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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: A close call in New Orleans

November 1, 2004
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The message light on the phone was blinking Tuesday morning. “Our cleaning staff has voluntarily evacuated the city. If you need towels, we will bring them up.”

Thanks for the first warning shot.

In the elevator, two guests commiserated: “If you stay, move to a higher floor.” “Yeah, but then it’s the wind that’ll get you.”

Walking out the Marriott Courtyard lobby to the convention center I spied the headline from The Times-Picayune: “ALL EYES ON IVAN.” A color map showed Hurricane Ivan with winds of 160 MPH tracking up the Gulf. Would that angry swirling mass jog west and slam into New Orleans, where the second day of the National Safety Congress was set to begin?

“If this storm comes up the river, we’ll be swimming with the fishes,” said the cabbie on his way to the hall. “This town’s below sea level, baby.”

No business today

The exhibit floor opened at 9, but no one was talking fall protection or leather gloves. “I-10 is a parking lot heading west.” “You better leave now for the airport. With security lines it’ll take you four hours.”

Only one booth attracted a crowd — the National Weather Bureau was giving brief-ings and you couldn’t push your way through the throng.

“Damn, I can’t sell anything. No one wants to talk about anything except getting out of here,” said a frustrated sales rep, packing away her Blackberry. “It’s a panic.”

On an escalator one conventioneer was on his cell: “I’ve got a train tomorrow going to Memphis. Then we’ll catch a flight to LA if the winds aren’t too strong.”

By 10 exhibitors started breaking down their booths, though the National Safety Council hadn’t officially announced the fate of the show. “We have a bus leaving for the airport,” a woman told a group huddled in front of one exhibit already reduced to boxes.

At noon the Safety Council announced an emergency planning meeting in the auditorium of the convention center. The mayor’s spokesman would be there. Those who made the meeting were assured: “If you can’t get out of town, New Orleans’ southern hospitality is guaranteed.” That’s great, but what does hospitality guarantee you against a Category 5 hurricane?

12,000 risk assessments

It was decision time. Time for 12,000 safety experts in attendance to conduct their own personal risk assessments. For many, the cost-benefit equation was a no-brainer — no matter what the cost they were busting out. Some guys rented a limo for $1,500 to drive to Houston. You could negotiate a cab to Texas for $800. Packed shuttle buses inched along to the airport in search of rental cars. A 20-minute trip took three hours. On one bus, an unlucky fellow with an unforgiving bladder asked everyone to look the other way while he hunted for an empty water bottle.

All six lanes of Interstate 10 opened up westbound out of New Orleans, and still traffic was bumper to bumper. Estimates had 300,000 fleeing the city.

But not me. “You really should come with us,” said three staffers from the magazine as they piled into their rental in front of the Marriott. “What, are you crazy? You’re a safety editor, for god’s sake. Get in.” One of our sales reps just shook his head. Sales guys never understand us editors.

Psychologist Scott Geller talks of how personality traits and states influence our perceptions of risk. “Ah, you’re a sensation-seeker, Dave,” was his theory. I don’t know about that, but I do know what my state of mind was: Being cooped up in a small rental for 12 hours with five people driving through the night to Nashville didn’t seem as appealing as a nice dinner and a movie in the room.

“There goes our last chance,” I said to Scott as the car pulled away. You can’t deny that rush of machismo you get when you take a gamble and can’t turn back. Same thing happens in the workplace. It lasts until someone more experienced gives you the word. “You ever been through a hurricane? Let me tell you, it’s something you don’t want to do,” said a native as we walked through the boarded up French Quarter Tuesday evening. “You better have someplace to go.”

Doubts creep in

Wasn’t long before Scott started questioning his own risk assessment about staying behind. Especially after we heard that the airport was closing and wouldn’t reopen until Friday. Friday! For a Type A like Scott that seemed like weeks. “Now I’m getting distressed,” said the doc. “We should’ve gone to Nashville.” Ah, the second-guessing… only took two or three hours to kick in.

Denial is another part of risk perception, and we were definitely dialed into denial. “I still can’t believe the airport is closed until Friday.” “These storms always blow east.” “You really think those levees will break? We’re not going to get slammed.”

But after a while, denial turns transparent and you see right through it. By dark on Tuesday our defenses had crumbled. “We should be doing something, shouldn’t we?” asked Scott. “Getting water bottles, flashlights, food?” Say hello to fear. “I think we should move to one of the big hotels,” I offered. “Got to make sure they have a generator,” said our friend Nancy, who had joined us. Nancy tried to find us a couple of well-fortified rooms but every hotel in town was sold out. Locals were moving in with their dogs, kids, blankets, pillows, coolers and shopping bags of food. We joined a line at a grocery store to stock up on Power Bars and AA batteries.

Captain Clayton from the Anchorage, Alaska Fire Department didn’t do much to soothe our nerves. We met the captain in the French Quarter, and he was a bear of a man from the ice country, the kind of guy you’d want in your foxhole. Until the captain mentioned, “I got a cab picking me up 6 tomorrow morning and taking me 100 miles north.” He proceeded to predict a disaster of Biblical proportions. “My daddy said you gotta die somewhere, but I don’t want to die on Bourbon Street.”

Thanks, captain. It was a small comfort to get a call from the ISHN crew heading to Nashville later that night. “We’ve been laughed out of the state of Alabama. They say, ‘What, are you crazy? There’s not a hotel vacancy in the whole state.’ We’re heading to Pulaski, Tennessee.”

It’s never too late to justify a decision, right? Even one that could leave me swimming with lobsters on Bourbon Street. I looked out my hotel window, where a gentle breeze was blowing, and not a drop of rain. Better here than Pulaski, Tennessee, wherever that is, I thought. And it wouldn’t have been any better trying to head to Houston. It was taking people 12 to 16 hours in the mass exodus, we heard.

The weather watch

A curfew went into effect Wednesday at 2 p.m. until at least Thursday morning. Ivan was supposed crash land somewhere around midnight. “It’s going to be a long, long night for some people,” a reporter intoned on The Weather Channel. You can always count on the calming effect of the media. “This is a huge storm that’s just not giving up,” declared the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on CNN. “We’re going to see tremendous storm surges, tornadoes spawning off everywhere, hurricane force winds, 10-15 inches of rain.”

Scott, ever the psychologist, had his own coping mechanism. “This is interesting,” he noted in a detached sort of way, like he was describing some experiment. “Context is influencing our behavior. Think about it. The context of an impending hurricane is creating a climate that is influencing our decisions, even down to what we choose to eat.” “Just don’t call it our last supper,” I said.

Sunlight was streaming through the hotel window when I woke up Thursday. The sky was brilliant blue, almost cloudless. On the street, not a puddle, not a blown-over trash can. Nothing. Ivan had indeed veered east. Talk about a close call. “New Orleans got very lucky,” said the mayor at a briefing on TV.

Interesting, as Doctor Geller would note, how fast doubts fade after a risky decision pays off. You do get a little heady about it, really. “Boy, you really went through something,” folks back home said afterwards. I admit I felt a little, what… superior? Until a week later when I sat next to two women on a plane, both from Pensacola, Florida, where Ivan had ripped a quarter-mile gash in an

I-10 bridge and an eight-year-old had the life crushed out of her by a fallen tree. Both women felt very lucky to be alive. Damn. You can laugh about a close call, until you hear what real pain is.

— Dave Johnson, Editor

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