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Fleeing the Storm
Written Oct. 2, 1998

Hotel Inter-Continental
New Orleans, Louisiana

Well, it's been a quiet week on Lake Pontchartrain.  There was some excitement around town last weekend, when the weather forecasters were predicting that Hurricane Georges might come right up the mouth of the Mississippi River.  The storm surge could push over the top of the levees that protect the city of New Orleans.  The river and the lake could spill down into the low-lying city, and the streets could be flooded several feet deep.  And, of course, the hurricane would bring strong winds that would cause other kinds of damage.  For a while there, the situation looked dangerous.

On the Job

I was in town to work the telecast of a college football game at the Superdome.  While the storm churned away out in the gulf, the Navy was in port to play Tulane University, whose team is known as the Green Wave.  Tulane's logo includes a drawing of a huge wave crashing on shore.  It was all very ominous.  But the weather in New Orleans was just fine:  sunny and warm and humid, as it always seems to be.

Inside the TV truck, we kept watching the Weather Channel.  Georges had been heading north for Pensacola, but now he was curving northwest, aimed right for us.  He was also building strength and slowing down.  He wouldn't arrive until a day or two after the football game, so we should be able to get out of town in time; my flight was scheduled to leave at 7:30 Sunday morning.

But then we heard that the airport would close Sunday morning, as the winds were expected to be picking up.  Our technical manager called Fox Sports travel and got them to reschedule the flights for several of us.  We couldn't get out Saturday night, but we could leave at 6:45 Sunday morning from Baton Rouge, 80 miles farther west and hopefully beyond the reach of the storm.  And I had a rental car that I could use to get to Baton Rouge.

Interstate 10 was the route that I would need to take.  There aren't many highways out of this swamp-locked city, and we heard that I-10 was bumper-to-bumper, clogged with a good portion of the 1.5 million people who were evacuating the metropolitan area.  Traffic was moving slowly.  I had never been part of an emergency evacuation before, but I figured that to drive the 80 miles, eight hours would be more than enough.

Preparing To Escape

At 7:00 PM Saturday, we were done with the football telecast.  I walked back to the Hyatt hotel a block away.  A note under my door told of emergency plans and reduced services, but said that the restaurant would stay open until 11:00.  So I went downstairs to eat dinner.

Many of the regular guests had already fled, and their rooms had been taken by local residents who would ride out the storm in the hotel.  Many of the restaurant workers must have gone, too, or maybe they were home boarding up their windows.  The restaurant was operating buffet-style only.  And it was full of calm, relaxed people.  None of the diners showed panic or even nervousness.

I had never been to the state capital and had no idea where its airport was, so after eating, I bought a map of Baton Rouge in the hotel gift shop.  I went back to my room and lay down for 40 minutes, listening to TV news reports.  I couldn't go to sleep.  I wasn't relaxed; after all, there was an emergency situation!  So I pretended that it was now morning, time to get up.  I showered, put on fresh clothes, packed, and checked out.  I drove away from the hotel at 10:21 PM.

Leaving the City

Apparently a squall had come through while I was eating, because the streets of New Orleans were now wet.  This was the first evidence I'd seen that a hurricane was actually on the way.  But the interstate was clear at first.  Near the New Orleans airport there was heavy congestion, as I'd expected.  Every mile or so, there sat a police car with its lights flashing.  Vehicles had been abandoned — maybe they'd run out of gas — and were parked on either shoulder.  But eventually the traffic got moving at 40 mph or so, two lanes headed west, past midnight.

My good fortune didn't last.  About halfway to Baton Rouge, the traffic slowed, then stopped.  We'd move forward a few car lengths, then stop again.  There were still abandoned cars along the side of the road, but no more police cruisers.  I rolled down my windows.  On either side, crickets were chirping.  A few stars shone overhead.  It was a quiet night on the bayou.

On WWL was one of those overnight radio shows with country music for truckers.  The newscaster said that the highway I had taken to leave the city would be closed beginning Sunday afternoon.  The DJ said that I-55 north of New Orleans was bumper-to-bumper all the way through the state of Mississippi to Memphis.

I started counting off the miles as we crept forward, timing them with the dashboard clock.  That mile took twelve minutes.  The next mile, nine minutes.  The mile after that, thirteen.  We were averaging five miles an hour, and Baton Rouge was still 35 miles away!  At this rate, I wouldn't make my flight.  Maybe I shouldn't have taken that 40-minute nap, or eaten dinner.  The extra time might make the difference.  In the worst case, I might be stuck in Baton Rouge for days.  Anyway, nothing to do now but to keep creeping west.

Among the vehicles going my way was a taxicab, making the same trip I was making.  Probably the fare would be well over a hundred dollars.  Going the other way:  almost nothing, except a convoy of utility trucks.  Probably they'd been dispatched from Texas to be on hand to repair downed power lines.

Finally, after a couple of hours, we reached the bottleneck — a construction zone.  Once past the point where two lanes narrowed to one, we soon picked up speed and were on our way!  Before long, I was zipping through Baton Rouge on the expressway, headed for the airport.  Other cars were zipping even faster.  It occurred to me that LSU had played and won a home football game here earlier the same night, and some of these drivers might be headed home at 3:30 AM in a less-than-sober condition.  A new danger to be avoided.

When I arrived at the airport before 4:00, I looked up.  Glowing in the dark sky overhead was a curving cirrus cloud, cast off from the hurricane still spinning in the gulf.  When the ticket counter opened an hour later, easily a hundred people lined up; almost all of us had changed our reservations.  But from there on, the boarding process went smoothly.  It had been years since I had stayed up all night; once the plane left the gate, I quickly fell asleep.


As it turned out, Georges made another slight change of direction, heading north instead of northwest and coming ashore in Mississippi.  New Orleans got only a rainstorm.  Neither the river nor the lake spilled into the city, and after a couple of days the 14,000 people who had taken emergency shelter in the Superdome went home.

Now it's my turn in the Superdome again.  This week we're televising Southern Miss at Tulane.  Again, I'm due to fly home on Sunday.

So all that I saw of the great hurricane was some wet pavement and the arc of a cloud.  Had it not been for satellites and radar and storm-searching airplanes — had it been 60 years earlier, before such things existed — we in Louisiana would never have known that danger was approaching.  Life would have gone on as serenely for us as for those crickets by the side of the highway.  But now we know.  We take precautions.  We drive through the middle of the night to a place we believe will be more safe, for now.

That's the news from Lake Pontchartrain, where all the windows have been unboarded, all the power is back on, and all the refugees are on their way home.


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