Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

That ‘Deer, Meet Headlights’ Moment

hurricane-Ivan

Y’know, when I screw up, I do it extraordinarily well. Yes, you’re probably detecting a bit of pride as I write that, and it shouldn’t even be in the vicinity. Like awhile back when someone was jammed in a port city. A cultural Mecca, in fact, found in the characteristic southern state of Louisiana…with a tropical cyclone about to cascade aground. Just another in a long line of memories that made an impression. The, “…that’s going to leave mark”, kind. 

This a showcase for how gosh darn stupid and stubborn I can be, too. Especially when I don’t listen to my wife. The woman in question merely rolls her lovely eyes these days whenever I recount the tale to friends and family. If my Mom were alive, she’d simply smack me.

Finally time to come clean about the foolishness behind events. Even if you can’t prevent an act of nature, you sure as shootin’ should be as far away from it as possible. Particularly if you saw it comin’, and had listened to a special someone. A husband who failed to heed the advice of his spouse. Merely the time-honored tradition amongst us with Y-chromosomes having to hunker down as a result.

Involves a hurricane, in a haunting rehearsal of something decidedly more calamitous a year later, and how my life-partner was bestowed with a certain moniker.

Ready

Have worked at a medical institution for going on almost four decades. Met the love of my life there, too. Something that brings a smile, and a “…Life in all her wisdom’s laid him low”1 reaction. Accounting for a handful of jobs across that span, from moving patients for medical tests, all the way to the need of learning some analytical programming language.

The latter in the same city centering my thoughts today. Found my second visit to New Orleans very different than that of my first.

Why there, you ask? ‘Cuz my boss purchased a new piece of office technology that was to be shared with another department, and I was the designated “tech guy” in my office. One device, two different people to support it for their respective areas. Moreover, avoid the institution’s central IT department because…you can fill in the rest and it’d likely apply.

So, as my dad would say, I was “volunteered” to provide support for the new device, which included its own training module.

Coincidentally, as August ended, a certain tropical wave had moved off the west African coastline and headed in that same direction.

marriott-metairieErgo, by the eighth month of ’04 I was booked into a high-rise visitor center in Metairie for a six-day, five-night training stay. A pretty snazzy, fairly modern hotel and conference complex by the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. With sweeping views of the nearby 24-mile Causeway Bridge. Or as we came to know it: Escape Route One Out of the City. And the prime reason I note every “Tsunami Evacuation Route” sign along the Pacific coastline (certainly those near my L.A. home) to this day.

Aim

Jetting off from LAX that Sunday, September 12th, was, for the most part, uneventful. I say that knowing the now named Hurricane Ivan had just skirted around Jamaica, weakening slightly down to Category Four status. We southern Californians fear not such wet stormy gusts. Only have to dip a toe into our Alaskan-cooled Pacific shores to know why our Mexican neighbors get all the hurricane grief on this coast.

The frigid current from up north dissipates anything like that coming anywhere near our way.

Nary a hesitation had I upon boarding my connecting Dallas flight that morn. My witchy woman, who’d be stuck alone with our eight- and four-year-old for the duration, had “that look” upon her. Popping from around the corner whenever a weather update had something to say about “Ivan” before my departure. Casting her, “You watching?” glance, my way.

This Angeleno thought nothing of it; having shrugged off past Sylmar, Whittier, and Northridge earthquakes without a scratch.

Even the young Air Force officer seated next to me on the flight didn’t seem fazed as she headed down to Mobile, AL. Even wished each other bonne chance, and without mentioning a certain namesake Russian ruler, upon landing in Dallas. Had no company for the shorter jaunt to NOLA — not foreboding at all. The Airport Shuttle got me to Metairie, my first time there, without a problem. Checked-in and into my room for a night-time meal. The cost of travel and losing two hours heading eastward.

Called home to let family know I’d arrived safely.

