Jerry Florence was worried as he watched the hurricane hit, but he knew he had a problem when the levee broke. In less than a month, he was supposed to head to New Orleans with some 20,000 middle-aged and elderly people in tow.
As membership director for AARP, he had helped orchestrate what was promoted as "three unforgettable days and nights" that was to begin Sept. 29.
Now, from the television in his Washington office, Florence watched water pouring into the city like a teacup and realized that more than a year of meticulous planning for the group's annual national member event was disappearing in the flood.
He saw the rescues, the lost, the looting. He saw the swelling crowds of helpless families filling the convention center and knew his guests wouldn't be in that building for a long, long time.
"The people holed up, the conditions, the sanitation," he said. "It's going to be a Herculean task" to recover.
Far from the Gulf Coast, the disaster has seeped into countless lives, upending routines and changing priorities. People have written checks and rewritten rules. They've changed plans, canceled flights, started over.
At AARP offices, workers spent the end of the week undoing everything done in the past year, canceling performances, waving off vendors, stopping set construction. Members had signed up for swamp tours, for the Harry Connick Jr. concert, for jazz dinner cruises. They planned to hear Maya Angelou speak, and to take on the French Quarter.
"We were going to go to Bourbon Street a la 'West Side Story,' " said Paula Alberts of Phoenix, envisioning a rowdy gang of older people "with the group getting bigger and bigger as we went down the street."
Then she saw the levee break, just as Florence had, and feared it was all over.
"I've got my fingers crossed for all who are in NO," Alberts wrote on an AARP message board. She kept watching for posts from a 75-year-old woman who had told them she was staying in New Orleans with her three cats.
Phones started ringing at the AARP call center in Florida, more than 300 calls late this week. Hundreds of e-mails came in from people telling them to forget about refunding their registration money and give it to relief efforts instead.
Florence talked with other AARP leaders about moving the event to another city, but it didn't make any sense, he said. Everything was themed to New Orleans, from the masks on the posters to the jazz events.
They stopped the news releases from going out this week. They posted an announcement of the cancellation on its Web site, telling members they could have all prepaid fees refunded or directed to relief work through the AARP Foundation. They started e-mailing the 900 members who had volunteered to help.
They stopped plans to truck conference trinkets down to Louisiana. At a warehouse in Newington in Fairfax County, more than 50 pallets had been loaded with boxes of New Orleans T-shirts, beads and hurricane glasses and shrink-wrapped.
They arranged for the shirts to be shipped to their Louisiana office, most likely to be donated to clothing drives there. They threw out some pamphlets and other promotional items and saved some for other events. They took the enameled pins, with the little trumpets and basses next to the AARP logo, and put them in letters to be sent to those who had registered.
On the message boards, posters discussed relief efforts, rescheduling flights and future plans. Now they're looking for another spot to gather.
Alberts has already invited her whole gang -- not 20,000, but a few dozen -- to Phoenix.
And Florence and his colleagues at AARP will keep calling the rest of the hundreds of vendors, telling them they'll see them next year -- in Anaheim, Calif.