Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Evacuation Nightmare

We were among the estimated 2.7 - 3 milion people who evacuated the Texas gulf coast in advance of Hurricane Rita. We kept watching the storm as it passed by the Keys and grew into a monster in the Gulf. Even on Monday, I stopped at the store to pick up some water and extra canned goods, and I was far from the only one. The store still had water and food, something that would change 24 hours later. I waited until midnight to gas up my car though, to avoid dealing with the long lines. Even then, my usual gas station was out of regular and mid-grade. At the time, I thought it was just an annoyance, that everyone was panicking unnessarily.

Tuesday morning, I made reservations at a motel in Waco, about 200 miles northwest. I couldn't find anything closer. By Wednesday, Rita was a cat 5 and the 3rd most powerful hurricane on record, and we were scared. The question became, 'when do we evacutate'? I left work early Wednesday morning and started packing the car. Daniel went to get some more water and some fish food. He said the grocery store was calm, Target was calm, but when he got to Petsmart, people were nearly rioting in the aisles over the few pet carriers for sale.

We were packed and loaded at 1:30 pm Wednesday afternoon. We tried taking the interstate, but it was backed up and not moving. We skipped that and went to a smaller road headed west. After 50 minutes, we had gone 6 miles. It was a record hot day and traffic wasn't moving. I was worried that my car would overheat or run out of gas, so we decided to turn around and try again later that night.

We left again at 9:30 pm and this time, the interstate was clear. We thought we had it made, for all of 10 minutes. Then we hit the backup. In 2 hours, we went 15 miles. This wasn't working. We took a risk and got off the interstate to try our luck on back roads. And it was a risk. We had just moved to Texas 3 weeks ago, and we didn't know the roads. We would also be away from any public assistance if anything happened. But we got lucky. We made it through Houston, and even found gas to top off the car.

We had a horrid stretch at 249 where we went one mile in an hour. Bathroom breaks were along the side of the road or behind buildings. The cat wouldn't stop crying the entire time, and I hadn't had any sleep since 6:00 am the day before.

Eventually, we made it through the worst of the traffic jam and onto some small country roads heading generally north and west. Our average speed at this point was somewhere around 10 miles per hour and it was 4:00 am. In 7.5 hours, we had just made it to the north side of Houston, around 70 miles from our house.

Fortunately, after that, the traffic broke up and we made good time on the small back roads. However, we were both severely short on sleep. Daniel was hallucinating, and I was pretending that driving was a difficult video game where the goal was to keep it between the lines.

We made it to Waco at around 7:00 Thursday morning. After a mix up over which motel we had reservations, we finally found the right place, and they had our room ready for us. We were among the lucky ones who had a room. We called our friends and family to let them know we were safe and fell asleep for 6 hours. Now, it all seems like a bad dream, one you can barely remember. You know it was bad, but you can't recall exactly how bad it was, and only a few moments stand out from the entire 10 hours experience. I brought my camera, but only so I could take pictures of my destroyed house when we got back to it. I didn't get any pictures because that was the last thing on my mind. Besides, I think most people in the country have seen the news stories of the ghastly gridlock in Houston.

Although we didn't realize it at the time, we were among the lucky ones. In my office, six of my coworkers evacuated, and I had the speed record. The worst story comes from Sandy Parker. It took her 22 hours to go from one side of Houston to the other, about 70 miles. However, she never ran out of gas. Her Prius still had a half tank of gas when she got to her destination, 27 hours after starting.

As we watched the news of the evacuation, with people running out of gas, stalled for 20 or 30 hours on the interstate, we were so thankful we got out when we did, even if it was a hellish trip. We were even more thankful as Rita weakened and turned to the east. When we left Wednesday night, we were convinced that we wouldn't have a house to return to.

An experience like that makes you stop and take stock of your life. You ask yourself, what's important enough to take out with me, knowing that if I leave it behind, I'll probably never see it again. What can be replaced, what can't, and what's really important? I've run through those situations in my head before. I lived in the hurricane zone in Virginia, too, but this is the first time I've ever had to put it into practice.

Would I do it again? Yes, if it was a monster storm headed toward us. But I would make reservations sooner, and I would leave town sooner. This area can't manage a huge evacuation like what happened. The government is calling the evacuation a success, but I'm not so sure. Yes, people did get out, but the gridlock, the lack of fuel, food, water and information severely hampered the effort. Now the news is reporting how people died by the side of the road from stress and because help couldn't get to them. The media and the government overhyped the situation and caused people from north of Houston to leave when they really didn't need to. People left sooner that they should have, further clogging the roads and interfering with an orderly evacution. There were signs on the interstate saying 'no re-entry for 100 miles' but people were getting on the interstate at every entrance ramp. I also heard stories of police not allowing people to get off the interstate even when they said they were about to faint from exhaustion and just wanted to sleep for an hour or two. The cop said, "It's every man for himself. Get back on the road." So yes, people did get out. Was it a success? In the technical sense, yes, but I hope Houston and the rest of the country learn a lot of lessons from this.

