Thanks for the first warning shot.
In the elevator, two guests commiserated: â€œIf you stay, move to a higher floor.â€ â€œYeah, but then itâ€™s the wind thatâ€™ll get you.â€
Walking out the Marriott Courtyard lobby to the convention center I spied the headline from The Times-Picayune: â€œALL EYES ON IVAN.â€ 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?
â€œIf this storm comes up the river, weâ€™ll be swimming with the fishes,â€ said the cabbie on his way to the hall. â€œThis townâ€™s below sea level, baby.â€
No business todayThe exhibit floor opened at 9, but no one was talking fall protection or leather gloves. â€œI-10 is a parking lot heading west.â€ â€œYou better leave now for the airport. With security lines itâ€™ll take you four hours.â€
Only one booth attracted a crowd â€” the National Weather Bureau was giving brief-ings and you couldnâ€™t push your way through the throng.
â€œDamn, I canâ€™t sell anything. No one wants to talk about anything except getting out of here,â€ said a frustrated sales rep, packing away her Blackberry. â€œItâ€™s a panic.â€
On an escalator one conventioneer was on his cell: â€œIâ€™ve got a train tomorrow going to Memphis. Then weâ€™ll catch a flight to LA if the winds arenâ€™t too strong.â€
By 10 exhibitors started breaking down their booths, though the National Safety Council hadnâ€™t officially announced the fate of the show. â€œWe have a bus leaving for the airport,â€ 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 mayorâ€™s spokesman would be there. Those who made the meeting were assured: â€œIf you canâ€™t get out of town, New Orleansâ€™ southern hospitality is guaranteed.â€ Thatâ€™s great, but what does hospitality guarantee you against a Category 5 hurricane?
12,000 risk assessmentsIt 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 â€” 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. â€œYou really should come with us,â€ said three staffers from the magazine as they piled into their rental in front of the Marriott. â€œWhat, are you crazy? Youâ€™re a safety editor, for godâ€™s sake. Get in.â€ 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. â€œAh, youâ€™re a sensation-seeker, Dave,â€ was his theory. I donâ€™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 didnâ€™t seem as appealing as a nice dinner and a movie in the room.
â€œThere goes our last chance,â€ I said to Scott as the car pulled away. You canâ€™t deny that rush of machismo you get when you take a gamble and canâ€™t turn back. Same thing happens in the workplace. It lasts until someone more experienced gives you the word. â€œYou ever been through a hurricane? Let me tell you, itâ€™s something you donâ€™t want to do,â€ said a native as we walked through the boarded up French Quarter Tuesday evening. â€œYou better have someplace to go.â€
Doubts creep inWasnâ€™t long before Scott started questioning his own risk assessment about staying behind. Especially after we heard that the airport was closing and wouldnâ€™t reopen until Friday. Friday! For a Type A like Scott that seemed like weeks. â€œNow Iâ€™m getting distressed,â€ said the doc. â€œWe shouldâ€™ve gone to Nashville.â€ Ah, the second-guessingâ€¦ only took two or three hours to kick in.
Denial is another part of risk perception, and we were definitely dialed into denial. â€œI still canâ€™t believe the airport is closed until Friday.â€ â€œThese storms always blow east.â€ â€œYou really think those levees will break? Weâ€™re not going to get slammed.â€
But after a while, denial turns transparent and you see right through it. By dark on Tuesday our defenses had crumbled. â€œWe should be doing something, shouldnâ€™t we?â€ asked Scott. â€œGetting water bottles, flashlights, food?â€ Say hello to fear. â€œI think we should move to one of the big hotels,â€ I offered. â€œGot to make sure they have a generator,â€ 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 didnâ€™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 youâ€™d want in your foxhole. Until the captain mentioned, â€œI got a cab picking me up 6 tomorrow morning and taking me 100 miles north.â€ He proceeded to predict a disaster of Biblical proportions. â€œMy daddy said you gotta die somewhere, but I donâ€™t want to die on Bourbon Street.â€
Thanks, captain. It was a small comfort to get a call from the ISHN crew heading to Nashville later that night. â€œWeâ€™ve been laughed out of the state of Alabama. They say, â€˜What, are you crazy? Thereâ€™s not a hotel vacancy in the whole state.â€™ Weâ€™re heading to Pulaski, Tennessee.â€
Itâ€™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 wouldnâ€™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 watchA curfew went into effect Wednesday at 2 p.m. until at least Thursday morning. Ivan was supposed crash land somewhere around midnight. â€œItâ€™s going to be a long, long night for some people,â€ a reporter intoned on The Weather Channel. You can always count on the calming effect of the media. â€œThis is a huge storm thatâ€™s just not giving up,â€ declared the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on CNN. â€œWeâ€™re going to see tremendous storm surges, tornadoes spawning off everywhere, hurricane force winds, 10-15 inches of rain.â€
Scott, ever the psychologist, had his own coping mechanism. â€œThis is interesting,â€ he noted in a detached sort of way, like he was describing some experiment. â€œContext 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.â€ â€œJust donâ€™t call it our last supper,â€ 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. â€œNew Orleans got very lucky,â€ 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. â€œBoy, you really went through something,â€ folks back home said afterwards. I admit I felt a little, whatâ€¦ 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.
â€” Dave Johnson, Editor