Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Fleeing Hurricane Ivan

Sept. 16, 2004
Isn't it ironic? Sixteen thousand exhibitors and attendees forced to flee the site of the National Safety Congress and Expo (NSC), a quirk of fate not lost on local and national news outlets.

In New Orleans to attend the NSC, the staff of Occupational Hazards and Homeland Response was forced to evacuate due to Hurricane Ivan. What we heard and did was an exercise in what not to do in the event of an emergency.

First of all, we accepted every bit of news – whether it was from a member of the NSC, the mayor of New Orleans, our travel agent at our office in Cleveland, FEMA, the National Weather Service or a cab driver – as gospel.

At times, we were running from our lives from a Category Five Hurricane (ultimately, Ivan was a Category Four) that would hit landfall earlier than projected (didn't happen), bringing waves of 50 feet (waves were that high out in the Gulf of Mexico and the barrier islands off the coast of Alabama but NOT in the area near New Orleans) that would send New Orleans back to the swamp and potentially strand hundreds of thousands of people on the fourth and fifth stories of hotels – which is where they would have to stay in order to escape rising water levels (didn't happen).

At other times, the hurricane would come no where near New Orleans (sort of true, although the rising water levels in the Gulf and Lake Pontchartrain did come uncomfortably close to overflowing the levee, which would have been disasterous for the city. We were told (and told each other) that our hotel was planning to evacuate to the Superdome (not true, although some folks who could not evacuate the city were told to seek shelter there if necessary); that all flights were canceled from Wednesday morning throughout the day (not true); and that train service was stopped out of the city beginning Wednesday (also not true).

We worried that additional rental cars would not be available should we choose to drive out of the city (true) and that rental car agencies would close Wednesday morning (also true). Like children telling ghost stories, we shared unsubstantiated rumors until we worked ourselves up into panic mode, desperate to leave the city. Our lives became 24 hours of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."

Washington Editor James Nash was cautious and on Monday night, switched his flight from Wednesday afternoon to Tuesday morning. The ride into the airport was longer than normal, he reported, but he made it through security and onto his flight with plenty of time.

West Coast sales rep Wendy Weber managed to book a flight out of New Orleans on Tuesday afternoon. She reported a long cab ride – as much as three times longer than normal – to the airport with a cab driver who took back roads and got her there in plenty of time to make her flight (more on those back roads later). The trip wasn't over for Wendy, however. She got stranded overnight in Denver by a potentially more dangerous situation – flights to California airports were grounded when air traffic controllers in Los Angeles lost contact with 800 planes after a radio system shut itself down because a monthly maintenance check was not performed.

In the face of conflicting information and warnings to evacuate from city officials, we decided not to wait for our flights on Wednesday and to drive out in two separate cars. One car, with Editorial Director Steve Minter, National Sales Manager Tony Lima, Penton Media Vice President John DiPaola and Sharon Gluvna, our tradeshow coordinator, left around 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, headed for Birmingham. After spending 6 hours in gridlocked traffic on I-10, they were finally able stop for food and a bathroom break. It took them an additional 5 hours to reach Birmingham, where they slept for a couple of hours and caught flights to Cleveland on Wednesday morning.

Southern sales rep Cindy Campbell and myself were offered a ride by MCR Safety President Larry Garner. Larry and his coworker, Brandy, were headed for Memphis. We left slightly later than the first group – at 1:30 p.m. – and it took us over 7 hours to drive 26 miles down backroads to I-55. From there, due to the other cars full of thousands of people fleeing Ivan, we had a slow ride – another 6 hours – to Memphis. (People from New Orleans evacuated as far as Houston to the west and Memphis to the north and east.)

Traffic was virtually stopped leaving the city. The gridlock was exacerbated by a slow response from the state police in opening up the inbound side of I-10 to outbound traffic to facilitate the movement of travelers out of the city (the state blamed the U.S. Department of Transportation and DOT blamed the state) and by the fact that the state continued to take tolls and make trucks enter weigh stations for several hours after evacuation began. Many cars overheated in the 95-degree weather, while others ran out of gas. Fortunately, because we took a non-highway route, we were able to pull off for bathroom breaks, gas and snacks. The wind bringing the hurricane to the Gulf of Mexico began to rise, and the air cooled. Jokes and bantering with other travelers in the cars next to us passed the time and the ride eventually turned into a fun adventure.

Publisher Rob Howlett and Midwest sales rep Dave Jones decided to tough it out another day. They booked 11 a.m. flights on Wednesday, and, as a backup, secured seats on an Amtrak train headed for Chicago later that day. They turned out to be the wisest members of our staff. They ate a delicious dinner in a great restaurant, got a good night's sleep, and only had a half-hour drive to the airport (since everyone panicked and left Tuesday, the roads were relatively clear on Wednesday). Their plane left on time and they arrived well fed and well rested.

As for me, I arrived home exhausted and sick from not sleeping for 24 hours and eating nothing but chips and candy for the 13 hours it took us to reach Memphis. The closest I came to injury or death was when a tractor-trailer truck in front of us blew a tire while we were traveling at 70 mph outside of Jackson, Miss. If not for the excellent driving skills of Larry Garner – without sleep or food, no less – we would have been seriously injured or killed.

I learned a valuable lesson during this experience: be vigilant and educated when disasters, both man-made and natural, occur, but don't panic and don't make hasty decisions.

I was originally booked on that 11 a.m. flight out on Wednesday. I allowed myself to be influenced by the mixed messages coming at me from the media – I should know better – and my coworkers and friends. This is the fifth hurricane I've been in, one of which was in New Orleans. I've spent a lot of time in the city because I have family there.

I know the city, I know the people and I know the weather in New Orleans. In other words, I know better. I spent 24 hours trying to get home, when, if I had stayed in place and waited for better, more accurate information, I would have been home in three hours following a great dinner and eight hours of shut-eye in a comfortable bed.

As they say, "You live and you learn." Unfortunately, in situations like terrorist attacks or Hurricane Ivan, the learning has to be done before the life-threatening situation occurs. And once you're educated, you need to be able to think on your feet while remembering the lessons learned.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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