Georges: 10 Years Later

by Tadson Bussey and Jeff Strohm
Designer Magazine (Vol. 33, No. 4)

Were you in New Orleans during Hurricane Georges? Drop us a line with your memories.

September 1998: The UCDA Design Conference had its sights set on the dynamic city of New Orleans. So did a hurricane.

First of all, let's remember that 1998 was pre-Katrina. Hurricane Andrew had had a huge impact on Florida a few years prior, but that was Florida, not Louisiana. And in the days leading up to the conference, this tropical storm called Georges was heading for Florida and then Alabama. When the call was made about whether to continue with the design conference, the signs pointed to some potential rain, but not much more.

"My plane landed, and the pilot announced that those of us who were heading into the city probably weren't going to get out anytime soon. All planes were leaving the airport. It was obvious that something big was happening on my way into town," says Jeff Strohm, who was attending the conference." The highway leaving the city was packed, but it was completely clear heading into the city. We made great time" Asking the cab to stop at a convenience store, Jeff loaded up on peanut butter, crackers, and water as a precaution.

"We were prepared for some rain and wind," says Tadson Bussey, who was the conference chair at the time. "Our contacts in New Orleans told us that this kind of storm happened all the time, and that is was no big deal. I think that's part of the complacency that the city had prior to Katrina. They really thought a hurricane couldn't happen there."

"When we headed down to New Orleans, the newspapers warned of possible rains," he continues. "And then Saturday morning we awoke to the headlines 'NO Prepares for Direct Hit.'" The conference hotel went into emergency mode, bringing in staff and their families. And while some UCDA members and conference speakers chose not to travel, Tadson and his colleagues were faced with 140 attendees and a conference to put on.

"We decided that since we couldn't leave, we would have the best conference we could under the circumstances," he remembers. Speakers rearranged their topics, sessions were improvised, and the supplies that had made it to the city were used to their utmost. One of the presenters was ready to pay $1,000 cash for a cab to take her out of town. (The cabbie refused.) The mask-making workshop went well, even though the presenter dropped off her supplies and promptly headed back north, eventually getting the very last rental car available at the airport. The impromptu Hurricollage breakout session was well attended, and members created their own personal weather statements from whatever they had on hand.

"The hotel told us to fill our bathtubs with water, and close the drapes. The winds began to hit around midday, and at lunch the plate glass windows in the restaurant were violently bowing in and out. By dinner they had been boarded up. The hotel assured us that the building had been engineered to withstand a category 4 hurricane, but my roommate and I still considered putting part of the mattresses in front of the windows in our room," remembers Jeff.

The Westin soldiered on, providing basic meals and services. The city was under curfew for 48 hours.

"The worst of the storm hit on Sunday, and it wasn't until Tuesday morning that we were cleared to leave the building. It was surreal walking around a completely empty French Quarter. The only other place that was open for business was another hotel, so we had more hotel food. But at least it was different hotel food," remembers Tadson. Georges did ultimately spare New Orleans, changing direction at the last minute.

"I guess we really didn't know how bad it could have been until Katrina," says Tadson. "A crisis certainly brings people together in a way that nothing else can. I'll remember those people and that event forever."

He continues, "I can't even imagine what the city went through when Katrina hit. We were scared, but we were ultimately completely safe and unscathed. In August 2005, when we heard the news of Katrina, the first thing I did was to call one of the people who attended the conference back in 1998."

"We were really very fortunate," agrees Jeff. "I still watch the weather pretty closely around conference time."