In the morning, one of cats was really bad off, a hand-raised favorite named Numa. Afraid for him, I took him out of the trailer and put him in my car, loose. He lapped up more water and then slunk under the driver’s seat for most of the day.
For a while, we thought the next day might be better, but morning proved different. The highway was just as clogged as when we left it. We got ready to go and I felt a horror of getting into that gridlock again. Susan and I texted more, keeping track of where we were. I had passed up a shot at getting on the Beltway the day before, and agonized over it the next day. Would it have been better? (We found out later it wouldn’t have been).
The radio stations pretty much stopped playing music. They were airing feeds from television stations, monitoring the traffic jam, and airing bits of city authorities discussing how to deal with the traffic. Everyone was scared that we’d still be on the highway when the hurricane hit. I was supposed to be a category 5 when it hit – at least that was what the media kept saying, and they sounded eager for it, too. I’ve always believed some of them (if not all) love terrible news just because it boosts ratings. You can see it in the sparkle in their eye when they report about how many deaths there were on a given day.
Besides telling us all to “be patient, we know you’re frustrated” (a DJ and city authority mantra I grew to feel quite violent about) the radio stations started talking about the contraflow (opening up south-bound I-45 as another north-bound – this was why 59 was worse – they never got this option for reasons I never understood). We all clung to this idea as our saving grace, but then the hours kept going by. I had to use the cell phones often through the trip to warn my parents about stalled vehicles in our lane, or which lane to move to next to get back together when we got separated. Without the phones, it could have gotten seriously ugly. I hugged the stuffings out of Wolfram for the loan of his phone as soon as I could.
At one point, the radio finally said they were opening the contraflow. That was at Noon. I was staring at the Louetta Road sign for over an hour at the time, growling at the idiots on the overpass who had stopped their cars to take photos and video of us in our misery. If I could have reached any of them, they’d have been pulped. I’m normally a nice person (in spite of the horror stuff I like to write) but the stress was getting to me. The authorities kept closing off exits for fifty exits at a stretch, and with the gridlock traffic, we couldn’t move off to give the cats water. So they were stuck in a trailer that wasn’t moving much, and the heat was soaring over ninety degrees. I heard later the heat index was a hundred-something. We all thought we’d be able to use the contraflow soon. I called the parents and made our plan: we wouldn’t try to get over to the south-bound side. It was too hard for my mother to get through with the trailer, with no one letting her into a lane (except the 18 wheelers, and we always helped them change lanes, too). We would stay on the side we were already on and when many others moved over, our side would clear up.
That was the plan, but the city authorities screwed it up. They weren’t making an opening for people to get on the south-bound side untill FM1488 (a road that lives in infamy in my mind). When I, at Louetta, realized how far we had to go yet, it was pretty hard not to panic. Susan had heard the news too. She texted me and let me know she had IV fluids ready for the cats when we arrived, and we both knew they would need it. (Susan is a veterinary technician in college to be vet). I was already scared that some of them could be dead. I kept trying to get Numa to come out, afraid he might be too sick to make it, but he just laid under the seat and wouldn’t respond to me.
I started having my nervous breakdown when FM1488 came and went. It was early evening again, Thursday, September 22nd, but daylight savings time still had us all baking in the sun. The promised relief of the contraflow was a broken promise. For a time, we started to see people driving north over on the south-bound side, and they were going over eighty miles per hour, too. But there seemed to be no way to get on it, for anyone. I had the horrible feeling that the cats were in deep trouble, and I started to cry. Numa actually chose that moment to crawl out and into my lap. I think he knew I needed him to be okay. He tucked his face in the elbow of the arm I was holding him with, and stayed there.
My father called me and was pretty startled to find me crying, and starting to freak out. He took charge beautifully. This man had been only a few months past an emergency surgery he nearly didn’t live through, and the hardships of the gridlock and heat hadn’t been easy on him. But he took me in hand (via phone) and talked me into leaving the highway again. He had to convince me, too. I was clinging to the idea that relief could be nearby if we kept going, but losing hope and any ability to deal at all at the same time. He took the lead spot and got us out at a road called ‘242’. We went under the highway and found a boarded up Wal-Mart that many others were escaping to. We got circled up and stopped. I set Numa on the driver’s seat and gave him more water.
