[Formerly titled Running Nowhere – 10 Years Later]
On this day 10 years ago—September 24, 2005—Hurricane Rita made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane and wreaked havoc in Southeast Texas and southwestern Louisiana. It had been less than a month since Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans. Many of Katrina’s victims had fled or been evacuated to the Beaumont area, only to be uprooted once again by Rita. Growing up in the Texas Panhandle I had seen the devastation caused by tornadoes, but I had never been affected by a storm as powerful as Hurricane Rita.
Initially, Rita’s impending arrival didn’t concern us. Although my family had migrated from the Panhandle to Southeast Texas in 1971, we had not yet experienced anything stronger than a Category 1 hurricane. The last major hurricane–a Category 5–to hit Southeast Texas was Hurricane Carla in September of 1961. So, like hundreds of thousands of others in Southeast Texas, we had no experience with a storm like Hurricane Rita.
When Rita strengthened from a Category 2 to a Category 5 storm within a 24-hour time span, authorities ordered the residents of Houston and Galveston, which were in Rita’s predicted landfall path, to evacuate. This was rather like the big bad wolf getting tired of blowing on the brick house and just getting a really big wrecking ball instead so the three little pigs ran for their lives. That evacuation was still ongoing when the she-wolf put away her oversized wrecking ball and decided to go with one a little smaller and approach from a different angle. Now the area we call The Golden Triangle was in her crosshairs.
Authorities ordered the residents of Beaumont and surrounding areas to pack up and run for our lives—in an orderly manner via staggered evacuations. Right!!! So what happens when everybody freaks out and heads for the exit at the same time? Utter bedlam. Traffic was so slow that people were getting out of their cars to walk their dogs (or themselves) and never lost sight of their vehicle and driver. After an aborted attempt to leave–after three hours in traffic–because of a clutch problem we decided to wait until nightfall in the hope that both cooler heads and temperatures would prevail. While we waited, we entertained ourselves by actually talking to each other, watching Rita’s progress on the Weather Channel and counting the number of military planes leaving from the nearby airport with disabled and nursing home evacuees.
Fortunately, our ruse worked and by the time we left about midnight, the traffic had thinned out and we almost sailed through Beaumont headed north. The further we traveled toward our destination, however, the more vehicles we saw abandoned on the roadways either because of breakdowns or empty gas tanks. Large parking lots were full of people who had pulled off the road to take a break or sleep. Still others had parked on the side of the road and slept in or on top of their cars. We were more than happy to reach our destination without any more problems ourselves.
Unfortunately, 75 miles away wasn’t far enough to keep us from feeling some of Rita’s wrath. As she plowed a path to the northeast we got a middle-of-the-night wakeup call when the power went out and the air conditioners died. All we could do then was listen to the she-wolf howl and rattle the sheet metal roofs of the barns, accompanied by assorted thumps and crashing noises, and hope Aunt Iris’ place was still intact by morning. We cautiously stepped out the next day to find that while the barn roofs were still in place they were a bit bent in places and there were fewer shingles on the house roof. None of our cars had any damage, none of the cattle were dead or missing, and it appeared the only real damage was the broken cedar trees behind the house. Oh, and a broken TV antenna.
With no power, there was no TV or radio so there wasn’t much to do but enjoy the country life, and try to get a cell phone signal, while we waited for news. By Monday, the 26th, the temperature was steadily rising to heat indices of more than 110 degrees, breaking records for September. We had only packed enough clothing to last 2-3 days so we began to smell ripe rather quickly. We got creative by cutting off jean legs and t-shirt sleeves and washing clothing by hand in a couple of ice chests (thank God for gas stoves so we could heat water). We also used the water hose to take fully clothed “showers” and wash our hair. We made daily trips to nearby towns for gas, water, ice, MREs (which really weren’t very bad), and to search for a generator. When the two teens with us got the opportunity to help hand out ice from the back of a refrigerated truck, they wanted to return every day to escape the heat.
Finally, one week after the storm, we got word that Beaumont and Port Arthur were allowing residents back in long enough to secure their homes and for all essential staff to return to work. Since three of us were essential staff (I worked for the USPS) we took one of the vehicles and came back together. Before we reached home National Guardsmen stopped us at three different checkpoints and checked our IDs to verify we lived in the area. Nobody else would be allowed to return until the power and water supplies could be restored, so the rest of those who evacuated with us stayed behind and continued to enjoy the country life.
The closer we got to Beaumont, the more we wondered and worried about what we would find when we got home. As each mile passed we saw ever-increasing destruction. Trees in forests broken in half, massive trees uprooted and lying on homes or vehicles, and blue tarps covering roofs. In Beaumont and the surrounding towns power lines were down everywhere; cell phone and radio towers were heaps of twisted steel—a result of the more than 100 tornadoes spawned by Rita. Hundreds of homes were badly damaged or just gone, leaving only a foundation behind; some businesses were so badly damaged they never re-opened. Relief flooded our souls when we turned that last corner and saw that the huge old oak in my sister’s front yard had not fallen on the house as we had expected it would. The homes of other family members had only minor damage.