And as I write this, another system is brewing in the Gulf. Will it grow into a major storm? Will it hit us again? We'll know in another week. Meanwhile, I think I'll see about installing those storm shutters this week instead of over the winter as I'd hoped. And I urge every one of my friends living in a hurricane zone to get your plan together now. Especially, buy an extra gas can or two because you don't want to be stranded with no gas stations open.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Adventures of the Fish Pond

As I mentioned earlier, we inherited a fish pond with our new house. I haven't had a fish since I was six, and then it was a little goldfish in a bowl. I don't recall it surviving very long, poor thing. So I was very nervous when I suddenly had eight fancy goldfish to take care of.

The people who owned the house before us had a very elaborate set up going on. They had a net over the pond to catch leaves, they had a whole bunch of chemicals to monitor and adjust the water, and they had some very fancy pumps to handle the algae. They were kind enough to come over a couple days after we moved in to show us how to take care of everything. It was a lot. Whew.

However, our fish survived while we muddled through learning. We eventually got the pH back down to where it's supposed to be and we got the rest of the water chemistry in check. Then, for some reason, we got algae. Not a little. We had great big floating clumps of it plus so much in the water, that the pond looked murky. Ugh.

I found a lady in Santa Fe, TX, who ran a water lilly business from her house. She works by appointment only, and I was envisioning a few tubs of water lillies when we arrived. Wow. I wish I'd had my camera. She had a half-acre that was covered in pond after pond of various kinds of lillies and bog plants. Plus she had a big old mud pond in the back with foot-long koi and night-blooming lillies. She even had a big 1500 gallon koi tank up near her house with tame koi. They came up to be petting. She gave me a koi cookie (they make cookies for koi?) to feed Samson, and he took it out of my hand and let me pet him. Pretty neat.

So we purchased four lillies, a bog plant and bunch of floating water moss that were supposed to clear up the algae problem. Supposedly, the plants will use up the nitrates produced by the fish waste and prevent algae from growing.

Here's the start of the project. Free Image Hosting at And here's what the pond looked like before we started. Free Image Hosting at

Unfortunately, my pond was deeper than the plants, so I had to find a way to elevate the plants. I decided to use some of my clay plant pots turned over to lift up the lillies. However, I only had one that was big enough to work. So, another trip to Lowes. And when I was trying to place the (very heavy plants), I knocked a big rock off the edge of the pond and into the water. Where it still resides, now with a plant sitting on it. I'll have to buy a replacement rock sometime because that one's staying down there.

We finally got it all done though, and here's the finished product. Ta da! Free Image Hosting at

Coming soon: I got to fly the Space Shuttle!

Monday, September 05, 2005

NASA's Neutral Bouyance Lab

Friday morning I was lucky enough to get a tour of the NBL at NASA Johnson Space Center. It's more commonly known as the big swimming pool the astronauts train in.

It was really amazing. I have to thank Shane for giving me the tour, especially because it's a restricted facility, so you have to be escorted to go in there.

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Outside the pool, they have a hypobaric chamber, and all the astronauts have to go through training in it. The chamber takes oxygen out of the air, which makes the people in it act silly and uncoordinated. Free Image Hosting at

Next to it is the hyperbaric chamber. It's the place they put you if you get the bends. Free Image Hosting at

The pool is 40 feet deep and the water is so clear, it only looks 12 feet deep. They only use Houston tap water to fill it. The blue color is from the lights. They don't tint it and the floor of the pool is plain white, but it's hard to believe since the water looks so blue.

Today, the pool was quite full. They had a mockup of the shuttle bay module in one side Free Image Hosting at, and the other 2/3 of the pool was taken up by two mockups of the space station. Free Image Hosting at

There were two astronauts doing training in the pool this day. Their goal is to get suited up and in the water by 9:00 am so they can get a full 6 hours of underwater training in. Their time is limited by the divers, actually. Each astronaut has a team of four divers. Two safety divers, one utility diver and one camera diver that records everything. The divers can only be on for 2 hours, then they have to take a 1 hour break and then they can come back for 1 more hour. That makes for a lot of divers during the day.

As you can imagine, it's a very competitive job, and Shane said they get stacks and stacks of resumes every week. He said most of the divers were former military. He told us about the physical requirements they had. The safety divers have to be able to pull around 250 pounds from the bottom of the pool to the surface. If they can't manage it, they could still be a camera diver though. He said a lot of the technicians have even learned to dive because they work in the facility, even if their job is something like a mechanical fabricator. But they've also got some people who can't even swim who work there.

