Thursday, September 22, 2005

The World Through the Eyes of a Houstonian

Life intervenes again ... so I blog not. Or at least blog not much. Spent Wednesday at a refinery in Beaumont. Funny, but the guys there were pretty sure that Rita was going to hit south of the Houston area, and they would thus be spared. Nonetheless, they were pretty interested in getting hurricane preparations done. It looks like it may have been a good thing.

Hurricane preparations have been going fast and furious here on the Gulf Coast. Frankly, people are a bit panicked, but with the media reports, who can blame them? The hysteria has spilled over such that WalMart doesn't have "D" batteries. Now, that is panic.

But seriously, I have stood back and watched in amazement as hundreds of thousands of cars hit the road ... and then just stopped. No shootings. No mayhem. No crying for Washington to help. Some complaining and grumbling for sure. Understandably so. But people have just been remarkable.

Local officials have been good. Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels have been informative and have generally implemented this crazy evacuation plan about as well as you can. Some are griping about the inevitable glitches when evacuating more than a million people, but I think most of us understand that this is one of those "defication occurs" deals. In other words, when hundreds of thousands of people decide to gas up and hit the trail simultaneously ... Houston, we have a problem.

I left at 6:30 a.m. today in search of batteries and a couple of more lights ... for the inevitable power outage. Also, I was hoping to fill up my truck. Struck out on the gas hunt. But I did manage to get in line at Academy Surplus and snag a couple of lights. While waiting in the Academy parking lot for the store to open, I noticed that I had happened upon a makeshift rest area. People played with dogs. Women slept in cars with mouths wide open. One guy's generator on his trailer hummed loudly while he caught some shut eye. It was like a circus, but people were good natured and it was a pretty orderly circus.

I found no batteries at Academy. Not even at WalMart. They must not make 'em any more. Everywhere I went, people were in pretty good spirits under the circumstances, although there was some griping when we had to get in line and go into Academy no more than six at a time. Three other guys and myself were trying to make a "brotherhood" pact so we could go in as a family ... to no avail.

A few more stops. Still no batteries. No ice. Not much of anything. I mean, even WalMart ran out of bottled water. Okay ... looks like we're at the bottom of the barrel here. No gas. How many stations did I look at? I forgot.

A young man in the WalMart parking lot (basically a campground now) asks me how to get to College Station. We need to talk. Doesn't he know there are Aggies there? He can do better than that. But I digress ... I give him my super-secret "around Conroe" directions, all the while keeping him off the dreaded interstate. I have made a new friend. And then he asks: Aren't you going to leave? "No way. We are good up here. Besides, Pres. Bush is going to steer the storm toward Louisiana." Okay, so I didn't say the last part.

It was a day when strangers came together and talked about this memorable event. People asked for help, and it was usually given. A couple drove up beside me and asked for my secret directions to Highway 75. How did they know? I offered my map, but they had one. Maybe they were looking for College Station. Who knows?

The roads here are complete madness. You may have seen the pictures on TV, but it is hard to overstate the chaos and frustration that are the freeways in this area. Usually, they are simply unbearable. The last couple of days they are just insane. Miraculously, there have been no major gun battles. Or even any. Cars run out of gas after idling for hours on the freeways waiting to evacuate. Cars overheat. Some turn off their engines, put the vehicles in neutral and push to save gas. People get out of their cars and take a stroll on the freeway.

I finally arrived back home ... at 3 p.m. ... with a few paltry supplies. It only took me three hours to go about 15 miles to my house. The a/c was used sparingly while waiting in traffic, too. But at least it's only 100 degrees today.

Why do we live here again? Oh, yeah. The invention of the air conditioner. Let's face it, hurricanes are only part of the great climate here.

Yet, these things happen on the Gulf Coast. In 1961, Carla hit. In 1983 -- 22 years later -- Alicia's eye crossed at San Luis Pass in Galveston, and downtown Houston was devastated. Now, another 22 years later, the third most-powerful storm ever churns out in the Gulf.

In spite of all of this, though, we live here because some of the best, heartiest, salt-of-the-earth types you will ever meet call the Texas Gulf Coast their home.

I am staying. My family and I are a good 80 miles from the Coast. Plus, it looks like the storm is taking an eastward track.

Towards Beaumont. And Louisiana. Oh, my.