Running from Hurricane Rita
"Hurricane Rita was the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded and the most intense tropical cyclone ever observed in the Gulf of Mexico. Part of the record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, which included three of the six most intense Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded...Rita was the seventeenth named storm, tenth hurricane, and fifth major hurricane of the 2005 season." (Wikipedia)
The Mayor ordered the city to be evacuated due to the threat of the hurricane. This would be the first-ever evacuation of Houston. We packed food, water, and filled the car with gas. The drive to San Antonio which usually might take 3 hours - was to take fourteen hours.
We left early in the morning, long before sunrise. Already, it was too late. The roads were jammed. Traffic was at a standstill. People sat in their cars, staring straight ahead - not a reassuring sight. We inched forward, looking at the map for alternate routes. There weren't any. We were too far from the freeway and moving far too slowly. If the storm found us, we would be out in the open. With nobody in charge, chaos would be likely. As time passed, I could feel panic slowly growing inside me, but there was no turning back.
It was not the time to think about damage to the car, nor to obey traffic rules. The circumstance called for improvisation. I drove across fields, on sidewalks and across lawns; I went the wrong way down one-way streets. I jumped curbs, cut across medians, made outrageous u-turns, darted through alleys, and kept doing whatever had to be done in order to avoid roads clogged with cars, to find openings toward the highway and the way out of town. After three hours of driving, in ordinary circumstances, we would have just arrived in San Antonio. Instead, we had yet to leave Houston. At last, the elevated freeway was in view. Soon, we were a part of the long line of cars inching forward upon it. This felt like progress of a sort, but we were still in danger from the storm, and would continue to be in danger for hours.
State police were blocking the highway exit ramps to prevent people on the access roads from using them inappropriately as entrance ramps, which meant that we could no longer bail out. I remember thinking, This is like being trapped in rush hour for eternity. The radio said that every room, in every hotel and motel in the towns and cities within a day's drive of us, were already booked. It was keep moving or – nothing. We were being slowly forced toward an unknowable destiny.
For first part of the trip on the highway, it was possible for a passenger to get out of the car and walk ahead, then wait until the car caught up. There was no choice but to keep inching along, acutely aware that this kind of driving uses fuel at an unknown, but presumably high rate. Some people would turn off their engine, wait, and then restart to move forward one or two lengths of a car. It seemed that there was no right way, nor any best way, to make progress without wasting fuel.
Later, it was recommended that evacuation should be staggered, depending upon one's location. Later, additional lanes were to be opened on the (empty) inbound side of the highways. Afterward, these things seemed obvious, but they were not available at the time, so the evacuation was not orderly and was slow, agonizingly slow. The freeway was the narrow end of a funnel that was being filled at the wide mouth by the many cars from the Houston suburbs and towns nearby.
The sun was relentless, but this was not the time to use air conditioning. Even with all of the windows open, the inside of the car was hot. Which was going to run out first, drinking water or fuel? Signs everywhere said: “No gas" or "Closed”. Our little dog would not drink water from a cup I held up to him; I understood later that dogs won't do that - at least this one would not. Later, with a bowl of water on the ground, he drank as if dying of thirst, which is apparently he was. There was blood in his urine. I felt very badly about that.
Many people, particularly the poor, were not prepared to evacuate. There were vehicles which obviously had not been ready for any sort of road trip and many people who had not known how to plan for such a trip. Nobody had known what to expect. We saw children, elderly, and nursing mothers sitting on lawn furniture in the beds of pickup trucks. With no protection, they were being dehydrated and sunburned.
The peak of each rise in the road revealed vehicles scattered along the grass at the side of the freeway ahead. Some out of gas, some broken down, some perhaps just fed up. There were pickup trucks and aged American cars that were not going anywhere without gas. Some people were making the best of it, having a picnic by the side of the road, or sitting next to a vehicle with the hood up, in whatever shade they could find. How many realized that they were not yet safe from the storm?
Afterward, the paper reported that 100 people, either old or ill, had died during the evacuation. It is not clear how many of those deaths could have been prevented, nor how many people might have died at home, regardless of the circumstances. The Mayor called the evacuation a “success”. If that was a success, I hope never to witness a failure.
On the other hand, it could have been worse. A lot worse. The storm was probably moving faster than we were. A chaotic, slow-moving, massive evacuation of unequipped people, caught out in the open by a class five hurricane which pursued them, could have been a disaster of unpredictable proportions.
The problem with a hurricane is that you hope it will go elsewhere, which means wishing your fate upon somebody else. That was what happened to us. Rita took a right turn. Catastrophe came to people in lower Mississippi. By then, we had already decided to move away from Houston.
Image of Hurricane Harvey (August, 2017) is from Windy.com