September 23, 2005

Rita Freeway Trauma

First Hand Account of The Hurricane Rita Exodus
Last night, as I lay in the bed, feeling as if a third eye was growing out of my center-forehead (really bad headache)... I kept dozing off to the vision of breaklights and jerking awake to prevent myself from crashing into the traffic in my dreams. I spent almost 13 hours in the SUV yesterday (over half of it without air conditioning) with my two kids. We left Houston on back-streets at around 4:22 AM, and made it only two exits down highway 290 in an hour. I decided that it was crazy to try and drive without food and water (and cash), so I got off the freeway and returned to our inlaw's house for backup supplies. I wasn't about to rely on stopping along the way for fast food with that many people on the road. Gas stations all over Houston were completely dry. If there was gas, it was most likely going to be Super, and most likely going to be overpriced. Some gas stations had a fifteen car wait behind the pump. The day was like one in an action-packed disaster movie... completely Hollywoodesque.

4:20 AM - Leaving Houston
I had planned to leave at 3am, but I slept through my alarm on my mobile phone. I had gotten a full tank of gas the night before, but even then, the gas stations were running dry. I figured leaving so early, I would be making great time... but as I hit the freeway at around 4:25 AM, I began to see that making normal drive time was not going to happen. It was "gridlock" - a huge parking lot - all the way down the highway ahead of me... a river of red lights and blinkers. I began to wonder how long a full tank of gas would last me in traffic moving that slow (or not moving at all). I went down a few back roads to make my way to 45 after I heard about the plan to switch southbound traffic to northbound traffic all the way to Buffalo (close to the half-way mark to Dallas). A backwoods restroom stop at a business in The Woodlands (North of Houston) turned out a map for me (from a helpful employee who lived in the area) to avoid some traffic on my way to 45 North. I45 was complete chaos. By now, the sun was shining, and the cool breeze was becoming warm humid yuck.

6:30 AM - Still in Houston
I stopped to top my tank off before I hit the freeway and waited behind two or three other cars. I also stopped in at a gas-less gas station to use their restroom. They were running low on toilet paper, and the lines to use the restroom were pretty lengthy. I decided we would just limit our water and food on the trip to prevent having to make multiple stops. I heard all day on the radio along our way that the gas stations in the areas I was covering were already dry. I left our air conditioner off most of the way as I was afraid to end up like the poor souls on the median - out of luck. Kaden cried in the back seat because his shirt was sticking to his body. He cried because the sun was beating down on him. We saw more and more vehicles going by with their windows covered with towels, blankets and clothes. Dogs panted and drooled in the heat from their cages in the back of pick-up trucks. Drivers frowned in the glaring sun.

Lunch Time - Still Not Half Way
What was normally a 3.5 to 4 hour drive slowly unwound into a miserable, cramped, unbearably hot 14 hours for some. I shuddered to think that I had already spent over eight hours in the car and I was only half way there. I was impressed with the Texas leaders putting together unprecedented methods for evacuation, though. The counter-flow measures they implemented on I45 really did make a difference. The Texas Hurricane Rita evacuation will go down in the local history books because of TXDOT's (Texas Department of Transportation) innovation. I was certainly impressed (and liberated) as I hopped the curb somewhere south of Huntsville. I drove through the median to pop over to the southbound lanes with many other frustrated "traveling buddies". It really helped to get the traffic flow going. I felt like a renegade going 70 miles per hour in the wrong direction. "WRONG WAY!" screamed the warning signs... I could only clap and smile as a lady (obviously from Galveston - her belongings roped to the top of her car) gave me an elated thumbs up after we first made our lane switch. I kept hearing on the radio that there would be relief for those who had run out of gas, and were stuck sweating it out on the side of the freeway. I never saw a tanker at the rest stops, only lots and lots of people... and restrooms that were closed and chained shut. I did see a little kid, stark naked and sweaty, sitting on his training potty which Mom wisely brought along for the long exodus north.