Alas, I wasn’t as lucky. Once I discovered my car–which I had left across from my sister’s house–was intact, my primary goal was to check on my apartment. As I travelled down the main street of our small town it didn’t look as bad as I had expected so I hoped the apartment complex had been as lucky. But it wasn’t. Everywhere I looked I saw twisted sheet metal from the carports, damaged cars, smashed patio fences–the contents of those patios scattered everywhere, and assorted debris. I dreaded seeing my apartment, but I pulled up my big girl panties, swallowed my fear and drove on. Oddly, my building’s carport was the only one with its sheet metal covering almost completely intact. When I walked up to my building it looked okay from the outside, but once I unlocked the door I had to mule kick it to get it open.
When the door opened my jaw dropped, my nose curled and my heart broke. The roof over the apartment above mine was gone–they lost everything; I lost almost everything. Half of my living room ceiling had fallen down. There was 6-8 inches of standing water in the dining room. “Moldcicles” hung inside the kitchen cabinets and mold covered the walls and furniture throughout the apartment. My patio and it’s furnishings were gone, too. When I discovered both my favorite bible and my grandfather’s desk weren’t salvageable, I really just wanted to sit down and have a good cry. But there was no longer a place to sit that wasn’t wet and/or moldy. I’m a worrier and was really afraid, after all I had seen so far, to look in my closet. When I did, though, I found that mold was only on the back wall, so my clothes were okay, just musty smelling. Only a couple of months before I had taken all of my family photos out of cardboard boxes and put them in plastic bins. Those pictures were all taken long before digital cameras existed and weren’t replaceable. As I got ready to leave I looked to my right and noticed four small squares of plywood around a figurine of three frogs sitting around a tree stump playing cards. Something about that spoke to me about survival so I rescued it to keep it out of the dumpster.
Once I had loaded my car to the brim the question became: “Where can I go?” I was essentially homeless and without power and water there was nowhere to stay. Fortunately, an aunt in Katy said I could stay with her for a couple of months. It meant making trips back to meet the damage assessor and to take out everything salvageable and put it in storage–which I was lucky to find as many of the local storage facilities had been heavily damaged or destroyed. But God must have put His hand down because the storage place we usually used was intact and they had a small unit for me. Phew! My brothers, bless their hearts, ended up having to take everything to the storage shed because I got a call from the Red Cross that they had a debit card for me to use to get my meds but I had to be in Houston no later than 4:00 to pick it up. I HATE driving in Houston and the experience was even more fun when I discovered my route went past Minute Maid Park. . .on the first day of the World Series. And I thought evacuation was bad! Pffft!
Because FEMA [Fix Everything My Ass] was already overwhelmed due to Katrina and now had to deal with Rita’s destruction it was a month before they sent someone to assess my damages. Pardon my language, but the asshole that came wouldn’t allow me to go inside with him and he didn’t stay inside more than five minutes–if that–and wouldn’t talk to me when he came out except to tell me I would be getting a check for my losses. Fortunately, I had taken lots of pictures because I only received a check to replace the refrigerator I didn’t even own. That made me fighting mad!
Because the she-wolf and her spawn displaced so many people, housing was extremely scarce. For eight months after I returned from Katy, I hopped back and forth across the road. A family friend offered to let me stay in his mother’s house, which was across the street from my sister. But when he came in from Warrenton and needed to spend a night or two in the house I would sleep on my air mattress at my sister’s. Bless his kind heart, he never understood why I wouldn’t stay at the house while he was there. I told him that I didn’t believe it was proper for an unrelated single woman to sleep in the same house as a married man. I finally found an efficiency apartment and had the pleasure of sleeping on the air mattress and sitting in a camp chair while I continued to fight FEMA. When I finally won I couldn’t get to a furniture store fast enough. It sure was nice to sleep on a real bed again!
When times are hard, people often say “God will never give you more than you can handle (if so, I wish he didn’t trust me so much), but that is a slight misinterpretation of I Corinthians 10:13 [NIV] “ No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” What holds me up better is the saying “If GOD brings you to it, HE will bring you through it.”
It’s one thing to watch the news reports, see the pictures and give money or supplies for other areas hit by major storms–it’s another story entirely when you are the one everybody else is watching on the news and helping with supplies and repairs. The best takeaway from my adventure with Hurricane Rita? Life is much more valuable than material possessions, and God DOES bring you through it. I hope we don’t have such an event again in my lifetime because if it does I’ll be sorely tempted to pull a mattress into the bathroom–along with a lantern and plenty of books, pray and ride it out.