That morning, one of the astronauts was having trouble putting on his pants. While we watched, he took the pants off and put them on four times. They have to be just right because he'll be working in it for 6 hours at least.

It's hard to see in this picture because I couldn't zoom in very far. But by now, both astronauts have been suited up and are putting on their helmets. The donning platform they're standing on will lift them into the pool, and the safety divers will then unhook them from the donning platform and they can start working on their training tasks for the day. Free Image Hosting at

The pool is a unique NASA facility, and it's hopping all the time with various kinds of training. They even do some outside training there for various industries. Shane said they were considering doing some work with the oil and gas pipeline industry, but it turned out the mockups the company wanted to build were so heavy they would have damaged the floor of the pool. So that got nixed. But they do some DoD training activities there because it's a controlled environment.

All in all, a nice end to my first week of work.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Finally, pictures

(take 2, because I just lost 10 minutes of writing due to learning how blogspot works. Doh.)

Anyway, we're here. I finally found my USB cable for my camera after unpacking every box left in the house. But now we can call the movers and ask for a debris pickup and get all the empty boxes out of the garage. Our house is starting to feel more like a home now and things are starting to find their way into various cabinets and bookcases.

On the wildlife front, our pond is getting more algae, but the fish are still alive. I count that as a major accomplishment for the first week. We poisoned the fire ant nest in our backyard, so I hope they die soon. And I will be so glad when our new neighbors finally move. They seem nice enough but they have a beagle and a hound dog that bark all morning long. Ugh.

Plus, I feel so decadent. We just hired a company to take care of the yard for us. They'll do all the mowing, edging, weeding and upkeep, plus 4 times a year, they'll take care of the bushes. We have such a nice yard, I'd hate to kill it my first summer here. I'll gladly take a reduction in my weekly allowance for eating out to pay for the lawn care. Especially when it's 95 outside.

We went exploring a little bit this afternoon, looking for an Army-Navy store. Didn't find what we were looking for, but now at least we've explored another road.

I thought I had gotten rid of most of my 'junk' before we moved, but as I'm unpacking everything, I'm deciding I really don't need a lot of this stuff. Part of it's beacuse of the poor people suffering from Hurricane Katrina. They've lost everything, and I'm looking at my stuff going 'what do I really need?' And it's not as much as I have. So I've put together a box of shoes, clothes, towels, kid's games and some kid-friendly books to take to a drop off tomorrow. Maybe I'll finally achieve the zen look I admire so much.

Okay, on to the pictures.

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This is Daniel taking the hard drives out of our computers before we moved. Maybe we're paranoid, but we didn't trust the packers and movers to be as careful as we would have. So the hard drives traveled in air conditioned comfort in the back seat of our car, and now the computers work like a charm.

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Here's our kitchen after the packers have left. All that stuff on the counter is the stuff they forgot to pack. They also missed 3 cabinets with glassware and a drawer of kitchen tools. Grr. Fortunately, the mover guy was happy enough to pack up the remnants.

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Here's our bedroom. It looks so empty and sad with no sheets and the boxes piled up. I was glad to go to the hotel that night.

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Here's Daniel taking a well-deserved break after the movers have gone. It was wierd having someone else in our house packing up all our worldly belongings and us just sitting there because we're not allowed to touch anything.

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There's the moving truck in front of our house. One of the poor moving guys found a yellowjacket nest in our yard by getting stung. Ouch. Fortunately, he only got stung once. I mowed the yard the night before, and I don't know how I managed not to get stung then.

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This is our picnic lunch after the movers have gone. That's it. Everything we own except for a couple of suitcases is on a truck and on its way to Texas. That's a very wierd feeling. Daniel's car was also loaded onto a car carrier and taken away.

Saturday morning, we had a lot of work done on the house. We found a great handyman, Jay Doyle, to come in and fix some minor stuff before we took off. Look him up if you live in Williamsburg and need some help.

Sunday morning, we had breakfast with our friends.
Free Image Hosting at Carolyn and Bob.
Free Image Hosting at David.
Free Image Hosting at Hey, that's us!

Monday morning, we got up nice and early and loaded the cats into the car. Free Image Hosting at This one, Nomia, hated being confined and told us that for a couple of hours. The other one settled right in and went to sleep.

