They're going to leave me behind

September 28, 2007

Hurricane Dean is coming, but there's no place in the evacuation strategy for Kevin Fong. Time to stockpile emergency waffles?

I am in my cubicle tapping merrily away while a hive of activity carries on around me: Houston is preparing for Hurricane Dean.

Elisa the laboratory manager is moving through the building so fast she is but a blur.

She stops to ask me if I have my hurricane kit.

I shake my head and smile and carry on typing.

Behind me my colleagues are rushing around like obedient worker bees unplugging stuff and covering everything in plastic bags.

Elisa returns and chucks me my Nasa hurricane kit.

I am expecting signalling beacons, a survival suit, possibly a pair of rocket shoes.

In fact, it is a plastic envelope with a bin liner and a single yellow sheet instructing you to make sure your computer is backed up, wrapped in the enclosed bag and off the ground.

Elisa looks at me sitting at my terminal happily going about my business.

"Kevin, I just don't think you're spun-up enough about this here hurricane."

But before I can reply she has disappeared again.

I'm sure they are overreacting, and I'm determined to bring a sense of British calm to this crisis.

The build-up to the hurricane has been going on for days. The weather forecast is predicting that it will grow to a Category 5, with winds of over 150mph.

The satellite picture suggests it might hit us.

But I remain calm, taking my cue from flatmate Steve who is pretty level headed and seems to be deeply unimpressed by the threat.

I haven't seen him do any panic-buying, stockpiling cans of petrol or listening obsessively to the weather reports.

All the same, now that his colleagues at the space centre are getting "spun up", I feel maybe I should get an idea of what we're going to do should the worst actually happen.

"Steve, mate, what is our evacuation plan?" I say casually over a beer that night, still not wanting to blow my Britannic cool.

"Dude," he replies, "if that happens I'll get flown to Cape Canaveral. I'll be on Cocoa Beach sipping cocktails. Why, what's your plan?"

There is silence, though I hear the roaring of realisation in my head.

It turns out that if you are important to mission operations - if you are responsible, say, for keeping the space shuttle flying or something - then Nasa moves you out of harm's way to make sure the show can go on.

This explains Steve's state of calm: he is one of those people. I, on the other hand, am not.

Half an hour later we are in the local supermarket going hurricane-shopping.

Packet noodles, tins of tuna, canned vegetables, a box of muesli bars and pasta.

Actually, apart from the 14 gallons of water, it feels uncomfortably like an ordinary visit to the shops for me.

I buy some batteries and a torch; Elisa, I think, would be proud to see me finally getting with the programme, taking things seriously and behaving like a true Texan.

I think about this for a moment and buy some Rocky Road ice cream and Belgian waffles.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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