Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Runnin' From Rita

Ok, this will probably be my last post about Hurricane Rita. But, my friend Tricia sent me a great email about her 40 hour ordeal, and I couldn't help but repost it here (don't worry, I asked first). This is a long read, but it is well worth it, so read it!

Here goes:

When all you need is gas in an attempt to outrun a hurricane and it's only by luck and good timing that the sweet salvation comes your way, how can I ever complain about what I pay for a full tank ever. I've now told this story about a kajillion times, but I wanted to write it out and let everyone know that I am safe, albeit a little road weary, and at my parents' house in Tulsa after a harrowing journey that took me 5 times as long as it usually does to make it here. The following is a detailed account of my 41 hour ordeal, so get ready for some serious exposition:

Our story begins Wednesday night after it's reported that Rita's been upgraded to category 5 status and the "cone of uncertainty" puts Houston in a very dangerous part of her wake. I've made the decision to flee and have turned on the news in order to get some information on road conditions and what to expect during the evacuation process. They tell me that traffic out of town is completely gridlocked one very major artery (one of many words/phrases that is permanently embedded in my vernacular now) out of Houston, most specifically I-45, the typical way I take to get to Oklahoma. I'm told that it's expected to thin out as the night progresses and by early morning it should be much better, so I set my alarm for 4am and get some rest. First bad idea. I wake up, turn on the news and not only have things not let up it's worse. I decide to try my luck and start down the road a couple hours later. Since the majority of reports were concentrating on the congestion of 45 I make the decision to take 59. Second mistake. A false sense of security sets in on my first 15 minutes of driving as I fly past downtown and get north of loop 610 heading toward the outskirts of town. It's half-way to the Beltway that this security comes crashing down. Complete bumper-to-bumper. My only source of news is the radio DJs and callers who all tell me that once I clear the 'burbs everything should be okay. It becomes clear that this might not be the case after nine hours when I've only made it to the International Airport exit, normally a 40 minute drive. It's around this time when I get off the road in order to "evacuate" in a semi-wooded area. Let me just say at this juncture how I am so not a camper, a.k.a. anyone who can handle doing things in the wild, particularly relieving themselves. This is not the only time it happens along the way. I have a whole new perspective on being one with nature.

I get back on the road and soldier on. I arrive in Kingwood (the 'burbs) about two hours later (only 5 miles from where I had stopped earlier) when I decide to search for gas. It is a futile search as I find not a one station with any to spare. There had been reports the previous day of Houston stations running out, but nothing had been said about this problem in outlying areas. Luckily I had filled up my car on Sunday so I wasn't super-worried at this time, but still a little stressed that this will be a trend the further north I travel. I'm not wrong. Back on 59 I continue at a snail's pace. Every town I pass through has throngs of people in the desperate search for gas. It's honestly like scenes from some end of the world-type movie. Cars broken down on the side of the road, people milling around looking dazed, trash strewn everywhere and blowing in the wind. I wish I had the foresight to take out my camera to document these images, but alas the anxiety clouded my mind.

It's now 2am, I've been on the road 20 hours. I'm at an 1/8 of a tank with no false hope that officials will be opening the "contra-flow lanes" for 59 and I've made it about 65 miles north of Houston, no where near enough space between me and Rita now reported to have her eye fixed on Galveston and moving 13 miles an hour. Hmm, I'm moving around 3 miles an hour, how exactly am I supposed to get out of harm's way in time? I actually didn't do the math then and it's a good thing since there would have been a serious breakdown. So, I pull into a town called Livingston where I run in to the cops directing traffic who tell me that one station is expecting a shipment of gas early in the morning and that I should sit tight in the Super Wal-Mart parking lot across the way until it arrives. This lot is jam-packed, plus there's a line of at least 100 cars down the road waiting to pull into said station when the gas is ready. I settle in for the night and get a few hours sleep.

