As a possibly devastating hurricane appears to head toward the Gulf Coast, an elaborate set of detailed evacuation plans are being set into motion, down to the last helicopter to fly people out.
Who is behind this expensive, military-style movement?
ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell.
Say what you will about the federal government's past evacuation efforts and its current plans, but don't criticize big oil. The companies have the money, know-how and experience to move thousands of workers from offshore oil platforms and rigs to safety in a matter of days.
Just about every year, the companies with thousands of workers scattered on platforms across the Gulf of Mexico have to do a massive evacuation thanks to the threat of a hurricane.
It's a well-orchestrated operation involving hundreds of helicopters crisscrossing the gulf. And it's all done in what seems like a blink of an eye.
So why are the oil companies so good at this?
It's pretty simple: They have deep pockets, a fleet of helicopters at their disposal and years of practice from routinely shuttling crews to and from the platforms.
And unlike the government, they also know where each and every one of the people they need to evacuate is right now.
Finally, they have a lot to lose either through bad public relations or through personal-injury lawsuits.
"This is not something that is routine, but it is something that the oil industry has done over and over again over the years," said Chevron spokesman Mickey Driver. "Chevron has been operating in the Gulf of Mexico for more than 60 years. Certainly, there is hurricane season every year."
Now as Gustav threatens the gulf, Chevron has more than 3,000 employees and contractors working offshore at almost 400 different locations. They started evacuating nonessential personnel Thursday.
The Minerals Management Service Gulf of Mexico office reported Thursday afternoon that personnel have been evacuated from two of the 717 manned production platforms and one of the 121 rigs currently operating in the gulf.
Oil Workers EvacuateShell evacuated 700 people Wednesday and Thursday and plans to remove an additional 600 by Saturday. BP and ConocoPhillips also are starting to move personnel and ExxonMobil is closely monitoring the storm.
The gulf is home to about a quarter of U.S. crude oil production and the majority of natural gas reserves.
Oil prices briefly went up, but then came down on fears about damage to the oil operations.
For its part, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has pre-positioned supplies available for distribution in Gulf Coast states including more than 2.4 million liters of water, 4 million meals, 478 emergency generators, 141 truckloads of tarps and 267 truckloads of blankets and cots.
Experience Pays Off
So how does the company get everybody out before the storm hits?
Chevron is the only oil or gas company in the gulf with a fleet of 30 helicopters and 70 pilots. Once an evacuation order is given, those helicopters take to the air to get workers off platforms as far as 200 miles offshore. A fleet of supply boats is used to evacuate workers at rigs closer to the coast.
The oil companies also have their own metrological staff doing specific forecasts relative to the rigs and platforms. Those reports look at factors including wind speed, the types of waves and intensity of the rain.
"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."