15 Minutes

15 Minutes

You are given 15 minutes notice to leave your house.  A natural disaster will strike and there may be nothing left.  With no time to ponder or debate, what do you take with you?

Courtesy of Hurricane Ida, two of our sons recently confronted that precise issue.  Both planned to remain in their places in New Orleans to ride out the storm.  Both prepared in securing supplies in advance of the hurricane.  Water – check.  Food – check.  Flashlights and extra batteries – check.  Cars full of gas.  Identify those neighbors also sheltering in place and agree to check on each other.  Cars parked in areas one foot higher than the streets (that step means the world in New Orleans).  Check.  Check.  Check.

Ida would blow through the Big Easy on Sunday, August 29 — the anniversary date of Hurricane Katrina.  Each Ida storm update on Friday and Saturday spoke of rapid intensification, higher wind speeds, and higher category ratings.  Would the storm veer to the west and spare New Orleans?  Would Mother Nature provide a direct Katrina anniversary hit on the Crescent City?

The time to evacuate would be Saturday at the latest.  With each new Weather Channel report, Mom became more anxious for the boys, but also of greater resolve that they should shelter in place.

Our boys live about eight short blocks apart.  Each resides in one half of a classic New Orleans shotgun style duplex.  Each house is slightly raised from street level.  The neighborhood in which they live may experience some street flooding at worst.  Long term residents cannot recall any flooding of the houses, ever.  The area did not suffer any flooding during Katrina.  The kids should be OK even if Jim Cantore and other Weather Channel stars carried on about impending doom.

The National Weather Service shattered the fragile and nervous confidence in one of our sons with the 7 p.m. Hurricane Ida update on Saturday evening.  Ida “wobbled” slightly to the east.  The new storm track placed Ida just to the west of New Orleans where it would strike as a Category 4.  One more wobble to the east and the City would be in the crosshairs of the storm.  This son instantly became the Big Queasy in the Big Easy.

Another conference call with Mom, Dad and the two boys immediately followed these developments.  The newly terrified son rattled off anticipated wind speeds, descriptions of damages a Category 4 hurricane can produce, the potential impacts of east-northeast winds coming across Lake Ponchartrain, and the untested nature of emergency systems put in place post-Katrina.  This new encyclopedic knowledge was wholly absent from every previous call.

This child concluded with: “So, I think we should leave.  Now.”  He told his brother he would pick him up in 15 minutes.  Be ready.

With each of our sons now on the 15 minute until evacuation clock, immediate and unplanned decisions would need to be made about what to grab while going out the door.  We will return to the boys later to find out what happened and the items, if any, they selected at crunch time.

When Katrina hit, I was working closely with many New Orleans lawyers on a multi-year, large exposure litigation.  Given the duration of that case and its intensity, I got to know so many of the lawyers beyond the professional colleague stage.  We got to know spouses and family pets.  We heard about current events for children and grandchildren.  We were friends.

Quite a number of these friends became displaced with Katrina.  We discussed what folks took with them as they vacated the City for that hurricane.  For one attorney and her husband, lifelong New Orleans residents, they gathered their cat, grabbed their wedding photograph album, and packed their golf clubs as they were avid golfers.  They looked at each other, looked at the half empty car, looked back at their house and one of them declared: “The rest is just stuff.  Let’s go.”  With their car only half full, they drove away.

Another lawyer and his spouse had spent the ten years prior to Katrina restoring their historic house in New Orleans.  This attorney recalled sitting in his parlor at his beloved piano, crying, and telling the piano that she would be missed.  He took with him merely a change of clothes and nothing more.

Back to our boys and Hurricane Ida.  After two or three more conference calls and determining that gas stations within a three hour radius of New Orleans had already run out of gas, our son calmed down sufficiently to understand that his best option would be to remain in place.  Both kids lost power and we lost communication by Sunday afternoon.  Mom and Dad were glued to the Weather Channel for every detail.  When Jim Cantore literally got blown over by the wind in downtown New Orleans, we felt as if we had been knocked over.  For an agonizing additional 24 hours, no communication from the boys.

On Monday evening, we finally received text messages advising that each child was safe, that their places suffered modest damages, and that power may be lost for weeks or longer.  On Tuesday, with temperatures expected to surge over 100 degrees, the airconditionless boys planned their escape from New Orleans.  Suspecting that Mom and Dad would tell them to stay put, they ignored our calls and messages until they promptly got on the road out of town.  After a two day excursion worthy of Thelma and Louise, they arrived back home in Memphis.