Then we had to get the trailer cats some water. I opened up the trailer and was so relieved to hear meowing voices. I called in among them (it was a tight and non-straight fit) and started passing them water with my parents. My mother went and asked a nice guy nearby to help lift the two heavy dog cages down so I could get to the rest of the cats, too. We’d put them in there, but it was too much for any of us to deal with then. Many of the cats were literally near death from dehydration and heat. Then I saw Pouncy.
Pouncy was old, and had been sick before we started. She was a favorite who always asked to be petted if someone was holding the gate open at the homestead for a car to drive through. She was in a rabbit cage with three other cats (we had many more cats than cages), and she wasn’t moving. I guess I already knew she was gone, but in stressed out panic, you don’t want to see it. I got to her cage, opened it, and found she was stiff. I started to sob, and pulled her into a hug. She was a mess, and so was I after that, but I just didn’t care. My mother coaxed me out, and I heard my father’s baffled whisper, “I didn’t know she ever cried.” (I’ve got a family rep for not doing so, pretty much ever; I’ve been “the tough one”). They got me out of the trailer, and my mother took Pouncy, whom I’d wrapped in a towel that was lying on the trailer floor. My father got me into one of the folding chairs from the batch of camping gear packed for “just in case” and brought me a bottle of water.
When I could settle down enough to think, I almost felt drunk. It was a strange feeling I don’t ever want to repeat. I looked up at I-45 and knew the rest of the cats would die if we got back into that mess. I tried to call or text Susan. The text finally worked. I sent a message: “Help. On 242. Pouncy died.” When the phones would work again, I called her. She’d been trying to call or text, too, for quite a while. She got hubby Mark on the phone to give me directions through backroads he knew from 242 so we could avoid the highway.
That was when Numa decided he felt better. He started crawling all over me and the car, opened one window (I set the child-proof locks after that), soaped my windshield with wiper fluid (right as I was entering a turn in the road!) and tried to crawl onto my shoulder and be a parrot (something I allow when I’m NOT driving). Periodically, he would perch on a pile of stuff at the back and watch the world around us go by. He eventually settled on a pile of stuff on the passenger side and watched me. It was good to see him feeling better, but I learned my lesson about having a cat loose in a moving car! But we were able to go at a clip of about forty miles per hour on the empty backroads. I was back in the lead because I had the directions in my head, and I’d have driven faster if not for the extreme hills and curves of our route.
Susan probably saved most of the cats’ lives when we got there. She had two helpers from her vet clinic with her, and when we got there, they had set up a M.A.S.H. unit for the cats with IV fluids and everything. I’ve never been so impressed and grateful. Two of my sister’s Siamese rescue cats bit the girls, too. I felt so bad about that, but they dealt with it well. Susan got bit by Bootstrap three times in about as many seconds, on the arm. A helper got bit on her finger knuckle, and the other helper almost got bit. Then Susan decided if those cats were that energetic, they didn’t need the IV. We lost one under another horse trailer on the way out to the chicken coop and rabbit hutches that were to be their refugee homes. Susan caught that cat again with a vet’s noose and a towel. I was impressed. Feline refreshments and litter boxes were made available, and then the humans were able to relax.
We had brought lots of groceries with us, thanks to my mother’s foresight, and another friend who was out of the hurricane danger area drove down from another city to bring more supplies, as well as a huge drum barrel of water, just in case. I fell asleep on the couch until Friday morning, when they transferred me to the bedroom my parents had been in the night before. I went back to sleep there and didn’t wake until dinner time on Friday night. Mark told me later that my father had asked about waking me, and Mark had told him they should let me sleep it all off. Bless you, Mark!
Later, I heard that there had been an a lot of deaths on the highways among those still in the evacuation gridlock. One bus exploded on Friday morning, killing everyone, and they were from a part of town that didn’t need to evacuate at all. This was thirty-eight elderly residents and six workers from Brighton Gardens, an assisted living center in Bellaire, a part of Houston. Multiple explosions engulfed the bus in flames after six in the morning. The initial fire was caused by mechanical problems with the bus, and then oxygen tanks on board exploded. The burned-out wreck of the bus blocked the highway, making the twenty mile traffic jam all the worse.
*Continued in Part 3*