A decent night’s sleep and morning shower had me raring to go for the session at the nearby training facility. Even met up in class with my interdepartmental counterpart, who’d traveled similarly the day before. Heck, only four more days of this to go…maybe we’d share a cab and check out the French Quarter together. Well-known culinary delights and pub hotspots just waiting, post the daily tech academics scheduled of course. Make the best of it, I say, and on the company’s tab.

What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s count the ways…

By session’s end, after dragging the first-day study materials back to my room and turning on the TV, was greeted by the Mayor of New Orleans at his press conference. Would witness plenty of these in the coming days. Clarence Ray Nagin, Jr. was there talking about the voluntary evacuation of the city as good ol’ Ivan was now heading up from the Gulf of Mexico.

Toward you-know-where, which sits a mere 20 feet above sea-level at its highest, and guarded by a less-than-confidence-building series of levies.

Did the best and worst thing next. Called my wife…always the preeminent option. In lucid terms, she said, “Do not pass Go” as you head toward the airport. Clear as crystal. Did I listen? Did you not read the first sentence of this paragraph? The latter being I inanely argued that I’d just gotten there.

Our mutual employer paid for me to come for the benefit of the institution and train up on some newly purchased technology…for the betterment of mankind, or something along those lines.

Bless her heart, she patiently tried to talk me down off the ledge I was casually edging myself toward. Really did. No yelling, cajoling, or hysterics. Not my wife’s style, anyways. The dear even found a flight home for me. Two, in fact. One that night, another before noon the next day. “No, I’ll wait until morning to see what the training instructors have to say.”, said Obi-wan…from his posh hotel room on the Death Star.

Come daybreak, I, along with a few other fools similarly defiant clients strolled early into the training room to find our instructor impatiently marking time. Gone was Monday’s shirt, tie, and IT-approved suit…a t-shirt and jeans now clad the middle-age fellow wishing to release us from his charge. His family and packed belongings sat in the running station wagon, curbside.

“Get out of the city.”, his last words as he dashed out the door, headed for his car and the nearby causeway, which was already jam-packed.

The next few hours spent trying to find a flight. Those seats of yesterday now long gone, taken by smarter people than I. Needless to say, we as a couple placed many a call between us for anything granting safe passage away from here. The last hope late that afternoon, a lone spot headed for Colorado, if I could get to Baton Rouge airport.

Oh, did I mention all taxis and buses had magically disappeared off city streets by now? No?

causeway-jam

The causeway barely moving from all those attempting to get away from what approached whenever I looked out my stately hotel room window. Scrambled down to the lobby’s main desk upon learning of the fleeting chance out, looking for a ride…any ride. They said a hotel employee was headed there, leaving shortly, but the usual 1½ hour trip would be at least twice that, with a fair chance to miss the flight at any rate.

Luckily, wind shear and cooler waters caused Hurricane Ivan to further weaken before making its first U.S. landfall.

Likely sleep in a strange, nearly deserted airport, on hard plastic seats (with maybe no food), in the state’s capitol. Or, I could stay put…be fed and have a bed to sleep in. With a front row seat at riding out a hurricane with the hotel’s remaining staff. Hmm… My inclination by now was just to get out of town. But, knowing I’d already screwed up by not listening to my wife, I finally did. She said stay, so that was that.

Watched as all but a few of us (including my co-worker who, too, couldn’t get out of Dodge in time) emptied the building as Tuesday the 14th came to a pitiful close.

Fire

Okay, plenty coffee and tea, and the occasional alcoholic refreshment offered, too.

Now, to be fair, we were fed. Just that the skeleton crew didn’t include much in cooking staff. The kitchen closed, the remaining meals consisted of bread, water, and whatever sandwich meat the hotel crew could ration. Then again, the staff would have to make due for as long as the potential natural disaster portended. This definitely not Katrina as we’d come to learn in eleven months time. Me just a deer in the headlights of its practice run.

