Sunday, September 25, 2005

Rita on the rocks, no salt

Well, what a buildup to a big fizzle that was.

You get my account live-blogged on a tape delay, beginning Thursday afternoon the 22nd:


I hit the road just after noon, having secured my prescriptions, and headed for I-45 N via 288. 'Freeway closed', at the Pierce Elevated. So I turned south on 45, passing the back of the line at about Cullen (near U of H), came around on Loop 610 all the way past the Astrodome and the Bellaire and the Galleria and a long line exiting 290 (the Austin escape route), heading for I-45 on the north side. Got the same message. I exited the loop and headed north on Airline, turning back to 45 N on Crosstimbers, past the first gas line I was to see, and gradually (as in less than one MPH) merged onto the main Dallas escape road by 1:15 pm. I breathed a premature sigh of relief.

I managed to travel about one exit an hour. For a Houstonian's reference, I was at the Gulf Bank exit by 4:30 p.m. The entire distance I traversed lies roughly between Loop 610 and BW-8, the road to InterGalactical Airport (some call it Bush, but not me). Most of the motorists surrounding me had their windows down in the 100-degree heat to save their dwindling fuel. The fellow directly in front of me for quite awhile was actually pushing his minivan full of children and provisions forward. Not because it was broken down; because he was practicing conservation.

To this point I had seen about one ambulance an hour, snaking its way through the mass of autos, sometimes with siren on, sometimes not. But about 4:45 pm three paramedic vehicles sailed by on the inside shoulder flashing and wailing. Followed a few minutes later by two pairs of police motorcycles, and a minute later two police cruisers, all lights and sirens hot. Less than five minutes later, six more cycle cops, and at 5:05 p.m., two more police cars, another motorcycle, and another ambulance. And at 5:15, another pair of HPD on two wheels.

Never learned what the emergency was.

By 6 p.m., I was two miles from Beltway 8 and the IAH airport exit, at mile marker 58. My gas was down to a bit over half a tank, and it was obvious that I wouldn't make it to Dallas on that, that there was no gas to be purchased ahead and no room at any of the inns along the way. Determined that I was NOT going to be sitting on the side of the road when the hurricane hit, I hit the exit and turned around for home.

It took me six minutes to travel the distance I had come in a bit over five hours.

Throughout the waiting, I saw people and cars severely overheated on the side of the road, and at stores and parking lots alongside. A few times I flashed on the Highway of Death (the road from Kuwait to Iraq which was mercilessly bombed during the Gulf War). I thought, these people are all going to be stuck here when Rita rolls in. No gas, no shelters (Mayor White had repeatedly said there would be only a few for the elderly and infirm), no way to get back home; it seemed that thousands would be hiding under overpasses from the storm.

I called my father-in-law on the northwest side of Houston, who had insisted on riding it out there, and told him to expect company Friday morning.

Continued in the next.

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