FaceTime and Isaac: Ozarks alum shares her first hurricane experience

Release Date: 8/31/2012

It would be hard to ask for better weather on a late August morning. It was Wednesday, August 29, and here in Arkansas, the sky overhead was a vibrant blue. A soft breeze rustled through the leaves as the students at Ozarks made their way to class. But 500 miles away near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Ozarks alum Christa Lanphear-Williams '04 and her family had woken up to a very different kind of day.

Hurricane Isaac had made landfall along the Louisiana coast in the early hours of the morning, seven years to the day after the infamous Hurricane Katrina brought utter devastation to much of the Gulf Coast. And while Christa wasn't in New Orleans in 2005, her husband's family was. She had seen first-hand the challenges his family had faced as they struggled to rebuild their home, which had been completely destroyed by Katrina's winds and the subsequent flooding.

And now, this self-proclaimed "Arkansas girl" found herself just an hour inland from a large slow-moving category 1 hurricane, hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

Most of Baton Rouge was already shut down. The schools had closed, and most of the businesses were closed as well, in anticipation of the approaching storm. The Sherwood Forest Branch of Regions Bank, where Christa is Branch Manager, had closed at noon the previous day, giving her a few hours of unexpected free time. She decided to make some last-minute storm preparations, and drove to a nearby grocery store. As she walked into the store, she dialed a number on her cell phone. "Mom?" she said, "I need some help. I'm not sure what all I need to buy. You've done this before…you know how to get ready for tornados. Help me figure out what I need to get."

And so she had shopped as her mom gave her some tips over the phone. The bread aisle was empty already - "Buy frozen bread dough and bake it when you get home," her mom suggested. "Buy things you don't have to refrigerate. You have a gas grill - get an old-fashioned coffee pot that you can use on your grill."

She had loaded her groceries into her car and driven home, where she put the bread in the oven, and went to fill the bathtub with water. After all, as her mom had reminded her, that water could be used to flush the toilets if their water supply went down. She had checked the batteries in the flashlight, and put the cell phone and iPad on the charger. As the day drew to a close, she had listened as the weather forecasters predict landfall sometime during the night. She had done all she could do to get ready. Now all they could do was just wait to see what the next day would bring.

And now that morning had dawned, dark and threatening. Rain, and wind…as Christa looked out the window, she heard an incoming call on her iPad. It was her mom. She propped the iPad up on the table and answered. "Hi Christa!" she heard her mom say. "We're calling you to get an update on the storm."

She laughed as she looked at the screen. It looked like mom, Ozarks Assistant Professor of Management and Business Cindy Lanphear, had her entire class there for the call!

Christa Lanphear-Williams '04 talks with her mom's class during Hurricane Isaac.

Christa Lanphear-Williams '04 talks with Cindy Lanphear's Organizational Behavior class via FaceTime as Hurricane Isaac moved slowly inland.

And in fact, that's exactly what Lanphear had done. She had hooked up her own iPad to the smart board in her classroom and made a FaceTime call to Christa for an update on the storm. "I saw a very fine line where I could associate Christa with the class today," she would explain later. "I think it's important for the students to see that kind of technology, because this is the way they're going to do business conferencing when they get out there."

"What's it like down there? What have you all been doing?" Lanphear asked.

"Watching Jim Cantori on The Weather Channel," Christa said with a laugh. "You've got to be able to see this wind," she said. She picked up her iPad and walked over to the window, pointing it out toward the storm. "Can you see the wind blowing?"

"We can see the trees bending over," one of the students said. "Oh, yeah," Lanphear exclaimed. "Hold it real still." Christa steadied the iPad against the window and heard the class murmur in amazement as they watched the image that was projected onto the smart board at the front of the classroom. The trees across the street swayed dramatically back and forth. "When is the hurricane supposed to start moving your way?" Lanphear asked.

"They're thinking that we should start getting some this afternoon, maybe around 1 o'clock it should really start picking up again," Christa answered. "[The bank] was planning on opening tomorrow, but since the storm is stuck on the coast, we may have to actually postpone opening tomorrow or not open at all. I got a text message from my boss early this morning wanting to know what everyone's status is - whether everyone's homes are ok, families and all that…."

"How strong is the hurricane?" another student asked. "What category is the hurricane now?"

"This is my maiden voyage! I'm like, new to hurricanes! I'm from Arkansas!" Christa laughed. "It's a category 1 hurricane? To be considered a hurricane, it has to have sustained winds of 75 miles per hour - not gusts - but sustained winds. But I don't know the breakdown between the categories of hurricanes."

"One of the major differences from Katrina to this time is that now, everyone in New Orleans is getting automated phone calls," Christa said. "You know you guys have your Eagle Alerts when there's bad weather? Now they're doing the same thing in New Orleans, so everyone is getting called to tell them what the status of the storm is, if there are any mandatory evacuations, that kind of thing. It's pretty cool!"

It turned out that only one of the students had ever been in a hurricane - Hurricane Rita, another monster hurricane that hit the Gulf Cost in 2005. "Say your prayers for people who are down there in New Orleans," Lanphear said. "Things there are not so happy-go-lucky as they are at Christa's house. There are already half a million people who are without power down there."

"They do have a different culture down there, though" Lanphear said. "They're used to these storms coming in - lots of times, after they've finished their storm preparations, they'll have a party." One of the students pulled up the current radar on his iPhone and Lanphear held it up for the class to see. "It's going to start weakening now that it's hit land, and then it will start moving toward northwest Arkansas. The rain is supposed to be here by Thursday," she said.

"Are we going to get out of class?" one of the students asked. Everyone laughed. "I doubt it!" Lanphear answered.

It was nice to see the faces from back home. Somehow the storm didn't see as threatening. Christa answered a few more questions, and then her mom told the class to say their goodbyes. "We'd better get off here and do something productive," Lanphear said with a laugh. "Thanks for the update. Talk to you guys later!"

"Have a good day!" Christa said. The FaceTime call ended, and she sat by the window watching the storm for a while. The winds were definitely getting stronger. She turned the TV back on and watched with a great sense of sadness as the news reports showed the people along the Gulf Coast whose homes were now completely submerged. It looked like Baton Rouge would be spared that type of devastation. After a while, the lights flickered, and then went out. She sent a text to her mom. "Lost power a few minutes ago."

Friday afternoon update from Lanphear: "Well, later on Wednesday afternoon, the wind did pick up to around 35 mph winds and the kids lost their privacy fence around the back yard," she told us. "But I guess they have downgraded it to a tropical storm. I talked to Christa and she said she couldn't tell that it had slowed down yet where they are, but hopefully now it will start to break up a bit.  She said that most of the neighborhood had outside damage of some sort but nothing catastrophic - mostly fences and such." Lanphear added that there is some flooding in the lower areas, 2-3 feet or so of water, but so far Christa's neighborhood is Ok. Christa's husband had been getting up every two hours or so during the night to check the generator, but the power came back on late Thursday afternoon so conditions are starting to improve.