My wife, doing her best remotely, encouraged me to buy bottles of water from vending machines to keep in my room…just in case.

And if Tuesday had been clear-out day, the day before Ivan was to hit became Welcome Wednesday. The complex originally built as a medical center (oh, the irony) before converting to a hotel facility. One look (I did) at the stairwells revealed the beefed up engineering in place to withstand a Cat Four. That and most of the guest facilities sat above the parking floors.

Hence, the reason police set up headquarters there for the coming storm, and stay-put-locals (with their pets) rented overnight rooms.

Oh, the breeze did “freshened” a bit. Never had been in such conditions as these when I ventured out to find more bottled water or snacks to horde. And this was just the opening number, the leading edge of the hurricane about to come onshore. Periodically called my wife — she doing her best to remain calm (even as I sent images of wind-blown me); stifling the need to strangle a certain idiot over the phone for not listening to her.

It’s a sore point for my lovely bride even to this day…God bless her.

fill-tubEveryone given instructions to fill their bathroom tubs with water before going to bed. For flushing, not drinking. Were to keep all drapes drawn to protect against flying glass, too, and be ready to get out of bed and into the hallway, if the windows broke and the room inundated with wind and rain as the 15th came to an exciting close. Barely slept as the glass shook most of the night.

Luckily, the gales never got above 70 mph the morning of 16 September as Ivan turned at the last minute east and made landfall near Gulf Shores, AL., but wondered how close that was to Mobile and the officer I met on my way here2.

Aftermath

Interesting to note the resiliency of the residency and staff to something like this. People got back to their lives faster than I could’ve imagined. Came to the conclusion I preferred an earthquake to a hurricane. Wondering if a cyclonic train barreling down the track would switch to another, instead of permanently creasing my stuck rear, was not what I ever envisioned as a fate. Never once, let alone on a semi-annual basis.

Learned that a telegraphed approach, not for me; disaster or not, surprise my ass…I can’t take the suspense!

Finally did share a cab ride back to the French Quarter that Thursday evening. Really couldn’t do much else. All of the planes had been flown out of harm’s way, and they were just making their way back to Louis Armstrong. Wouldn’t get to a return flight home till the 17th…the original plan way back at some point, which was hard to fathom by this time.

Would grab another taxi, now that it and bus service had returned, at o’dark thirty the next morning for the airport to put a thumb out for any flight heading west ASAP.

Arrived home before noon that Friday…running for a gate in Dallas like my life depended on it, being key. Slept like the dead on the Boeing 777 (first time I’d ever been on one) the airline found with an open seat back to LAX. Sure, a little worse for wear, happy for a lack of turbulence. All this came flooding back the other day, when one of my mystery book-reading friends asked if I was attending this year’s Bouchercon. “Oh, where is it this year?”, I naïvely asked.

The answer, like never forgetting to abide She-who-must-be-obeyed3 from that point forward, a given.

Ivan_2004_track


  1. Paraphrasing Michael Franks
  2. “A large amount of damage occurred as the Category 3 hurricane came ashore in the United States. In Alabama, where the eye came ashore, damage was extensive. A powerful 4.3-m (14-ft) storm surge destroyed many buildings, including two 5-story condominium buildings made of steel-reinforced concrete. Communities 80 km (50 mi) inland, such as Brewton, AL, saw severe damage leaving some residents without power for up to 14 days and closing stores for up to a week. Pensacola, FL and areas west were the hardest hit, however. Having taken the brunt of the storm, all structures on Perdido Key, off of Pensacola, were almost completely destroyed. A 400 m (0.25 mi) section of the Interstate 10 Bridge across Escambia Bay collapsed into the water during the storm, and roads near Pensacola beach were devastated from the storm surge, with some roads near Pensacola Beach remaining closed through the end of 2007.”  ~ Hurricanes: Science and Society 
  3. I freely admit, she is not a fan of the endearment. 
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