I just got back from a great (mis)adventure. I had to go to New Orleans for work on Tuesday (my 6th day at my new job in private equity) with plans to return on Wednesday. Given the hurricane forecast to hit later in the week, I checked with all the relevant sources (hotel, meeting, etc.) and they told me that it would be fine to come down since the hurricane, if it were to hit, would hit late Thursday. My mom advised me not to go, but I replied that I had done the due diligence and there would be no problems.
So, I flew from La Guardia at 7:30 am on Tuesday. When I arrived, I realized I might be in trouble – there were lines of people waiting for flights out of town. Plus, my cabbie into town berated me the entire way: “You are crazy man, I’m only driving you to make some extra money – as soon as I drop you off, I can afford to take my family out of town.”
I got to my hotel at 10 am and they told me they were staying open, no worries. I also called the trade show I was supposed to be attending and they said that things were still in full swing. The news said the hurricane was due on Thursday afternoon. Since I was leaving on Wednesday afternoon, I should be fine, I reckoned.
With that knowledge, I set out for the trade show. No cabs in sight, so I took the streetcar. Hey, I’m no finance snob, I’m an everyman when I have to be…streetcars are just fine by me.
Finally, I got to the trade show at noon only to observe a stream of people leaving with luggage. It turns out that the show had been cancelled and people were told to evacuate. The great irony is that the show was the Expo of the National Safety Council. Wouldn’t you expect the NSC to be a little more conservative with the lives of its safety-loving membership?
Since basically everyone in the city was freaking out and talking about 18 feet of flooding, I tried to move my flight earlier, but the city closed the airport and no rental cars were available. Thus, I was left with two options: stay and weather the storm or run.
The only way out of town, according to the concierge, is by my old nemesis, Greyhound. I pay some price gouger cabbie 10 bucks for the six block ride and pull up to the large Amtrak/Greyhound station in downtown New Orleans. Even though the hotel has booked me a ticket, the guys at the station don’t care, so I am obliged to stand in line for an hour waiting to buy a ticket. The bus line, which usually would be filled by college students and hobos, is instead comprised of a rich mix of people who are all trying to escape Armageddon. At 4:40, I am able to buy a ticket on the last bus out of town that day, a 4:45 to Houston. Great. I’m told I’ll be to Houston by midnight. That means I can get a good night of sleep, try to grab lunch with Brian Corey (a sectionmate from Section G!) in town, and make it back to New York by dinner time.
Nope. There are about 150 people with tickets for the 4:45 and we all wait on the platform for a few hours while Greyhound tries to find drivers and buses. After waiting for a while, I buy my pretzel dinner at a vending machine and hunker down on the concrete platform to wait some more. At around eight pm, the manager of the station gives us all numbered boarding passes and we are sent back into the station. As an HBS grad, I note that the station manager is managing change and adversity far better than my old friend, Erik Peterson. It turns out, however, that the power is out, so the police have parked huge trucks at all the doors of the place and are shooting their high beams in to provide some limited light.
By this point, I’ve made lots of friends in my group of travelers. There is the little blond lady (aka Missy Mae) from Biloxi who is carrying two bags, a small one with clothes and a large one with her prized bowling balls. Then there is the self-described “farm boy” (Billy Bob) from Kansas who moved to New Orleans to find a job on a shrimp boat. He is dismayed because “someone done stolen my boots” that he left unattended. Finally, there is the guy (Billy Bob II) whose brand new cell phone purchased at Wal-Mart won’t accept long distance calls. He’s so mad that he’s vowed to go to the first Wal-Mart he sees and tell them a thing or two.
Finally, at about 11 pm we get on a bus. I’m psyched: even though I’m in the back row near the smelly Greyhound toilet and my seat doesn’t recline, I have my own seat. About five minutes later, an obese man (Cletus) lumbers down the aisle and sits next to me. He’s like a walking gag reflex. Although I have tried my usual routine of coughing and looking like I was asleep in order to move him along, I am next to the last vacant seat on the bus. He sits next to me and suddenly his ample stomach is poking into my elbow. Ok, I think, no problem. I’ll just sleep all the way to Houston. I put on my iPod – 95 Billy Joel tracks, what could be better? I am, however, awakened intermittently by the girth of Cletus, Billy Bob II’s cell phone rants, the peculiar sounds of each and every person on the bus using the toilet, and the smell of the jerky that Cletus keeps on eating.
At five am, I regain consciousness. The bus is stopped. Aha, I think, we must be near Houston by now. I look up to see that we had arrived to a new bus station. Where in Texas could we be? The sign says Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge, Texas. Hmmm, never heard of it. Could it be that we are only in Baton Rouge, LA, just 1 hour 20 mins from New Orleans? This is the distance we have covered in six hours?
Feeling hungry, I decide to stock at the vending machine since no other food is available. Then I re-board the bus and things start looking up. Cletus gets off at Baton Rouge, I have my own seat, my iPod still has tons of battery life, and I sleep all the way to Lake Charles, LA. We continue to some other place in Texas and I find a place to buy the Houston Chronicle. The front page screams “Ivan Could Spell Doom for New Orleans,” and the article mentions that the coroner has 50,000 body bags on hand. Nice.
Finally, at 12 noon I arrive in Houston. I am back in NYC by 9 pm, just in time to see that the hurricane isn’t going to hit New Orleans after all. The motto of this story? Listen to your mother.