The media is guilty of hype and fear mongering. The Government (in this case the city officials of Houston, Texas) is guilty of poor planning, too little too late assistance to evacuees, and no control of the evacuation itself. What am I talking about? The evacuation from Hurricane Rita in late September of 2005.
The Evac was hideous. The radio DJ people kept saying we were “frustrated” in traffic, but it was more akin to torture and abuse, for everyone caught in it. In that two days of traffic horror, I got two hours of sleep, had to be the strong tough person for both of my parents through most of it, and had my first and only nervous breakdown.
We were told to run from Rita, and after all the horrible photos from Katrina, we did it. All at once. And maybe they didn’t think we would, I don’t know. But I know the “Powers That Be” didn’t plan very well (or at all) for how to cope with all of us on the highways of Houston at once. The result was a gridlock traffic jam that killed more people than Rita did, at least in Houston.
My mom and I evacuted my sister’s horses, the house cats and dog on that Tuesday night, September 20th, 2005. It contributed to my lack of sleep in the evac, but I am very glad we did it then. The mare is expensive, and was expensively pregnant at the time, and the gelding was 29 years old! Neither of them would have made it through two days of that hell. Many people stuck in the evac with horses had dead horses when they got to their destinations. Many others lost other pets. After it was all over, I heard horror stories of people trying to remove dead horses from their trailers. Imagine attempting to get the body of an animal you care for, which weighs a thousand pounds, out of a small constrictive space – hopefully in one piece.
On Wednesday, the 21st, we had to toss things that could never be replaced if we lost our homes, into our vehicles, and I had the task of saving our family’s collection of barn cats, many of whom had arrived on their own and stayed, but we’d grown to love them all.
I had the idea of luring the barn cats into the garage with canned food so we could cage them all for the trip. They were all hissing and afraid, and fighting each other. Animals, I believe, know when this sort of crap is brewing, and they were as scared as the people. But it was life and death to catch them, as far as we knew, so I caught them, even though I got lacerated rather badly about three times in the process.
Impending disaster affects people in different ways. My sister was out of town on a business trip to Florida with her boss, so it fell to me to help my parents in the evacuation. I was not prepared for my normally solid, calm parents to behave as they did. My mother, ever practical, was loading the living quarters section of the horse trailer with food (canned goods in a laundry hamper, frozen meat in a cooler) and stocking our cars with “eat on the road” food and bottled water, but she was taking a long time to do it, and we were running out of time. My father was moving about like a zombie, loading up things that we’d be sorry to lose, yes, but not things that should have been saved, especially his collection of radio controlled model airplanes. Such things can be bought and build again. Important papers, photo albums spanning generations, computers, etc. I can see, but paintings and planes should be left behind. My main frustration was that I had caught the cats, and then they were sitting in cages in the sun. I couldn’t load them into the back of the horse trailer until we were ready to roll out of the driveway, and my parents kept loading things like we had days to do it. After moving all of the cages into the shade twice, I had to become the parent. I played drill sargeant and got it all on the road. I didn’t even have time to be amazed that they listened and obeyed without argument when I put on the whip-crack “we have to go NOW” voice.
Three vehicles, one pulling a horse trailer, and the trailer full of 24 barn cats in an assortment of kennels. Quite a zoo, and a zoo that was going to need frequent water stops. We set off at around 2:30pm. The radio was saying if you waited until 6pm, the cops would pick your route for you, and route we were slated to be given was not the way we needed to go to reach our safe haven.
We got on I-45 (not the worst, as it turned out – that was 59, where my friend Judy was, with another zoo, including her goats!) and the gridlock started as soon as we crawled up a feeder onto the highway. We were headed to Grimes County, to our friends Susan and Mark, where the horses and other pets were already. The drive usually takes two and a half hours. It ended up taking two days.
I had borrowed my friend Wolfram’s cellphone so my mother could have one, and it ended up being a saving grace for us, being able to communicate in the traffic. My friend and his family live in Montrose in Houston, and they weren’t going to evacuate. If more people in Houston, Conroe, The Woodlands, and others had decided to sit tight, those of us who live on the coast might have been able to get out.
My father and I had our cell phones, but Mom didn’t know how to use my friend’s phone. She would answer it, but couldn’t deal with calling on it and driving the truck and trailer at the same time, so I had to call her and my father like a middle man throughout the trip. Sometimes the cell phones wouldn’t work at all. I would keep trying to reach them both, but for thirty and forty-five minute stretches, the system was too overloaded to allow calls. I learned how to send text messages that day. Susan texted me asking where we were, and I had to learn how to reply on the fly. After that, we kept in touch that way whenever the calls wouldn’t go through. But my parents didn’t know how to text, so I had to keep trying to reach them to check on them.
We were averaging about one full mile each hour through most of the day. My Chevy Tracker was newer, and didn’t try to overheat, but my parents had to turn off the AC in the truck and Cadillac and roll down windows. Lots of people had to, and the heat became a serious health risk for many.
I reached my sister once that afternoon, and called her again on Thursday. She was upset about not being there to help, but when she inquired about flying back, no one was allowed to fly into Houston. Plus, she and her boss had driven to Florida, and it was a two day drive. They’d have returned in time for it to be over. When I called her on that Wednesday, it was around five in the evening, and she told me “Happy Birthday.” I had forgotten it was my birthday until around two that afternoon. When we were inching through downtown, ambulances kept screaming by us down the left-hand shoulder of the road at top speeds. We heard afterward that they were evacuating critical patients from hospitals in downtown, Clear Lake, and Galveston. When the day and the traffic got worse, and people started driving on the shoulders, the ambulances would get blocked and it was a mess getting them through. I never saw one cop through any of this until much later on the second day.
It was around eleven at night when we reached Richey Rd. I had called my mother and she confirmed what my father had already said when he called me – she was exhausted, barely able to keep the truck and trailer between the lines. We’d had only the food and water that was in our cars (though we were stocked better than some people were) and no one had had a chance to use a bathroom, either. I got my flock of three together again and made a plan – we’d get off at Richey and find somewhere (hopefully safe) to get some sleep.
People were driving like mad things, too, all over the shoulders of the road. We took our lives in our hands and got off the highway. Then I saw the Flying J sign – a huge truck stop! I led them in and we finally stopped. We got some food in the restaurant after watering cats, but we couldn’t leave them unloaded and had to put the cages back into the trailer and lock it up. There were too many unsavory and desperate folks around to trust anyone much. When we entered the restaurant, a manager was on the phone telling someone to send them supplies, that they were running out of food. It was a frightening moment, like walking into a post-apocalyptic movie and not being able to get out.
We all slept in our vehicles next to each other, locked up tight, and I was parked where I could see the back of the horse trailer. The restaurant was busy late, I don’t know if they ever closed, but it was probably the only place to get food in a twenty mile radius. Most of the stores and restaurants had boarded up and fled. In one day, the world had turned into “Beyond the Thunderdome” and frankly, I was wondering if zombies would be next. By midnight that first night, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least.
I’ve never been able to sleep in the heat, and the loudspeaker kept announcing when someone’s shower was ready (it’s like renting a hotel room, but on a small and soapy scale where long-haul truckers can rent a shower) by announcing their number. Plus, I was on “bad element alert”. We didn’t know if any fellow traffic refugees would try to mess with us or not. So after being up all night Tuesday, too, I got about two hours total of fitful interrupted sleep.
*Continued in Part 2*