important.

And that is your nightly news report.

Reminder: City of Tampa Utilities has issues a boil-water order that will remain in effect for the foreseeable future. For other community news, be sure and tune into Q105 on the quarter hour.

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