Always At Their Best


It took about two hours for Sonia and the others to clear the detritus from the concourse. They gathered what was left of the computer equipment and placed it behind the counter then set about cleaning the floor. Since they were short of disinfectant they made their first pass with water only, the six of them standing in a line as they pushed the blood soaked gauze packs and surgical gloves along in front of them with their mops, washing them out of the entrance.

They repeated the process with a disinfectant solution, this pass taking more time as they scrubbed the brown stains out of the concrete. They were about three-quarters of the way through when a pair of vehicles arrived, a FEMA marked SUV accompanied by a State Police cruiser. The two vehicles pulled behind the wall of trucks and parked, sitting with their windows closed and motors idling as Sonia and the others finished their mopping.

Five minutes later they finally finished, pushing the last of the dirty water out of the gate and into the sunlight. They pulled off their goggles and masks and gloves and were enjoying a well earned respite when the doors on the SUV swung open. Two Security Agents exited the front seats while two Admin types, obvious from the FEMA marked windbreakers and polo shirts, climbed out.

One was a male who Sonia had never seen before but, as the other walked around the SUV, Sonia recognized her from their training as the Director of Human Services, or whatever her title was. “Great work you’ve done here,” the woman told the mop wielding workers, beaming munificently as she strode past them and into the concourse.

“Throw mops on garbage heap,” Elena told them, “I must see what is going on.”

Sonia and the others carried their trash to the burn pile and then returned to the building. Sonia sought out Padma then stood with the others; the two recently arrived Admins were huddled with Dr Rodgers, Elena and two of the Security Agents, engaged in a discussion away in a corner.

After about ten minutes the meeting broke, Dr Rodgers and Elena walking off to the side, continuing a separate discussion. Sonia noticed that Elena had an expression of impenetrable disdain, shaking her head almost continuously, Dr Rodgers nodding in reply.

After a few more minutes, the Admins motioned for the rest of the Medical Staff to join them. They gathered together in the now open exam area, the staffers looking on expectantly. “In case you don’t remember from the orientation,” the polo shirt clad woman began, flashing the same munificent smile Sonia recognized from her mop duty, “I’m Rhonda Boswell, Director of Personnel Services.”

“I’ll try not to take too much of your valuable time,” she announced, blandishing them with breezy assurance, “Too many people in need of your skills and after all, helping is what you came here to do.” She paused, nodding enthusiastically. “We’re going to have you pair up,” she continued, “Walk through the crowd, do a quick needs assessment as you introduce yourselves.”

At that she stopped, the staff regarding her with a confused silence. “Introduce ourselves?” someone asked skeptically.

“What happened to the plan?” another voice challenged.

“After what happened I don’t think expecting them to wait in line is very realistic,” Director Boswell demurred, glancing away as if embarrassed by a lapse. “And be that as it may,” she continued, breezy again, “Any plan is just a platform for making changes.”

The others stood in a contemplative silence, frowning as one. “So let me get this straight,” Warren the radiologist replied, “Because these people are incapable of conducting themselves in a safe and orderly fashion we have to go and take care of them down there?”

“Making these people wait in line is profoundly disrespectful,” the Director scolded gently, “Better to go out and care for them where they sit, win their trust and respect, basic principles of restorative justice.”

The Medical Staffers began to talk among themselves, their grumbling audible over the noise from the stadium. “Pardon me, Madam Director,” Elena asked, “Might we enquire as to your experience?”

“Why, yes,” Director Boswell replied, her head shifting back and forth confidently, “Before I came to FEMA I was with the Department of Education, Deputy Administrator for the Detroit School District, so I have extensive experience dealing with at-risk communities. And I was also a State Campaign Co-Chair during President Jeantel’s last two campaigns as well as a Delegation Coordinator at the last Democratic National Convention, so I also understand very well the dynamics of large groups in a stadium setting.”

A murmur went up among the gathering, some people shifting about uncomfortably while others studied the floor. “And do you believe this qualifies you to lecture health care professionals on the nuances of providing emergency care?” Elena asked with quiet incredulity.

“And what do you suggest?” Director Boswell replied, swelling up with the beginnings of indignation.

“Many brought in their own food and water,” one of the Security Agents replied. “They can support themselves for the time it takes.”

“It could be days before we get the admissions process complete,” Director Boswell retorted, “In the meantime, they’ll be robbing each other for their food and water.”

