I went to Houston last week. While many families were trying to leave town but instead were stuck in traffic on one of the freeways, I was flying into the path of, at the time, a category 5 hurricane. Felt like Major Kong riding the bomb down…
Me as weatherman at the Museum of Natural Science
I had agonized over going to Houston for a day or so and by Wednesday I was sure I should go. I had spoken to Mother a few times that day and she was adamant about not leaving her home and was discouraging me from coming to “rescue“ her. Annalee was in Hartford performing in a play so she was unable to get away without disrupting the show.
On Wednesday afternoon around 4 PM I decided I must go and help Mother evacuate, if it came to that, and all indications were that it would be necessary. By 7:30 that evening I was at the airport checking in a big duffel bag full of rescue things I’ve collected from my days with a search and rescue group, the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit (“a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff…”)
I called Derek and Lisa from Las Vegas and arranged to catch up with them early in the morning for some good coffee. I also called Bob Webb to let him know I would be in town and he admonished me for coming into town in the face of a dangerous hurricane. I suppose I didn’t really get a sense of danger and Katrina “panic” until, as my airplane flew over the north bound highway 45, I saw the endless trail of red tail lights heading out of town for as far as I could see. I called it the trail of tears.
I landed about 3:30 in the morning and picked up a rent car that Aurora had arranged for me and then headed south to Bellaire where Mother lives and nearby, Derek and Lisa live. On the way I stopped at a Walmart, the only store I could find that was open, and bought some supplies. They were rationing bottled water and only 2 cases per person were allowed. I wanted to buy some wine to calm our nerves, but in Houston you can’t buy alcohol before 7 AM. Had to put that back. In general, the food shelves were trashed and mostly empty.
When I arrived at Derek and Lisa’s house, Beth was in her truck getting ready to head farther North and Derek met me with a great cup of coffee. Beth was in a state of despair as her house is in Galveston about 6 blocks from the gulf. She had, in her truck, some of her prized art pieces and 4 cats. The rest of her treasure was left behind and it’s fate was now in the hands/winds of Rita. I gave her a hug and she pulled out of the driveway and off into the dark, muggy, Houston morning.
Derek, boarding up the windows
How to weather a storm
As daybreak approached, Derek and Lisa proceeded to prepare their house for the worst. I helped Derek put some plywood up on the front windows while Lisa gathered plants into the garage and collected important papers in case the house and all belongings were lost in the storm. Around 8:30 AM the phone rang and I answered because Derek and Lisa were busy. It was Beth calling in a panic and even though she had taken a path out of Houston that should have been relatively clear, she was at a standstill in traffic near Sugarland. The weight of everything she was experiencing had caught up with her and she was in an awful state of mind. I talked to her for a while and she seemed to calm down. A little later, after I left, she returned and decided to stay and weather the oncoming storm at Derek and Lisa’s house.
By 9 AM I called Mother and announced that I was in town for a “visit“ and while she was happy to hear my voice, I could sense tension in her voice. I waited a little while and then went over to “visit“ her. We talked for a while and I told her of my overnight adventure and then I started discussing the possibility of a necessary evacuation. She finally, although reluctantly, admitted that she would be willing but doubted that it would be required. At that point, Thursday morning, Rita was still a category 5 hurricane and still projected to come ashore somewhere near Galveston with winds of 165 miles an hour.
This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around…
I spent Thursday afternoon, prepping Mother’s house. Gathering potted plants, removing items that might become projectiles in a high wind. I also went to some of the neighbors who were not leaving and checked on their status and collected their information. One of the neighbors mentioned a nearby church which was going to act as a backup shelter and I took note about that; just in case.
My general approach was to hold until we could no longer stay safe and to make sure that at any point, we might have enough lead time to evacuate. The storm was due on Saturday morning and on the news programs we heard story after story of people trying to leave, getting nowhere only to finally turn around and head back home (one of the “jokes“ about the evacuations was to wonder about the asshole at the beginning of the line that was slowing everybody down). Ben and Judy Rice took back roads to Austin and it took them, I think he said, about 9 or 10 hours (update: 14-15 hours). Gasoline was also a huge problem and I had an almost full tank of gas (maybe 250 miles worth) but with delays that was doubtful. Those that persisted seemed to average about 12 to 15 hours to get out of harms way. I figured we should watch the news and leave no later than Friday, mid-day.
Friday morning’s “cone of uncertainty”, which was what they called the range of possible trajectories that the hurricane might take, revealed a slight drift to the East and a weakening of the storm’s eye and that trend continued throughout the day, so we never had to make the decision to leave, but it was always a tenuous situation.
As Rita drew near it’s path turned more and more to the East and finally came ashore about 3 AM around Port Arthur. At about 2 AM we started feeling the winds and around 3 AM the power went out in our neighborhood. I sipped whiskey, watched the trees get thrashed by huge gusts of wind. Finally around 3:30 I settled into a restless sleep in a house in Houston, Texas with no power AND no air-conditioning…
Saturday morning I woke up to the sound of a house alarm going off because the power was out and the batteries were dying. One of the neighbors had contacted us the day before from out of town and had asked that I disarm it if it started up; gave me detailed instructions and codes and hints about how to disconnect the batteries. I’d had perhaps a bit too much bourbon the night before so the alarm was a bit painful; my face was greasy from the lack of air-conditioning and my eyes were puffy from dog allergies so with a startled heart, I got up and dressed quickly to do my part and save the neighbors from this intrusion. As I approached the front door, the alarm went off and I was in a state of confusion… windblown and confused. We finally got power back on after about 28 hours in the post hurricane Texas heat. What a pleasure to get air-conditioning back on in Houston.
The next 3 days were spent cleaning up the debris from around the house and replacing all the things I had put away. I also took the opportunity to fix up some things in Mother’s house and to visit friends. One afternoon I spent with Elena and Tyler, Leila and Carter at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. After the normal tour through the main museum, we went through the Cockrel Butterfly Exhibit, and saw an IMAX movie about the Grand Canyon. What fun.
Elena, Tyler, Leila, Carter at the Museum of Natural Science
Mother and I had a lot of time to reminisce about our family adventures in Laredo and Australia and she told many stories about her childhood memories.
A few nights I had dinner with friends. Derek was “frying chickens in the barnyard!“ or was it turkey burgers? Derek and I played some music to fend off the hurricane spirits and one night we watched the first episode of Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary.
On Sunday night I visited Bob Webb and saw how he was going to weather the storm. He had created a sheltered zone in the middle of his house and because plywood was in short supply he had to use piece of art he had painted onto a sheet of plywood.
Bob and his art shelter.
On Tuesday evening I flew back to the cool of the Bay Area, glad to be back and glad that the hurricane was not as devastating to Houston as it might have been. My heart goes out to those in and around Port Arthur as Rita was indeed still at category 3 when it made landfall there.
The way I hear it, there are perhaps more hurricanes due this season… I suspect “We’ll Meet Again”.