At the tail end of last week, I spent a couple of days in South Carolina visiting my SYRBLB (pronounced “sibling,” it denotes my smarter, younger, richer, better-looking brother… the one who retired from his high management job in Bell Labs while in his early fifties, and who watches my work with bemusement from his golf club community). To give our time together a little focus, we decided to build the visit around the USC-UNC football season opener in Columbia, which took place this past Thursday night at Williams-Brice Stadium.
My brother and I were among the few in our family who didn’t attend UNC. But we invited our SORBLU (as in smarter, older, richer, better-looking uncle), a plasma physicist in his 80’s still working on DARPA contracts and living in Chapel Hill, along with his son, our cousin, who also lives in Chapel Hill, both of whom are UNC alums. Our cousin was pivotal; he had access to tickets, which are virtually unattainable in South Carolina proper, where they are handed down with other heirlooms from generation to generation. [Literally: one of our most pleasant pre-game conversations was with a young man now working for Price-Waterhouse who was using 50-yardline seats that had been in his family since his grandfather played quarterback for USC in the mid-30’s.] As it happened, our uncle couldn’t make the game, but we had a great time with our cousin. Good form therefore dictated that we be attired in some blend of Carolina blue and white. Our cousin carried this to a high level, wearing a light-blue seersucker jacket and UNC suspenders (I am not making this up). As a result, we stood out just a tiny bit from the 80,000 people wearing Gamecock red and black. They made remarks, but to my ears (more accustomed to Eagles fans deriding Redskins supporters), these were remarkably genteel.
[Should interject at this point that Williams-Brice stadium is in a fairly urban setting. The stadium has to be approached by a method of successive approximations. Arrive too early and there’s nothing to do for hours. Start wending your way to the stadium too late and you won’t make kickoff. Parking for the most part was a couple of miles from the stadium and accessible by shuttle bus. Tailgate parties were on offer at both ends of the shuttle route. This arrangement was clearly going to work better for getting to the game than it would work at game’s end.]
Weather was a factor, all right, but not on the outcome. The Gamecocks opened the season ranked in the top ten. They did not disappoint, jumping out to a 10-0 lead early in the first quarter. One player who suffered damage to his reputation was Jadeveon Clowney, the USC defensive end considered pre-season to be a legitimate Heisman candidate. He had three tackles but no sacks and made no plays for the highlight reels. [Some reporters have since turned on him, questioning whether his Heisman campaign is over. How soon they forget… a minority of more analytically-adept sportswriters noticed he spent the evening lined up against UNC left tackle James Hurst, considered by many a likely first-round NFL pick.] With this exception the game ran true to form. In fact, UNC impressed, by refusing to cave, getting a few points on the board, more-or-less holding their own for the remainder of the game. They might amount to something this season.
Not sure about my relatives’ loyalty to the Tarheels. More than a decade in South Carolina had certainly switched my brother’s allegiance. He tried to hide his feelings, but was considerably happier than the others in white and blue. And the cousin had been seen pre-game buying Gamecock paraphernalia in the Williams-Brice sport shop…
Early on it seemed the weather story for the three of us would be the sun and the heat. The 6:00 p.m. start time meant we escaped the sun’s worst, but UNC ticketholders were largely consigned to the upper rows of the sun-facing bleachers. It didn’t take much paranoia to imagine USC fans across the stadium swiveling Fresnel lenses to fry us like ants on the pavement. The heat was brutal. The sun finally went behind what to my eye looked like the anvil of a cumulonimbus far out to the north and west.
That segues to the second, more interesting part of the weather narrative. The forecast had been for a hot sunny day, with a 20% chance of an afternoon/evening thunderstorm (note to self: never again downplay a 20% storm possibility to a SYRBLB who happens to be a Ph.D. statistician). About the beginning of the 4th quarter the voice over public address system, reinforced by text on the giant, brand-new $6M TV screen that ran the full length of the north end zone, announced that unsafe weather was moving into our area, and that if and when it neared the football stadium, we would be asked (?) told (?) to seek shelter. We got one or two more nearly identical notices over the next 5-10 minutes.
