Why I’m in North Carolina, or, Was the Evacuation Worse Than the Hurricane?

This is an email I composed immediately after the 2005 Hurricane Rita evacuation. I was exhausted. The evacuation was horrendously mismanaged. Some lost their lives on their arduous routes out of the city of Houston if they didn’t leave far enough in advance. Since Rita, which was not a direct hit, there’s been other hurricanes, most notably Ike (2008) and Harvey (2017), that have grievously impacted my former community.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

This is a “pre-positioned” email. In other words, I’m writing this before I am able to send it, as the house that is sheltering me is not wired for the internet. This is much like the relief forces that were “pre-positioned” (in the words of Houston Mayor Bill White and Texas Governor Rick Perry) to alleviate suffering post-Hurricane Rita. But for some reason, no politician in charge had the foresight to “pre-position” relief agencies along the evacuation routes taken by the 2.8 million that were asked to leave Galveston and Houston, and, like us, were forced to either drive continuously for 24 to 34 hours to reach safe destinations, or forced by the hundreds to stop at the side of the road in the 104 degree heat, out of gas or broken down, many seen with babies on their hips and small children and animals.

On the road to Palestine

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

We leave at 5 p.m. from Galveston to travel I-45 to my husband’s Aunt Ruth’s house in Palestine, TX. The sun sets. At 3 a.m. we had only gotten as far as FM 1960, a little north of downtown Houston. The bright streetlights bathe the congested freeway and service road with surreal yellow light, illuminating all manner of vehicles bumper to bumper as far as the eye can see, all inching their way out of town, all carrying their most valued possessions.

Earlier, we had passed a huge trailer transporting Arabian horses, and a pickup carrying birds in birdcages. We rarely go faster than 5 mph. My husband is driving our Toyota Tacoma truck with our computers and financial records and extra containers of gas, and I am driving our Camry with our 12-year-old son and two corgis. We are separated before we reach Beltway 8. He stops to call me from a Mobil station, as I am the only one with a cell phone.

It’s a bumpy ride, and we are still driving

2005 Hurricane Rita evacuation from Houston.
Public domain image.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The sun rises again. We are still driving. A sharp pain cruises down my right leg. I haven’t taken my shoes off since I left home. We listen on the radio as, incredibly, Mayor Bill White is still urging people to leave town. But the contra-lane is not opened up till 3 p.m. By then, it’s too late for many people. The freeways and service roads are fatally choked with traffic.

It was surrealistic to witness such a scene, even more so to be a part of it. After 20 hours of driving and knowing the hurricane was gaining on us (the hurricane is moving 14 miles an hour; we are hardly moving at all), everyone starts falling asleep and bumping into each other. Someone in the middle lane bumps into the car in front. The front car doesn’t even acknowledge it. Later I bump into my husband’s truck in front of me. An hour later outside of Huntsville, someone bumps into me. We pull over to the side, there is no significant damage to my bumper – “I fell asleep…”, the other driver says – we shake hands and move on.

Two minutes later, my husband falls asleep and his radiator rams into the trailer-hitch of the pickup truck in front of him. The people of the rear-ended truck (who turn out to be Christian missionaries) load our stuff into their truck, our computers into the back of my car, and my son and our two corgis into their van, and, leaving our totaled little truck on the side of the road, our now 3-vehicle caravan continues onward to Palestine, TX.

We call Aunt Ruth and tell her we are almost there. We’ve been calling her every 4 hours or so and telling her this. We really believe that this has to break up soon.

We lose track of our child and dogs for 6 hours

The sun sets again. It becomes very hard to see. People are pulling off to the side of the road in droves to get some sleep. My car and the missionaries’ truck ahead of me become separated from the missionaries’ van containing my son and dogs (they were leading) and our cell phone service has shut down. The driver of the truck with my husband as a passenger pulls over; I pull over. The driver walks back to my car. I roll my window down. He asks, “Did you see the van? We’ve lost sight of the van!” So we head off towards Palestine again, hoping that we all know we are supposed to meet up there.

