Friday, September 12, 2008

State of Evacuation

We are glued to the TV as if we're watching a slow motion car wreck, Anderson Cooper reporting the National Weather Service's threat that those who remain in Galveston in one or two story homes will face "CERTAIN DEATH!" Smiling in spite of ourselves because when we called our friend Ben to warn him of the latest escalation of doom his response was raucous laughter and because I can't hear threats of "CERTAIN DEATH" in any voice other than Eddie Izzard's.

Three years ago we were among the guinea pigs, 5 million of us in Houston feeling our way through the inaugural run of what's become a new summer ritual: evacuating a major American city. Like most of our friends then, and at latest tally, now, we had no intention of doing anything other than riding out the huge storm heading our way despite dire predictions of destruction and doom. We filled the bathtub with water, bought batteries and taped windows. As the hurricane barreled toward us and the radio continued to bleat its threats, I looked again at our two young girls and thought, "But if... " and I knew I'd never forgive myself if due to my hubris the expected winds and flooding brought harm came their way. So the day before the predicted arrival of Rita found me frantically packing suitcases and photo albums after all and Wayne lugging computer equipment and paper files to higher ground. We left our home not knowing if we'd return to anything resembling it and joined the already-in-progress mass exodus.

Fortunately, we picked our way along every path other than I-45, which by then resembled a parking lot at Woodstock, and made our way to Dallas on the back roads. We drove all night, through dark countryside and the occasional Quick-mart at some rural crossroads, one of which we stopped at and braved long lines to the filthy, overflowing restroom (my kids refuse to use a tree) and topped off our tank. The lot was full of other folks who'd also avoided the highway and there was a cheery comraderie among the refugees. I think we made it to my parents' home at something like 3 am, after a mere 8 or so hours of driving. Our next door neighbors, who'd also jumped ship at the last moment but were new to Texas and its highways, called us by cellphone, stranded on the glutted highway somewhere north of Houston and running low on gas. She was 5 mos. pregnant. They'd been on the road for I can't remember how many hours and had travelled only about 80 miles. We pulled out the atlas we'd snagged at a convenience store at the start (a brilliant move!) of our trek and navigated them off the highway, to the blue roads, and then to roads tinier than that. They arrived at my folks sometime the following morning after something like 22 hrs. on the road, give or take, or so I recall.

We all camped out at my folks' house, an impromptu holiday, and other friends who'd sought refuge in the DFW area came and joined us. My dad cooked out on the grill. We traded war stories. 10 hrs, 18 hrs, 36 hrs on the road. Reports from other friends' misadventures, evacuating Houston only to drive straight into the storm in Louisiana. Driving all the way to Arkansas to find a hotel room. Watching footage of Houston's highways: clogged on the outbound lanes and vacant as nuclear winter on the inbound. A huge city barren as a desert.

A few days later we were among the first to return home. To avoid the same gridlock on return, we'd left ahead of the rest and driven through the night. Across the street the power had gone out so one set of neighbors that had stayed behind bunked in our house. Our a/c worked and the food in the freezer had stayed frozen. I remember riding my bike a few blocks to Mission Burrito on our first night back. The guy making my burrito embraced me, he was so happy to see a person back in town. He described what it was like to be there when no one else was--how eerie and creepy.

And that was how it was when we got back. Everyone was in love with each other and the city. We'd been spared the direct hit, we were okay, but it felt like we'd made it through something. A wild ride with a happy ending. That ordeal has grown into a fond memory and I hope to God that post-Ike my friends can say the same.


Anonymous said...

My Aunt and Uncle lived in a little town in south Texas and they had a beach house in Port Aransas on Mustang Island (near Corpus Christi). In 1961 Hurricane Carla hit.They had friends on the island and when the order to evacuate came everyone left, everyone except their friend who had the little grocery store in Port Aransas. He felt, being a Texan and a property owner, that he would just stay and make sure that his place was alright. Carla was a category 5 hurricane with 175 mph winds and a 22 foot storm surge and the eye of it passed right over Port Aransas.

He said that the first half of it was terrifying and that he was sure he was going to die. When the eye of the storm came he fled to a brick building on the island and got ready for the second half of the storm. That was a wise decision because the second half was even more powerful and much of the town was just blown away. Luckily, he survived. My Aunt and Uncle's house stood the wind but was damaged when another house was picked up and hurled into it. The protective grocery owner decided there was nothing that he could own in life that was worth doing that for ever again.

Chris T.

allison said...

Fortunately, this wasn't a Carla or an Alicia. Which is a good thing because most of our friends did not evacuate. And every time the predictions are wrong it makes people less likely to listen the next time. But sometimes Carlas and Katrinas DO happen.

I bet your that grocery store owner's coffee tasted REALLY good the next day.

Anonymous said...

yeah, around here the after hurricane mint did almost as much damage! we had a nice 8-10 hour rain that flooded buffalo & white oak bayous. this made it more difficult to get around town. just thankful that the house is intact & the family, pets & possessions are unscathed. just had to towel up a little bit of water that came in around our 110 year old windows!

i'm not saying that it wasn't bad for some. i just know that the news only shows you the worst parts. and most of those are right around the water. but, i still thank God that he spared houston from total annihilation.

harold said...

always quite nobb(l)y instant death is obviously much better than sudden butter and git getty got when all is not an sum is one and they come an come and never end around the bend and then one day some day all is well all is ghutt all is fhuut of foods and they can come up saying, we, most, almost awl off and of ussss, sur-vived, no?

Anonymous said...

was that a question, harold?