opal and oj

Eighteen years ago today, October 3, 1995, was one of the strangest days of my life. I was living in New Orleans, having just begun my first semester of law school. The weather that day was dreadful, sheets of lashing rain and wind, Hurricane Opal was filling the Gulf of Mexico like a tennis ball in a can. And, on the TV, former football and movie star O.J. Simpson was about to face justice for the June 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

Hurricane Opal was a big deal. The strongest Atlantic hurricane of the 1995 season, she boiled up off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico in late September, ravaged the “neck” of Mexico while still a tropical storm, and ultimately roared into a Category 4 hurricane as it approached the U.S. Gulf Coast. In the early days of October, officials in Louisiana and at the National Weather Service were concerned that, if Opal made landfall around New Orleans while still at Category 4, the results could be catastrophic. Decades of oil drilling and development had denuded the marshy wetlands that serve as a boundary between Louisiana and the sea, and Opal’s storm surge would certainly overwhelm the levees. Most of New Orleans is built below sea level. The Ninth Ward, the poorest section of the city, would be hit the worst. A few parishes in other parts of Louisiana were evacuated.

Thus, in early October, the question on many people’s lips in the Big Easy was whether or not the authorities would order a general evacuation of the city. Fortunately, Opal began to weaken as she approached the coast. It would be a hell of a storm, but not one with the potential to wipe New Orleans off the map. By Wednesday, October 3, I recall hearing assurances that the city would not be evacuated.

katrina 2005

This disaster that befell New Orleans happened in 2005, but it might just as easily have occurred in 1995–and could have been just as bad.

That left us with O.J. For nine months his murder trial had dominated popular media. You couldn’t escape it. On October 3, the jury was about to come back with a verdict. I recall that a television was set up in the law school common lounge. At the hour the jury returned, nearly every law student who was in the building at the time gathered around to watch. There was considerable tension. Many people were afraid that the verdict, however it went, might trigger riots in Los Angeles or other places, as the verdict of the trial of the officers who beat Rodney King did in 1992. Law students in particular had their own opinions on how the trial had gone and what the outcome should be. That afternoon we watched, while Opal’s rain pounded against the windows.

I was not surprised by the verdict. O.J. was acquitted, but not because he wasn’t guilty–in my opinion (admittedly unprofessional in 1995, but I haven’t changed it since) the state’s case was botched by the disastrous decisions by prosecutor Marcia Clark. O.J. went free, at least for a while. In 2008 he went to prison for 33 years, probably a life sentence in his case, for holding up some guy in a Las Vegas hotel room. The riots anticipated after the O.J. verdict did not occur, fortunately.

I call Hurricane Opal “the apocalypse that barely wasn’t” because the warnings about it turned out to be completely accurate. Ten years later a Category 4 hurricane did strike New Orleans head-on. Just as predicted, the levees were overrun, the Ninth Ward flooded, and the evacuation of the city proved to be a catastrophic disaster that left hundreds dead. That hurricane was called Katrina. I’m glad I wasn’t there for that one.