Travel can be exciting, thrilling, and fun…but we all have that tiny voice in our head that prays nothing goes wrong while we’re on a trip. But what if it does? And what if what occurs isn’t a minor inconvenience like losing a bag, but a full-blown natural or manmade disaster?This is what we decided to explore in our latest episode, Disaster Strikes! with our friend Anita Mechler.
Anita isn’t the only one of our friends who has been through some harrowing experiences. Kathy shares one of her own tales of woe and survival.
In 2008, I was in Atlanta for a convention with two colleagues. My friend Liz was staying at the Westin Peachtree Plaza, a building which is basically a 73-story cylinder of glass (an important note for later). Since Liz was at a swankier hotel on a high floor with a view, I decided to join her for a room service dinner and a viewing of E! True Hollywood Stories: Rock Star Wives.
The cable TV flickered ominously as Vince Neil’s wife, Lia, explained how Vince bought her a Porsche when they were on the rocks and also really liked drugs. I was eating chicken fingers on Liz’s bed because I am a classy business professional both on and off the clock.
Liz’s phone rang. It was her Dad.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
“Yeah. What’s up?” asked Liz.
“They’re talking about tornados in downtown Atlanta,” he replied.
We reluctantly switched from E! to a local station, and the radar showed an angry red mass crawling across downtown Atlanta, almost as angry as Lia when she discovered Vince was cheating.
What does one do when they’ve just been informed that a tornado is in their midst? Liz and I headed straight for the floor to ceiling windows, leaned our foreheads against them, and watched pieces of flying debris dance across the sky. Quickly realizing that this was just about the worst thing we could do, we went to the hallway to join some other guests. Two panicked parents were comforting a crying baby. Their daughter’s playpen had been in front of the windows in their room, the same ones Liz and I had been leaning against. They took her out of the playpen to go to dinner, and the windows blew in, shattering plate glass all over their room. By some miracle, no one was hurt.
We called the front desk to ask if we should move to a lower floor. They responded that they weren’t evacuating at the moment, and that they would keep us posted. This would be the first tornado to hit downtown since weather record keeping began in the 1880s, so there was no advanced preparation or instructions like in the Midwest where tornadoes are common.
We then got the official message to evacuate via the hotel PA system. Liz and I made our way down the stairs, but not before grabbing a bottle of wine from the mini bar. Once we reached the bottom, we were shepherded into a large ballroom, strategically avoiding the lobby’s seven-story glass atrium. We stayed in the ballroom for a few hours, finished the wine, and then were released. I walked back to my hotel and see if there was any damage.
The storm had stopped, but the streets were a mess. In addition to my convention, the SEC basketball tournament was in town. The Georgia Dome, where the tourney was held, lost part of its roof. If the game hadn’t been in overtime and had ended on time, thousands of fans would have been in the streets during the worst part of the tornado. The game continued after only a 64 minute delay. Afterwards, fans wandered the streets, dazed and unable to drive home due street closures, damaged and overturned vehicles, and downed trees. Philips Arena, hosting an Atlanta Hawks game during the tornado, also sustained damage.
My hotel was untouched, and its guests had not been evacuated. My colleague who was dining on the other side of town didn’t even know about the tornado. Liz chose to tough it out at the Westin and spent the night in the bathtub. The next day, as she stood in the atrium to check out, thick panes of glass from the atrium roof shattered in the background.
The convention was cancelled because it was in the area that had sustained the most damage. In addition to the Georgia Dome roof, the convention center and CNN Center experienced severe flooding. The Omni Hotel, next to the Georgia Dome, lost 476 windows and was evacuated. Curtains flapped through the empty window frames, and furniture and linens were strewn across the hotel’s front lawn. Two 65-feet tall light towers in Centennial Olympic Park were blown over like toothpicks.
In terms of disasters, I was pretty lucky. I had a good friend, a decent bottle of wine, and my life returned to normal after a few hours. But it definitely made me aware that disasters can strike anywhere and without warning, even in a dense city center with no history of tornadoes.