How Rita drove Texas crazy

Exhausted drivers are returning to their homes with horror stories of the gridlock -- and ideas on how to prevent the highway from becoming hell next time.

Published September 27, 2005 7:15PM (EDT)

Nury Sealing has this tip if there's ever a mandatory-evacuation order in your area: Bring a beach towel. It's a necessity for keeping your dignity when you're stuck on the freeway in bumper-to-bumper traffic with no chance of escaping gridlock and no facilities in sight. Using a toilet merely requires opening the front and back doors of the car and using the towel to make a third wall for privacy.

At 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 21, Sealing, head of guest services at Space Center Houston, NASA's visitors facility, attempted to heed a mandatory-evacuation order from her home in Clear Lake Forest, a suburban community between Houston and Galveston. After 25 hours of driving -- which took her 60 miles to Tomball -- she and her family finally gave up. After watching drivers doze off behind the wheel in other cars, observing the plastic bags on the handles of gas station pumps (indicating they were sold out), and seeing no signs of food for sale or help from the police, they turned their three-car caravan around and drove back home. "My biggest fear was people running out of gas," she says. "People are getting cranky. People could start pulling out guns. People are falling asleep at the wheel. They could crash into us," she says. The reverse exodus took an hour and 10 minutes.

People who live in Clear Lake Forest and the surrounding communities south of Houston are grateful they did not experience the worst of Hurricane Rita. Most of their homes came through unscathed, with the exception of a few that took a tree to the roof or the garage. But even people who rode out Rita in southern Texas tell horror stories, just not about power outages or downed trees; they talk about the traffic.

Postal carrier Lydia Key didn't even make it home from her own Rita road odyssey before she had to start work at 7 a.m. on Monday to deliver the mail in Clear Lake Forest. On Sunday night, she caught a couple hours of sleep in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Houston. Good thing she thought to pack her uniform when she left five days earlier. "You have never seen anything like it," she says of her slow-motion escape. "People were everywhere," stalled out on the side of the road, sleeping in cars in the median, standing in line for gas, bathrooms and food in tiny towns, and most of all sitting behind the wheel, getting more exhausted and desperate.

Some call it the Katrina effect. The exodus in advance of Rita flushed almost 3 million people from their homes in Texas and Louisiana, with 2.5 million of those fleeing Houston and the surrounding areas, making it the biggest evacuation in U.S. history. But so far, the death toll from the storm stands at 10, while the death toll from the evacuation is 28, including 23 evacuees from a nursing home who died when their bus caught on fire on the road. Five others, including a disabled child, died as vehicles, low on gas, couldn't stay cool in the 100-degree heat.

Houstonians are accustomed to idling in their cars, trucks and SUVs. In annual traffic delay per traveler, the city ranks fifth worst in the nation, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area and Atlanta are even worse. Maybe those cities should take a close look at what happened in Houston when they polish up their own evacuation plans for natural disasters or terrorist attacks. Still, even the most teeth-grinding commute couldn't prepare anyone in the Houston area for the gas, food and shelter shortages that tens of thousands faced when the hurricane was coming their way.

Ruth Shapiro and Michael Ward traveled with their daughter, Emma, and their cat for 41 hours before they made it to College Station, Texas, all of 125 miles away. Their original destination was a motel in southern Oklahoma -- the only place they could book a room -- but it was impossible to get there, so they stayed with a relative's friend in an apartment in the college town. At times, the family, split up in two cars, was traveling at half a mile per hour, running on fumes, unsure of where their next gallon of gas would come from. Of course, all that sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic burned fuel. Shapiro, whose Acura TSX usually gets about 350 miles on a tank, got just 117.

On the designated evacuation route, the family encountered traffic lights that were still on their regular green/yellow/red schedule, backing up cars for miles. And there weren't cops directing the traffic to speed through local intersections. Later, some of the official attempts to ease the massive congestion just added to the confusion. At one point, when southbound lanes were converted to northbound lanes, cars going south were forced to drive on the shoulder, dodging out-of-gas cars and oncoming cars. And an unexpected road closure only added to the sense that no one knew where to go.

"Here you are, out of gas, cars around you going crazy, and every one of them is a big truck pulling God knows what in the back," says Ward, an engineer. "We saw everything: cars pulling junk cars, animals in the back, people in the backs of trucks. We even saw one guy pulling a house."

Shapiro called the office of the mayor of Houston three times on her cellphone to complain about being abandoned on the roads. She spoke with staffers who informed her, "We're working on it." The official evacuation route they were on had taken them east, which was into the path of the storm. "I evacuated my house," she says. "I'm following the route I'm supposed to be following, and I'm going to be stuck in my car on the side of the road in a hurricane because I'm doing what I've been told."

The police were so unhelpful that at one point, Shapiro, a lawyer, fantasized about punching a cop. At least if you're arrested, she says, the police legally have to take you to a safe place. In the end, the couple got a gas ration by calling a transportation department hot line. They also ditched the official evacuation route for back roads, many of which were empty.

"One word: gas," says Floyd McConnell, 34, who fled Clear Lake Forest with his two sisters, a friend, three children ages 9 to 14, three dogs, a parrot, a parakeet and a turtle named Smiley. "That was the biggest anxiety. No gas. No amount of money can buy it for you. I felt absolutely helpless. It would have been miserable anyway, but it made it just hopeless. We had lost hope."

In the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, they waited for two and half hours at an empty Exxon station with hundreds of others. At one point, a mysterious Exxon truck showed up at a nearby intersection and then inexplicably drove away. Later, a local, whose name they didn't catch, led them to another station that had gas.

McConnell was driving his sister's brand-new Ford 5150, a double-cab pickup that she bought recently with a military discount because her husband is serving in Iraq. The truck was one of three cars in their caravan, which left Sept. 21 at 5 p.m. Five hours later, they'd gone 25 miles. The traffic was so slow, the kids were able to get out of the car and walk the dogs on the freeway. Their saga lasted 22 hours, ending at a Super 8 motel in San Antonio, usually three and a half hours away, where they'd booked three rooms in advance. At night, the parking lot and feeder road outside the motel were filled with cars of evacuees who couldn't get rooms.

Even those from the New Orleans diaspora got caught in the Rita exodus, as many had been moved to Houston. Rob Blain, a member of the St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Houston, drove a three-vehicle caravan carrying a family of 19 Katrina evacuees. Blain led the family members on a 16-hour drive to a shelter in Longview, Texas. One of passengers was 22-year-old Julian, who has cerebral palsy and depends on a feeding tube. "It was a hard, hard trip," says Blain, who returned to Houston with the caravan Monday in just six hours, only about 30 minutes longer than the trip usually takes.

In the wake of the gridlock, a lot of ideas have arisen about what could be done differently. They include opening up both sides of the freeway sooner, employing police to direct traffic, setting all the lights on the evacuation routes to green, and opening more evacuation routes on back roads. If fast-food restaurants can't be kept stocked with food, they should at least distribute water and allow weary drivers to use their bathrooms. But above all, more gas should be made available. Tankers should be stationed along the roads, and gas stations should have backup supplies.

The gridlock turned out to fracture more nerves than Hurricane Rita did property, but all the people I spoke to say they would evacuate again if a Category 5 storm were heading their way. But this time they would fly -- if only they could find a way to the airport.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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