Our first night, we stayed in Salisbury, NC. Turns out my parents were vacationing in weastern NC and rode over to see us. Hi Mom and Dad. Free Image Hosting at

Did I mention they rode in on a Honda Goldwing? We passed them the next morning and we headed south. They were off to a NASCAR museum in NC. Free Image Hosting at

Free Image Hosting at We passed a water tower made up to look like a giant peach in Georgia. We also sampled peach cider at the welcome center, and it was so good, it tempted us to stop at a roadside stand and get a few bottles to take with us. They even had boiled peanuts. Yum.

Wednesday night we stayed in Mobile, Alabama, and we drove down to Dauphin island that evening. I couldn't believe some of these houses on the west end of the island. They were so far on the beach that there wasn't a blade of dune grass to be seen. All I could see was a bit of road and sand with big houses on pilings. Free Image Hosting at

Even the fire hydrants risk being buried in sand. Free Image Hosting at

Free Image Hosting at We went wading in the ocean on Dauphin Island and ogled the numerous oil platforms off in the distance. The water was bathtub warm. It's a very disturbing feeling to think that all those houses may be gone less than a week after we were there. At the time, Katrina was menacing south Florida and we didn't think anything of it. I don't think I even turned on the Weather Channel that evening to check on it.

Hello, Louisiana. Free Image Hosting at Thursday night we stayed in Lake Charles, LA, in another Motel 6. They're the only chain that takes pets, but I've become accustomed to a slightly higher level of hotel. Oh well, it's just for a night, right? To make up for it, we went to one of the casinos in Lake Charles for dinner and a little fun, and we both agreed it'd be a nice place to come back to sometime.

We drove I-12 around New Orleans. If we hadn't had the cats, we probably would have gone to New Orleans to tour around. Now we're wondering what will be left to go back to.

We passed through the Frog Capital in LA. Here's proof: Free Image Hosting at
Free Image Hosting at They did like frogs. They painted them all over the place.

It's Friday and we're in Texas at last! Free Image Hosting at

Free Image Hosting at Yep, lots and lots of Texas. I still haven't grasped how big this state is.

Free Image Hosting at Here's a bridge outside Houston, over the Houston shipping channel. I'm getting excited now. We call our real estate agent and she's going to meet us at our house to give us the keys. "Um, Leslie, can you give us directions to our house?"

Our house!
The family room. Free Image Hosting at
The bedroom. It looks out over a beautifully landscaped backyard with a fish pond. Free Image Hosting at
Here's Nomia checking out the front porch. Free Image Hosting at

On Monday, our furniture and boxes showed up. Well, the house isn't nearly so empty and echoey now. But the piles of boxes are very daunting. So we started in the kitchen. Free Image Hosting at

It's a very nice house. We have granite countertops in the kitchen, cherry hardwood floors in the public part of the house, glass fronted cabinets and a beautiful back yard. I even can deal with the previous owner's wallpaper and paint choices for a while until I get the money and gumption to change them.

Okay, enough pictures of boxes. I'll post some more when I get pictures up on the walls and I don't have piles of junk lying on the floors.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Getting Started

Eventually, I plan to post the story and pictures of our move from Virginia to Texas, but for now, this is just the obligatory first post in my first-ever blog. Ooooh, I've caught up with the kids in the 21st century.

Today is Friday, September 2, 12:38 pm Central time. We arrived at our house almost exactly one week ago to the hour. Since then, we've lived our last weekend in a hotel, gotten lost in north Houston, had a timing belt break on my car (in north Houston), bought appliances, gone grocery shopping, cooked our first dinner in our new house, unpacked 80% of the boxes, driven 4 hours to north Houston and back to pick up my car, and learned to take care of fancy goldfish in the backyard pond.

I've worked my first week at Johnson Space Center, and today I was lucky enough to get a tour of the Neutral Bouyancy Lab, the big swimming pool the astronauts train in. (pictures are coming, as soon as I can find my camera's USB cable.)

Everyone asks if I like it here. Yes, although I'm still homesick for Virginia and my friends back there. It's hot here. It was hot in Virginia, but it seems even hotter here. There are fewer trees, and they're shorter, so the sky seems much, much bigger. It also likes to rain here every afternoon, and it's strange to see it raining, but with blue sky up ahead.

I don't like the traffic, but I was warned about that before I got here. For some reason, Texans here love donut shops. Just a guy with some dough and a vat of oil. They're pretty good. And of course, the Tex-Mex is pretty good, what we've sampled of it so far. No shortage of places to eat, that's for certain, however, with gas at $2.99/gallon today, I think we'll be eating in a lot for a while to make up for all the eating out on the trip down here.

This is a long weekend, so hopefully we'll finish unpacking, get more things straightened up and arranged. We have to buy new lamps, because every lamp we had was broken in the move. That Lowes' gift certificate from the guys at LaRC will come in very useful this weekend.

I'll publish more and my pictures later.