2:00 PM - North of Half-way Mark
A few times, when the traffic was not moving, my son tried to stand up through the sun-roof and take a picture of the freeway for me. He didn't quite have the understanding of what I was trying to capture, though. He took a photo of the top of my SUV, and the green hillside along the freeway, instead of the traffic lanes as far as the eye could see behind us (in both north and southbound lanes). I hoped to have a photo to blog, but the battery ran out in the camera soon after his failed attempt. Another interesting fact, was that over half of the people I saw on the freeway were of Hispanic descent. I had heard that as of recently, the Texas population was over half Hispanic, making Caucasians and African Americans the new minorities, but it was interesting to see that first hand. There were entire families along side the roads, mostly Hispanic, stopping to picnic and rest. The only thing that really bothered me along the trip about the way others were acting was the serious trash problem along side the roadways. I have never seen so much TRASH along the ground on the freeways! In Texas, we take it pretty serious when people litter. "Don't Mess with Texas" is our motto. We take pride in our clean Texas highways and our wildflowers growing along the roads. Seeing everyone's discarded trash really boiled my native Texas blood (which was already simmering in the 95 degree swelter).

3:00 PM - Hitting the Back Roads
I finally gave up on Interstate 45 somewhere just north of Buffalo when the freeway came back together and we merged back onto the northbound lanes. The traffic returned to a slow stop, and I got off on some tiny farm road with the help of my Texas Road Atlas and a few quick prayers. I managed to find a stocked gas station not too far away from the highway in the woods, and filled my tank up - glad that there was no line to use the restroom. A filthy restroom has never been more welcome to me! The kids held their noses. I felt pretty sneaky, and rather proud of myself for making my way through the endless farms and prairies of north central Texas without a car in sight. I was alone on the back-roads for an hour or so, before finding an un-clogged main artery heading back in to the Dallas area.

5:30 PM - Dinner in Dallas
I arrived, tired and battling a headache at around 4:45 PM, just over twelve hours after we had begun our freeway fiasco. We hadn't been able to get a hotel room (not a vacancy in the whole state), so my relatives gladly offered us a bedroom. We unloaded our car and then went back out for dinner since our relatives were not home. I was tired and hungry. The kids were begging for real food - never really full from the snacks we ate in the car all day. We enjoyed a quick drive-through meal from McDonalds. I was not about to cook! Finally, showered, clean, and laying on my sister's couch, I was so glad to be on the other side of my long journey out of Houston. I watched Fox News and saw the evening's aerial shots of the highways. They looked like long orange lava flows from the sky. I still wonder if Rita will actually hit Houston. Right now, she's a category three (down from a five as per yesterday's news reports). I was sorry to hear that the rain was already damaging New Orleans again. Either way, I pray for those in and around Rita's path. My husband has prayed that the storm disapear into a mist out in the waters of the Gulf. I hope that all my fellow travelers who endured this very difficult exodus to safety will have homes to return to. May God bless us, and prevent our gasoline prices from rising again!

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My Boaz's Ruth said...


My sister and her husband went to Longview last night, also taking back roads -- and finding the same thing. no one else on the road.

Rhonda said...

Oh, Heather! I am so sorry y'all went through that. We decided to stay, but I wasn't sure of my decision until I saw the horrible traffic. I'm glad y'all arrived safely.

Sprittibee said...

Thanks gals. I'm up late watching the storm coverage tonight - midnight Friday night... praying for Louisiana and Texas.

God bless.

Jenny said...

You don't know me but I'm on the KONOS list with you. Wow, what a journey. Praying and believing with you that your home and property are protected by the blood of Jesus and you have a safe, and quick, easy journey back. God bless

Tammy said...

So glad to hear you are safe and sound. What a ride! 13 hours is the longest I have or would ever plan to drive anywhere. Miss hearing from you. Bless your heart!
In Christ's Love, Tammy

Sprittibee said...

Jenny, thank you for the prayers. I actually don't have any property to speak of right now... we are between houses (hubby out of town and me living with in-laws)... but the area near Houston that they live was not hurt by Rita. They lost power a bit, and got lots of rain and wind, but are back online and fine now. I'm staying with family near the Dallas area right now and am also very safe! I feel very blessed to have such great family and a wonderful Daddy in the Sky who has my life in His hands. :)

Tammy - thank you. I have really missed having normal email set up. It's just not the same checking email online instead of having it all sent nice and neatly to my Outlook Inbox. Hopefully I can get that all fixed up soon. Until then, I hope everyone is patient with me.



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