During the next six anxious hours on the dark road, my bloodshot eyes are riveted on the tail lights of the truck driven by a stranger with my husband as passenger, and worrying about the lost van with the other strangers carrying my son and dogs. I don’t even know their last names!

The adrenalin this fear produces keeps me awake until our cell phones connect in Palestine and we are finally reunited at Applebee’s and proceed on to Aunt Ruth’s house. We call her. She is awake.

We’re almost there, Aunt Ruth!

My husband’s Aunt Ruth. We stayed with her when Hurricane Rita tore through Texas.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Aunt Ruth has been waiting for us for two days, for the duration of a trip that normally would take about four or five hours. We had left at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, an hour before mandatory evacuation of Galveston Island was announced, already exhausted after spending all day strenuously boarding up our home and packing our valuables and hauling them out to the vehicles and upstairs. We arrive at Aunt Ruth’s at 12 midnight on Friday.

We thanked the strangers, who are now our friends, who gave us the lift, and they told us they would drive on to Tyler, TX, [which was hit by the storm on Saturday, the 24th]. We don’t know how to contact them (they have my business card), hopefully they will call us and let us know how they are doing. Palestine only had rain and some wind.

By the way, Aunt Ruth was quick to correct our pronunciation of “Palestine”. She said, ” ‘Pal-eh-STEEN’ is in Texas. ‘Pal-eh-STAHN’ is in the Middle East!”


Saturday, September 24, 2005

We took two naps Friday, and two naps today. I’ve drank gallons of fluid to rehydrate. Yesterday night Aunt Ruth took us to eat at Applebee’s and we feasted on steaks, shrimp, potatoes and vegetables, the first sit-down meal we’ve had in three days.

From the parking lot, we could see the calm, lenticular clouds of the hurricane, quietly stacked like a pile of pancakes, belying its ferocity as it raged through Southeast Texas.

On our trip, we had only stopped briefly for two bathroom breaks. We were fortunate to find a convenience store that had remained open, so we stopped there on the way up, and on the way back. Many other stores were boarded up. We stopped at a Kroger, and the manager stood behind the locked glass door and shook his head as I pleaded entry. For two days, we had eaten only cereal and rolls my husband had made a few days before. I had been afraid to drink much because I knew there would be few, if any, bathrooms along the way. People relieved themselves in parking lots. I had carefully nursed a 2-liter Sprite for 31 hours. We kept thinking, just a little further, and we would arrive. We never dreamed that we would just be driving…and driving…and driving.

Yesterday morning, we microwaved pizza my husband had packed in the cooler, then slept most of the rest of the day. 

I have been unable to reach most of my friends by cell phone – I’m hoping I can find a hotspot somewhere in Palestine tomorrow so I can send this email!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

One week later, we make it back home in 4 hours

I am sitting in the coolness of my home in Galveston. Our power is on, our water is drinkable. We have not had any damage, other than a chink in the fence and plant matter strewn everywhere. We left Palestine at 10 a.m. today and arrived in Galveston at 2:30 p.m. – a normal drive time. There were no hotspots in Palestine to use my laptop; there were laptops very considerately set up in Palestine Public Library for refugees’ use, so we were able to at least check our email and send short replies.

Our windows are still boarded up, and black plastic trash bags containing our most precious belongings clog up the house. A Bird-of-Paradise plant that my husband has had for years greeted us with it’s very first bloom! We are glad to be home. The corgis are glad to be home too. Our son is back on my husband’s computer playing computer games. He returns to school tomorrow, and soccer practice tomorrow night.

What infrastructure?

We are glad to have a home to return to, but we are unhappy with the lack of evacuation preparedness exhibited by authorities. We are also unhappy that we were charged $500 for a routine tow and storage of my husband’s truck during the hurricane, but very grateful to the others who stepped forward to help. Our hearts go out to those who now have no home, or who became ill during that long drive, or who lost family members during this extended brutal summer.

We are also glad and grateful to have family, friends and associates like you all to return to. So many have lost their entire communities. Our relationships make our work and recreation meaningful. We are glad you are there.

Wendy Aldwyn