At dawn the tanker arrives and by 8am people start filling up. Since I haven't poised my car in line and decide that even if I had there wasa good chance nothing would be left. I see several people with canisters coming from the station and find that you could just walk up to a pump I make the bold decision to try it myself. I only had a one-gallon canister but that would give me one more than I had. I getin line to pre-pay my $2.69 and am told I have to choose a pump number right then and that the cashier will turn it on, but if someone else takes my place I'll lose my money. I tell him I'll use pump 9 which had someone filling up a canister, so the odds were better that I could get out there in time. However, miracle of miracles the older gentleman behind me says that it's his grandson at that pump and they will save my place when they're done. I get my gallon of gas, wish them well and head back to my car. While adding the gallon I'm approached by a lady who asks me about what I'd just done, how to do it, if it works etc etc. She doesn't have a container and since all the stores were boarded up and the gas station certainly didn't have any to speak of I decide to "pay it forward" and let her and her husband borrow my canister.

I'm on the road by 9am and it's completely clear, obviously since everyone in the area had to be waiting for gas. As I make it about a mile down the way I see an office for the Texas Department of Transportation with a line of about 30 cars. I stop to investigate, putting my car in line. I wait to talk to the ladies who, by the way, were amazingly nice and patient especially considering the inundation of calls and walk-ins they were receiving, I'm seriously thinking about sending everyone there a Christmas card. I'm told they're giving away 5 gallons of gas (free!) to anyone under ΒΌ of a tank. The heavens part and the angels sing. The only caveat was there'd be a wait since they had just run out and another tanker was just ordered. There was no way I was going to pass this up so I sit in the sweet air-conditioned office and utilize indoor facilities. Yet another miracle happens when I find an electrical outlet in the lobby which they tell me I can use to charge my phone. Did I mention that my phone had been dead since 8 the night before and I only have an electricc harger? I'm able to charge for about an hour when the line starts to move. Unfortunately this supply also runs out since they're also filling up mobile units helping people stranded along the highway. They order another which arrives about an hour later (via police escort, it's gotten that scary) and this time I'm able to get the five gallons.

On the road again at noon with half a tank, a working phone and my hope renewed I don't run into traffic until 2 miles outside a small town called Corrigan (at this point if you have a Texas road atlas and would like to follow along with "Tricia's Evacuation Journey from Hell" please feel free). My dad and I had worked out an alternate route for me to take rather than stay on 59 and Corrigan was where I was to take Hwy 287 northwest (a direction I was desperate to be heading since the latest reports had the center of Rita fixed on Beaumont and projected to move northeast, the exact path up 59) to Crockett. I'm a little panicky at this point since the wind had started to pick up and the skies were getting cloudy. I have a cry on the phone with my mom and am told that if it looks like my gas will run out my dad is already preparing to come meet me with enough gas for both of our cars to make it back home. I feel a little better and my outlook seems positive by 2:30pm when I'm through the latest batch of gridlock and finally off of 59.

The way is completely clear until I hit yet another small Texas town I'd never heard of but will now never forget called Groveton. Here I see what looks like off-duty officers were helping direct traffic and as I pass by (my windows down and air conditioning off to save gas mileage) a guy asks if I need gas. I can't say yes fast enough and he gives me directions on how to get in line. There are 25 or so cars in front of me, but it looks promising so I stay put. I finally pull upt o a pump and pre-pay my maximum allotted $30. It doesn't get any sweeter than when the auto-stop clicks at $27.65 (yes, I do remember the tiniest of details). It's now 3:30pm and my spirits are completely lifted with a full tank and open road. From here on there are no difficulties, I'm even feeling good enough to stop at a drive-through for real food, well as real as Taco Bell can get anyway, and even make a couple more stops to top off my tank at the behest of my dad.

Our story ends around 11:30 Friday night with me finally pulling in to my parents driveway feeling nothing but relief, well maybe some disgust over the two days worth of stink I've acquired. So, the final tally:

Time spent in the car: 41
Total price of gas pumped: $30.34
Outrunning a hurricane by the skin of my teeth: NEVER AGAIN!

Honestly I don't regret evacuating, but I will seriously never trust major highways in such desperate situations as this in the future, beit Texas or anywhere else. All I can be thankful for is the kindness of strangers, Rand McNally and my own stubborn resolve. Perhaps one day you'll see all of this played out in a Lifetime Original movie entitled "Running from Rita" penned by yours truly.


At 27/9/05 8:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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