September 30, 2005

Evacuation Hell

I’ve waited a week to write this piece. It has taken me this long to get enough perspective to say what I want to say, and to relate the stories in a way that I think does them justice. It has also taken me this long to get my life back in order so that I can really take the necessary time to do it right.

Let’s go back to last Wednesday, September 21. At 5:00 PM we got a reminder call from the city of Seabrook, telling us that our evacuation time was 6:00 PM. Well, we were ready to be on the road by 6:45, and so left our home to catch the evacuation rout to the area we planned to stay – Beltway 8 to Hardy Toll Road to I-45, and thence through Dallas-Fort Worth to Ardmore, Oklahoma. At 7:00 we got on the Beltway at Fairmont Parkway in Pasadena. It was then that Hell began.

By 10:30, we had traveled along the Beltway to I-10 – a grand total of 11 miles that would usually take about 12 minutes to drive. It didn’t get much better, as we spent the night talking about how we would rebuild our house (10 feet above sea level, 4 blocks from Galveston Bay) after the Category 5 storm sent a 25 foot storm surge into our neighborhood. I know that I cried as we talked about rebuilding our lives, and I think I saw a couple of tears in Paula’s eyes as well.

By 7:00 the next morning, we had only been able to creep a total of 45 miles to I-45 and Rayford Road, which is usually less than a 1 hour trip. We were sucking fumes, and there was not an open gas station in sight. When road service dispatched a tow truck to bring me gas, they had none – but the owner of the garage was kind enough to tell the driver to bring us in to the shop, where they had gas in storage tanks to use in generators. Those two gallons of gas that Paula and I were given were heaven-sent, and I would like to thank the wonderful folks from Milstead Automotive in Spring, TX for their kindness and generosity, especially since they would not even take money for the gas. That was the first act of true kindness and compassion that I encountered in what was shaping up to be a really lousy day.

Back on the road by 8:00 AM on Thursday, it seemed to me that we might get lucky and find gas – but my hopes were pretty dim. But around 11:00, having traveled about another 10 miles, we happened upon a Sam’s Club with full gas tanks, so we were set.

And then the unthinkable happened. At 2:10 PM, just past the Outlet Mall in Conroe, TX (about 65 miles from where we got on the Beltway 19 hours before) we felt a jolt from behind. A Dodge Ram pickup had hit my new car (a Suzuki Forenza) from behind. The driver not only did not stop, but he and his girlfriend/wife smiled and waved at us as they pulled around us into an open spot in the next lane and drove off. Paula, with her medical history, was transported to the hospital in Conroe for treatment in the ER, and was released about 4:45 PM. At that point, aching and exhausted, I called one of my colleagues who lives in Conroe and asked for a place to stay the night. Ann, her husband Doug, and her daughters treated us so very kindly that evening, and sent us on the way the next morning with directions that got us away from I-45 and over to Highway 6, through Bryan-College Station, and on to I-35 at Waco.

The rest of the trip was relatively easy. We met some great folks at the volunteer fire department in Marlin, TX, where the Red Cross and the fire department had set up a rest stop for evacuees. When we left, they were trying to find shelter for an extended family of about 40 who were traveling together, as well as helping them get some medication that had run out.

At last we reached the Super 8 in Ardmore, which was the closest place we could find that would let us bring our dog, Carmie, with us. Upon arrival, we found that the manager had not only held our room for us, but had moved us into a room that would be better for Paula after the accident. We watched the storm make landfall, and were happy to see coverage from Nassau Bay (Fox News) and Baytown (MSNBC) that confirmed that the storm would not do great damage to our home.

We stayed through the weekend and drove home Monday. We had to do a lot of “on the fly” navigation to make sure that we were not caught in traffic, and made it home in about 9 or 10 hours.

Would I evacuate again? Yeah, I would. I’d prefer to take the back roads rather than follow the recommended evacuation routes, but I know I cannot stay in my house when the big one is expected to come blowing. I might even be willing to go as far as Oklahoma again – but I will probably want to make my reservations sooner so that I don’t have to.

My evaluation of the state and local response is mixed. I think the plan worked well on the drawing board, but had several flaws, many of which have been commented upon since the evacuation. I do, however, want to comment on them to make it part of the public record here on the blogosphere.

First, I believe the contraflow lanes should have been opened at the same time the evacuation began – and certainly no later than Wednesday night, when the evacuation was in full swing. Had this been done at 8:00 PM on Wednesday rather than noon on Thursday, much of the congestion would have cleared up during the overnight hours.

