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.

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