Running From Rita
The hurricane in the Gulf could hit Houston in as soon as 48 hours. Rita was a serious storm. The Mayor ordered the city evacuated. We packed food, drinking water, and filled the car with gas. Little dog Indiana would be in the back seat. San Antonio our destination. We didn't know what an ordeal lay ahead. A trip to visit family which ordinarily took three hours would take fourteen.
We left early in the morning, long before sunrise. Already, it was too late. The roads were jammed. Traffic was almost 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 still far from the freeway and moving too slowly. If the storm found us, we would be out in the open, and we would be in danger when the streets flooded. As time passed, I felt panic slowly rising inside of me.
It was not the time to worry about damage to the undercarriage of the car, nor to obey traffic rules. We had to avoid repeatedly getting stuck in bottlenecks. This would require improvisation, pretending that none of the usual boundaries for cars existed.
I began to drive across fields, on sidewalks and across lawns; I went the wrong way down one-way streets. I jumped curbs, made outrageous u-turns, darted through alleys, cut across the median, doubled back when necessary, and kept doing whatever had to be done in order to avoid the roads that were clogged with cars, to find openings toward the highway and the way out of town.
Ordinarily, after three hours of driving, we would have just arrived in San Antonio. Instead, we had yet to leave Houston.
At last, the elevated highway was in view. Soon, we were a part of the long line of cars inching forward upon it. That felt like progress, but we were still in danger and would be for hours. The highway would not flood, but there would be no protection from high winds.
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. There was no way to get off, and would not be, until we were far from the city. We were trapped in Hell's rush hour – maybe for eternity. The radio said that every room in every hotel and motel in all of the towns and cities within a day's drive of us, were already booked. It was either 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 next to it, or even walk ahead, then wait for the car to catch up. Some did this to relieve the monotony. 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, or no best way, to make progress without wasting gas.
Later, staggered evacuation, depending upon the location of one's home, was recommended. 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 agonizing, slow and disorderly. The freeway was the narrow end of a funnel that was being filled at the wide mouth by the many cars from the city, the suburbs, and the towns nearby.
There was no evacuation plan except what had been cobbled together at the eleventh hour when it became clear that the huge storm might actually come ashore and ravage the fifth largest city in the United States. The problem with a hurricane is that you hope it will go elsewhere, which means that you wish your fate upon somebody else, in order to save yourself. Eventually, that was what happened. Rita came to the lower Mississippi. We had an opportunity to feel both relief and guilt. But we wouldn't know that until much later. First we had to escape what we thought would pursue us.
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 would we run out of first, drinking water or fuel? Signs everywhere said: “No gas" or "Closed”. Oddly, little dog Indiana would not drink water from a container 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 what he had been doing. There was blood in his urine. I felt badly about that.
Many people, particularly the poor, were in no way 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 thing. 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 from the the sun, they were slowly becoming 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 battered pickup trucks and aged American cars that were not going anywhere. 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?
The paper reported that 100 people, most old or ill, were known to have died during the evacuation. It was not clear how many of those deaths could have been prevented, nor how many people might have died at home, regardless of 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, could have been a disaster of unpredictable proportions. Nobody wanted to think about what Rita actually did to Mississippi. First the relief. Later the guilt. And compassion for refugees fleeing disaster, everywhere in the world.