Second, there needed to be more gas available readily available. One of the most infuriating things I heard on the radio was Governor Perry’s comment that “some people obviously did not follow my directions” to make sure their gas tank was full. I head this some 16 hours into my trip, having traveled no further than 50 miles and having burned a full tank of gas in the process. I had left home with gas enough to reach any of the state designated evacuation states, and even to make it to the site of my choice in Oklahoma. What I could not plan for was the gridlock.

Third, I believe that there needed to be more professional behavior from some members of law enforcement. We passed one constable on the Hardy Toll Road (I believe a Harris County Precinct 4 officer, but I could be wrong) playing solitaire on his in-vehicle computer. We honked the horn, but he would not even acknowledge us. When he did, about 30 minutes later, respond to a group of vehicles that were stalled on the side of the road next to us, we shouted a question to ask about gasoline availability. He simply laughed at us and shouted “good luck”. I suggest this pot-bellied, white-haired constable with a mustache (if this isn't him, then his twin also works for Precinct 4) probably needs to be retired by his boss, Constable Ron Hickman – and if action isn’t taken, perhaps Hickman needs to be retired by the voters for poor management of his officers during the crisis.

Lastly, I think there needs to be consideration of the use of other highways besides those suggested for evacuation. State officials knew that I-35 was running freely – but never put up suggestions that we could find better traffic if we went only 30 minutes west on a smaller highway. What’s more, most of the towns along those roads had gasoline, which would have solved a second problem. The problem was that none of those roads began in Harris County, so the planners didn’t think about directing people to them. That needs to be reconsidered, with additional state involvement and coordination to make the plan truly regional.

Ultimately, I have to say that we were very lucky in the Houston area. The storm turned in a manner that we never expected. The area was saved, at a high cost to others in the region. The people of Houston were generous with those harmed by Katrina, and I fully expect that generosity to continue with those whose lives were disrupted by Rita.

And let me say “Thank you” to all who offered up prayers or kind thoughts, during this time, when we needed them desperately – and also to my guest blogger, Rhodey, to the lurker from Bryan who out of the blue offered my family shelter (you don’t know how touched we were by the offer, but I didn’t get the message until we had reached Ardmore), and to all who just looked in to see how we were doing.

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|| Greg, 06:24 PM || Permalink || Comments (5) || Comments || TrackBacks (2) ||

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Comments on Evacuation Hell

(((Greg & Paula)))

Yall's wreck was horrible! I can't BELIEVE no one called it in when they saw it happen, even if not much could have been done at the time, I'm sure they'd be able to track them down eventually. Evil jerks! But I'm glad Paula recovered so quickly 8^)

I didn't think of I-35, and it would have been SO easy for me to get there heading south.

I agree the contraflow should have been opened up MUCH sooner. Maybe if Governor Perry had mandated it, then the towns that the evacuees were travelling through would have no choice but to cooporate. I'm guessing that might have been a big part of why it took so long (other than TXDot having their thumbs in their nether-regions?), because what good would opening contraflow in Houston/Harris if the other towns outside of our jurisdiction didn't want to contraflow their roads, or dilly-dallied around about it. If we would have bottle-necked in those towns, which would have reached all the way back here, and then would have done no good whatsoever.

|| Posted by Sherri, September 30, 2005 11:42 PM ||

What is so remarkable is that Greg's story isn't unusual. His story has been repeated thousands of time with different locations and different names. There were a whole lot poeople on the road. From the stories I've read and people I've talked to, I believe that there were more armed folks and guns on the road since the civil war.

|| Posted by Liberty, October 1, 2005 07:48 AM ||

One thing tho, count your blessings. Better to suck fumes (your car) than to suck water and drown.

Glad to hear you guys made it. And certainly, the contraflow should have opened once the evacuation was made. I noticed few cars driving south on tv and yet they were the ones who could have used the back roads to drive south if they needed to get something done.

Anyway, welcome back to the blog world.

|| Posted by mcconnell, October 1, 2005 08:30 AM ||

A couple of thoughts.

1) Paula is doing somewhat better, but we are still having some tests run to see if there is any long-term damage to the back. She is still reporting some symptoms that began after the accident.

2) I didn't see guns, but I did see a fist fight along i-45 over a can of gas that someone stole from the bed of another guy's pick-up.

3) I agree with you, McConnell -- and that is a more or less direct quote from Paula the morning after the accident. Still, givent he speed we were moving, it was very likely that there wre going to be people stuck in their cars without shelter if that storm had hit when and were expected.

|| Posted by Rhymes With Right, October 1, 2005 09:05 AM ||

We were also very thankful that Carmie made it through OK. One never thinks about how that sort of heat and stress can effect a dog -- especially one who is entering her "senior years" (Carmie is 9 years old). We kept her hydrated, and she is more or less back to normal now that we are home.

|| Posted by Rhymes With Right, October 1, 2005 09:09 AM ||
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NAME: Greg
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