With their arrival, our laundry room immediately filled up with an amazing amount of dirty clothes.  Our one son spent his 15 minutes before leaving collecting all his dirty clothes and bedding.  I asked why he brought laundry, especially not knowing where they were going to end up on this journey.  He responded that wherever they landed, there most likely would be laundry facilities and he needed clean clothes.  Place one child in the practical category.

I turned to other son and inquired if he also had laundry.  He scoffed and replied: “No way.”  I then asked what, if anything, he took when evacuating in a rush.  He produced a bottle of Hendrix Gin.  He explained that the gin was a gift and it cost well beyond what he could ever afford for a bottle of gin.  In fact, he does not believe he could afford Hendrix Gin for many years to come.  So, if Hurricane Ida were to destroy everything, he could take solace with brilliant gin drink.  Place this child in the live for the moment category.

In your 15 minutes, would you reach for items with emotional attachment such as a wedding photographs?  Would you grab expensive or valuable things such as jewelry or a bottle of gin?  Would your practical side prevail and you take work to be done such as laundry or even that half-finished business presentation?  Or, would you simply leave with but a change of clothes?

We should all have our crisis kit prepared and include documents such as insurance policies, copies of deeds, powers of attorney and medical records.  I can easily counsel clients to have such information prepared and copied on flash drives.  Yet, I admit that I am not so prepared myself.  Those type of records require forethought and planning.  You cannot gather them if left to a 15 minute window of opportunity.  This article addresses the immediate impulse items you may take in your own crunch time.

I suggest that we probably cannot answer the question “What will you take?” unless and until we are confronted with our own 15 minutes.  The four people in this article presented four quite distinct results.  The extreme response of “just walk away” came from a lawyer who could only be described as an intense personality.  I would never have guessed that he would be capable to even think about just walking away.  I also think he does not believe he would have acted in that fashion pre-Katrina.  Our son who saved only a bottle of booze is our most emotional child by far.  He has saved pieces of his past as reminders in life.  I would have guessed he would have demanded a U-Haul to save all these things he finds so important in life.  Instead, he surprised even himself with his actions.

Part of me would like to think that I would grab a few items with high emotional value, most especially if they cannot be replaced.  However, part of me feels that it is just stuff and just leave already.  Of course, under any scenario, the dogs would already be in the car excited for their new adventure.

In some ways, this 15 minute window is a microcosm of a trial.  You can prepare for what you know will happen.  You can prepare for what you think may happen.  You can have all your motions and bench briefs set for anticipated evidentiary issues.  You can have witnesses prepped and ready.  You can have your case fully themed to be presented as an easily understood and cohesive story.

Then your entire case “wobbles” a little to the east as soon as it begins.  You determine that you must avoid any juror with any medical background.  The first five potential jurors called are a nurse, a paramedic, a physical therapist, a hospital administrator, and a veterinarian.  You are officially on your own 15 minute clock and must immediately decide who goes and who stays on the jury.  

After jury selection, the judge announces that each weekend he plays golf with the attorney for the opposing party.  The judge states that there is no conflict as golfing is just a social outing.  The judge simply wants to place the information on the record for full transparency.  Side note: this situation is not fiction and happened to me.  You again confront a new 15 minute period and must decide how to react to this latest bombshell.

Your perfectly planned trial becomes a series of “15 minutes” to determine what you will grab as things fall apart.  In each instance, you simply do not know and cannot predict how you will react.  As a mediator, you often advise parties that proceeding to trial is a risky proposition due to uncertainties and issues beyond your control regardless how much planning and preparation has been done.  Decisions will need to be made on the spot and without the benefit of careful consideration.  These “15 minute” decisions will impact the entire trial and may prove to be the decisions leading to success or abject failure.  You cannot predict how you will react in that 15 minutes.

A settlement, however, eliminates the 15 minutes.  A settled outcome provides certainty and makes sure that the 15 minute window does not even open.  An agreed upon resolution through compromise prevents your entire case from wobbling.  Control the hurricane.  Do not allow the hurricane to control you!

As for me, with our new full house, I will fold laundry as I enjoy a gin and tonic.

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