“And how is that our fault?” Elena shot back, “No one forced them to behave like rampaging beast.”

“We’re not the ones who told them to show up 12 hours early,” another of the medical staff added.

“That’s unconfirmed,” Director Boswell commented archly, “Rumor-mongering doesn’t help anyone.”

“I almost got trampled to death,” the woman who Sonia helped during the stampede added, her voice cracking with anger, “I’m not going down in there, you can count me out right now.”

Director Boswell was about to speak when Elena cut her off. “Madame Director, regardless of the situation or your new intents, certain commitments were made to us when we volunteered,” she announced with impressive calm, “As supervisor responsible for my people I have to object to any plan which compromises their safety. Whatever cause is for such difficulties, my nurses are blameless.”

“I totally agree,” Dr Rodgers added, “I won’t ask my people to participate in such a plan.”

“I have to agree with the Medical Staff,” the Supervisor for site security told the other Admin, “If we abandon our plan after what happened last night, we’ll never get control again.”

The truculent woman was about to answer when the other FEMA Admin interrupted. “We can go back and forth like this,” he said, “The environment won’t be safe until the admissions process is complete and the Medical Staff won’t begin the admissions process unless the environment is safe. And I can’t fault them over that.”

“Damn straight,” a male voice Sonia recognized as Warren the radiologist called out.

“But what about the Hippocratic Oath?” Director Boswell asked tetchily, “Don’t you have an obligation to care for these people in an environment of respect?”

At that point the Medical Staff shouted her down with howls of derision as Dr Rodgers looked on, regarding her with the embarrassment adults have for the blurted out ignorance of an impulsive child.

+++

William went on, explaining their parents’ death to his sister and her husband. He left out the more gruesome details – in his account both simply ‘died of the disease’ – and instead focused on the details of their burial, his sister breaking down as he told her that they were put to rest in their flower garden. “They would have liked that,” she said, sniffling.

“I thought so,” William answered, wiping his own eyes. He stood up, recovering his Bible from the shelf. He took out his mother’s letter and read it aloud, stopping at points as he struggled against the tightness in his throat.

At the end there was another long silence. “I feel like I should have done more,” he finally confessed.

“No, don’t beat yourself up,” Marie replied. “I had a feeling something like this would happen, from the last few times I talked with Mom.” She paused, her husband saying something inaudible while she sniffed heavily. “They just weren’t ready to make that big of a change,” she continued, voice cracking, “It wasn’t where they were at this late in their lives, they couldn’t get their heads around it.”

“I guess,” William answered, more deeply comforted by his sister’s words than he imagined possible.

“So much death,” Frank commented somberly. “Did you hear about Newark?” he asked quickly.

“Only vaguely,” William replied, “We stopped watching TV, too upsetting to the kids. Was it an actual A-bomb or some dirty bomb thing?”

“Real explosion,” Frank replied. “They think a bomb was planted in a cargo ship at the port.”

“Wonderful,” William murmured. “How are things there?”

According to Frank and Marie most of Texas was relatively safe. Power was available at a reduced level – outside of hospitals AC was a thing of the past – and water was rationed but the infected themselves were kept under control, DPS working directly with the military units stationed in the state to maintain order. “Basically, FEMA was told to kindly go pound sand,” Frank told him.

“Funny that the news hasn’t mentioned that,” William commented acerbically.

“Yeah, well they wouldn’t,” Frank replied, acerbic in turn, “Whole thing came to a head when the Feds tried to divert Texas electricity to California.”

“How are things in Cali?” William asked, unexpectedly curious now that the opportunity to speak with someone from the other side of the country had finally presented itself.

“No real news,” he told him, “Power is mostly gone, water is mostly gone, communications are almost completely down, between the gangs and those things it’s pretty much war on the streets.”

“Not much different here,” William thought, looking at the mob of infected milling about the shot up trucks. For a moment he was going to tell them about the previous night’s shoot out but decided against it; no point worrying Marie, he reminded himself. “You’re lucky you’re in Texas,” he told them.

“It hasn’t all been great here though,” Marie said. Houston, as she explained it, had been written off. Not due to any single catastrophic event, according to her, but more of a long term coming to head.

“Hurricanes have consequences,” Frank added, “Some people suffer from natural disasters, other people are natural disasters.”

“Amen to that,” William murmured, unable and unwilling to challenge the man’s wisdom.