Best Hurricane Escape Plan: Ask Big Oil

"Like everybody else, we're very closely monitoring where Gustav may and may not go," Driver said. "We're always looking at worst-case scenario, making notes and preliminary plans if it goes one way or the other."

Many New Orleans residents trying to evacuate from Katrina three years ago got stuck in massive traffic jams. Oil companies and their fleet of helicopters don't have to worry about that.

Nonessential workers -- those who do routine maintenance -- are usually the first ones off. Many rigs take a day or so to shut down. So once an evacuation order is given, the rig is shut down and then those workers are brought back to shore.

Workers also need time once on shore to drive home and evacuate their families further inland.

Oil workers are used to shuttling back and forth between the coast and the platforms on the helicopters. They typically work two weeks out at sea and then come home for two weeks.

"Every day we are running people back and forth," Driver said.

Driver's advice to government officials in Mississippi and Louisiana is this: Be prepared.

"We are extremely cautious and we err on the side of being very, very conservative in our approach," he said. "So we plan for days ahead of time what we might do if we evacuate."

Helicopters, Helicopters and More Helicopters

The largest operator of helicopters in the gulf is Air Logistics, part of the larger Bristol company. The company works exclusively for the oil and gas industry and has the capacity to move 600 to 700 people a day, according to director Danny Holder.

On Wednesday morning, the company started using its 140 helicopters to move nonessential workers off platforms.

Holder said he expects everybody who will be evacuated to be back on the coast by Saturday. Then on Sunday, the company will fly its helicopters away from the coast to safer locations and truck all of its supplies out of the area.

It's not just about evacuating everybody quickly and safely but about being able to quickly get workers back to the platforms to start up operations again.

Holder expects to get workers back to sea starting Wednesday.

It takes roughly 2½ hours to fly round trip between the coast and the majority of platforms, about 80 miles offshore. Larger and faster helicopters are used for the deep-sea platforms, about 200 miles out. A round trip takes about 3½ hours and 19 workers at a time can ride back to shore. Each chopper can make that trip about three times in a day, Holder said.

For 30 years, James Kovacs worked as a drilling fluids engineer on various rigs and platforms in the gulf.

Many times over those years he was evacuated off rigs and platforms. The process, he said, "was pretty routine."

"They've never left anybody out there. Everybody's always been off when a hurricane hits," Kovacs said. "The oil business is very on top things."

So what if the government was responsible to evacuate the rigs?

"We'd still be out there," Kovacs said. "They'd have the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] guys out there inspecting our bags."

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