Rather vague. It was only natural to seek details. What better than to check the iPhone for the local NWS website, look at the radar, etc.? Of course 80,000 people in the same cell of the mobile phone network were either trying to do the same thing or flooding the bandwidth with texts, tweets, photos, and Facebook and Instagram updates of the game and what they were wearing, eating and drinking in the stands.
No service. None. The network was saturated. Couldn’t get online. BTW, received no emergency alerts. [Not sure what that latter implied.] At this time, our cousin was getting restive. He informed us he didn’t need to stay until the scoreboard registered nothing but zeroes. We stayed for another minute or two. Then, with about 8:30 left in the final quarter, and the score a seemingly solid 27-10, we picked up to leave. Just then came the announcement by voice and text that all 80,000 of us were to seek shelter (vaguely defined, but at a minimum meaning clearing the stadium seats proper).
From that point, those of us in the nosebleed section of the visitors’ seats were immobilized, stuck in place for a good ten minutes, maybe more, as those in the lower seats clogged the exit routes. By then we were starting to see lightning behind us. We began to wonder how the mass of humanity before us would behave if it started to rain.
As it happened, we made it down to the base of the stadium before any rain started. Again, what to do? Stay under the stands, which would provide some protection against the rain (but only depending on the wind), and wait for the game to resume? Or try to make it to pickup point for the shuttle buses, perhaps a mile away?
Still operating in an information vacuum, we opted for a spirited walk (not a dash) through acres set up for the pre-game tailgate parties and another quarter mile through the exposed South Carolina Fairgrounds to the shuttle pickup point. About a quarter of a mile short of that destination, we reached the end of the bus line, about two or three abreast, just as it started to rain. We sprinted to a nearby covered archway, that extended perhaps 50-80 yards, expecting to have a lot of company. To our surprise, virtually everyone was opting stay in line, out in the open, braving pelting rain, gusty winds, and lightning, so as not to lose their place for the shuttle. Every once in a while, thoroughly drenched, they’d take up the chant: game…cocks. Game Cocks. GAME…COCKS.
(View from the covered archway of about 5-10% of the shuttle-bus line; video would have picked up the crowd chants and the lightning flashes. People essentially stayed in place under these conditions for a good half hour, only inching forward… no one broke ranks.)
It was surreal; called to mind an article about raising turkeys that appeared in a Thanksgiving newspaper edition years ago. The farmer claimed that turkeys were a nuisance to raise. When it rained and thundered, he said, the turkeys would crowd into a corner of the yard, clustered together, heads upward and beaks open into the rain. Without intervention, they’d sometimes drown this way. So to save that year’s income he’d be compelled to wade into their midst and spend 15-20 minutes or more successively picking up the twenty-some pound birds, throwing them out and away from the mass, until storm’s end. [Not making any comparison between gamecocks and turkeys here. Just saying.]
After about half an hour, the storm passed through and we made our way to the tail end of the shuttle line. To pass the time, and in honor of my risk-comm colleagues, I decided to conduct an informal focus group/survey. Chatted up my brother and cousin, along with a couple of drenched young ladies in front of us… one a pre-med, the other a junior in a nursing curriculum. Asked them all what they thought about their weather warnings. The nursing student said she’d been worried at one point that the crowd in the stadium might panic. She complained that the warning gave no specifics. Her companion said to her the word “unsafe” meant lightning. My SYRBLB asked whether or not that giant screen in the end zone might not have been used to show the radar loop and the storm’s progress relative to the stadium.
[Risk-comm readers, would that last be a good idea or not? What do you see as the pros and cons?]
About the time we made it on our shuttle bus (an hour and forty-five minutes after the suspension), the game was resumed, with neither side scoring in the time remaining.
To see some of the on-line coverage of the event, check here, and here. Columbia’s newspaper, The State, barely noted the delay in passing. Washington Post coverage made no mention of the weather threat.
Great to be alive and at the game! News stories Friday morning could easily have had a different tone.