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Now that Virginia has moved its game with Ohio to Nashville, and Virginia Tech and ECU have cancelled their game, the expected comments are flowing on social media about the two decisions.
Should have waited, some said. You wait, it won’t even be raining on Saturday, others said.
Both may be true. It’s the nature of leadership that there are some decisions that will always end up being no-win situations. Don’t move/postpone/cancel the game? The storm might change course directly at you and you’ve needlessly put people in danger. Move it early enough so that alternative plans can be executed in an orderly process? More times than not, things change and there is a chance you could have an empty field on game day without any wind or rain.
But this is not an ordinary storm. And while there was a time I too may have been thinking “why make the decision so early?” the events of the last week of August in 2005 have changed my mind on the subject permanently.
Up until then, hurricanes were a very subjective situation to me. I grew up in Norfolk and it seemed like every other year we had a hurricane coming up the coast. As a kid, I wanted to escape to the other side of the front door during hurricane conditions just to be outside and see what 70 mile per hour winds felt like. Never mind that those winds could be carrying a tree limb traveling 70 miles per hour in the direction of my head, as my parents would often counter to my idea of going outside. It just sounded like a fun idea.
Over the years, hurricanes would be perceived as dangerous, but many were Category 1 storms that were essentially tropical storms who had taken a few extra 5 Hour Energy drinks. There was wind, there was rain, in low-lying areas there was flooding…but nothing that in a few days didn’t result in things returning to normal. Football games were played in hurricanes quite often over the years, and while they affected the pace of play, they didn’t seem that dangerous.
Then the last week of August in 2005, I watched with interest as a storm named Katrina seemed to skip right over southern Florida into the Gulf and draw a bead on New Orleans. My oldest friend from college who I still talk to several times a week in the 40 years since those school days, was a hospital administrator in the area. He lived right on the Mississippi-Louisiana line, and Katrina was headed right at him.
Most storms seem to point in one direction days away, then change course. Once Katrina jumped over Florida, it had eyes only for New Orleans. Every day, the storm got stronger and stronger, and every day it kept right on line toward the Louisiana Coast. It became a Category 5 storm, the strongest there is, and at midnight the evening it was supposed to make landfall, I called my friend.
“I guess it’s not turning east or west,” I said.
“No, it’s not.”
“Well, I’m not going to get any sleep tonight worrying about you. Stay safe and call me when it’s over so I’ll know you’re OK.”
There was no call the next day. Or the day after. A week went by with no answers to emails, and cell phone calls returned the sound of a line that was out of service. The news showed video after video of devastation, and every night I went to bed wondering if my friend was even alive. Finally one night, I got a call from his brother. Phone lines were out, all the cell towers were down, but he and a group of co-workers had gotten into a car and drove an hour or two west until they finally got a cell signal to tell friends and family of their situation. He had called his brother and asked that he tell everyone he was OK.
I wanted to go help, but was told don’t bother. There was nowhere to stay, and not much you could do. Water and food were in scarce supplies, and the best thing to do was stay where you were. Six months later I made it down there and he and his family were living in a FEMA trailer. The winds had ripped the roof off his house. The water damage had been immediately compounded by the extreme heat and humidity so mold further damaged things. It was over a year before furniture was replaced, structures were rebuilt and he got to sleep in his own bed, in his own house, with the air conditioning running.
Florence is a Category 4, and hurricanes sometimes pick up energy as they hit the warm coastal water just off shore. The storm could fizzle once inland, or it could gain steam and become a Cat 5. It could go south and never affect the state of Virginia, or it could do a U-turn and come right up Route 29.
But I do know the damage a storm like that can do. Saw it first-hand. And if there is even the slightest risk that someone traveling to a football game could be put in harm’s way from a monster storm like that, it’s not worth it. There will be other games on other days.
And if Saturday the sun is shining, there’s no rain, and both Lane Stadium and Scott Stadium are empty?
Go home. That night, sleep in your own bed. Crank the air conditioning down to as cold as it will get.
Then count your blessings.