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Stuck in the path of Hurricane Rita

It is 5.30am and dark outside, but all the lights are on and everyone is up.  Some are in the shower, some are eating breakfast.  There is anticipation in the house.  Bags are packed and sitting ready to be loaded into the car. Then people start arriving.  Someone has bought a round of Starbucks for everyone.  There are now thirteen of us: four children, two families and a host of singles. We need to get on the road.  People discuss routes and quickly look at maps.  Have we all got mobile phones to communicate between cars?  It’s approaching 7am, we must leave. My kids think we are all going on holiday together in a convoy of three cars.  That’s what we have told them.  But this is no ordinary trip.  Today over two million people will be on the roads leaving the city because this is an evacuation. 

It is September 2005 in Houston, Texas.  A large, category five hurricane, Rita, is rolling around the Gulf of Mexico, like a juggernaut bearing down on the Texas coastline, ready to destroy everything we know.  When we came here, nearly five years ago, we banked on finding adventure.  But with two small children and another one on the way, I hadn’t bargained for this.

I don’t watch much American news.  I was very aware of the hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston from New Orleans, but had not sensed any urgency about our own weather forecast.  That is until a mum at school told me she had driven all over town to find batteries and water and everywhere was sold out.  I switched on CNN and thought I’d better stock up.  The supermarket was the most packed I’d ever seen it, like Christmas time in the UK when the shelves have been emptied by shoppers.  I was in a daze when an old lady said to me “It’s so frightening, like Armageddon”.   I wanted to tell her not to worry.  But I didn’t.  I wanted to say that if London can live through the Blitz, then Houston can live through a hurricane.  But I didn’t know if that were true. 

My husband, Jo, started sending me emails about his company’s policy on evacuating the building.  Then phone calls came from numerous nervous friends, not knowing what to do.  Jo eventually said he thought we should leave.  But where would we go?  We have no one here in Texas.  I eventually got through to some friends in North Carolina, over one thousand miles away, and asked if we could go there.

By late afternoon we had a plan.  A group of us would drive to Wichata Falls in north Texas out of harm’s way and stay at a friend’s parent’s house.  From there we would drive to North Carolina if Houston were a mess.  That night, Wednesday, a load of friends met at our house to talk about our plans and how scared we were.  I had an ominous feeling we should leave straight away.  But we had fixed on Thursday morning.

It’s not even 7am and the roads are busy, but the Starbucks is working a treat.  One of the single girls is travelling with us in the car.  My girls love her and we “seat” dance to music in the car.  The phone starts ringing.  No one realises that the phone will keep ringing all day long.  Should we take a different route as some roads might be jammed already?  We take the alternative road.  It’s busy, but we feel great.  Then our freedom stops and the line of traffic snakes into the distance.  The sun is up and the heat is starting to climb.

By 11am we have moved barely three miles from our house.  The traffic is dense.  People’s tempers are getting desperate.  The heat is building.  Tapley and I get out of the car and run to the nearest café to use the toilet.  I wonder if this café will be here next time I drive down this road. 

When we come out we see Jo pulling the car off the road.  The other family have stopped as the kids need to potty.  I notice a group of people cooling off under an outdoor tap from the building.  There are two parents, four kids and two cats in a beat up old car with no air conditioning.  They have come from the Texas/Louisiana border, have been travelling all night, have nearly run out of fuel and have no food or water.  I give them as much bread, water and snacks as I think we can manage without. 

We decide to head past the highway and up to some friends’ relatives for lunch.  Then the phone calls from England start.  My mum is crying on the phone as she watches the news.  “I can’t see your car,” she says.

It takes us a couple of hours to drive the few miles for lunch.  The two leading cars get through some lights, but the final car with the other family has to stop.  We pull over to wait for them, but I get a call from the other mum crying.  Everyone’s nerves are starting to break.

At lunch there are 9 people staying at the house when we arrive.  Cindy, the owner, is in her element.  Catering for people in a crisis is what she does best.  We are tired, have been on the road half the day and haven’t even left town.  A neighbour comes in offering more food.  We want to stay but know we have to get on the road.  As we leave our friend tells us to come back if we have to, but we are refreshed and optimistic. 

Three hours later, on a country road, my confidence is draining away.  The traffic is not moving and the heat is intense.  The air-conditioning uses up too much fuel, so to conserve it we turn the air off.  When the sun disappears behind the line of trees people start walking by the side of the road.  Some teenagers on a four-wheel buggy go up and down watching us.  The owners of a house let people in to use the bathroom.  Outside they have set up iced water and the TV.  There are Christmas decorations up which, the lady tells me, her grandchildren won’t let her take down.  I comment that she has a lovely house.

We finally reach a crossroads that leads to the freeway and see for miles nothing but cars standing still. The petrol station is full of vehicles waiting for fuel, people are resting on the grass.  As we slowly make our way down the road we see car after abandoned car.  It is dusk.  A man is sitting in a car feeding a small baby from a bottle with a ton of kids in the back.  Shae, from lunch, has been repeatedly calling us. 

The sun drops rapidly and the night is black.  Far from a carnival atmosphere, the cars and their lights scream fear to me.  I am sitting in the back of the car soothing the kids to sleep, listening to Jo on the phone again.  I see the fuel gauge and the trip computer saying how few miles there are left in the tank.  I can’t hold it in anymore.  I just cry.  I have stayed calm all day for the sake of my kids, my husband, and our travelling companions who are looking to us for guidance.  All I have is an overwhelming determination not to let my kids sleep by the side of the road in a car that has run out of fuel.

Jo calls the others and we stop to talk.  Ashley knows some people in the next town who have an empty house we can camp in for the night.  We might be able to make it on our fuel, but then would need to find more tomorrow or we will be stranded.  I suggest we go back to Shae’s.  At least we will have a house to sleep in and we can reassess in the morning.  So we turn around.  It took us 14 hours to drive 25 miles.  It takes us 20 minutes to retreat half that to our lunch venue.

Friday is hot, but everyone is so much more relaxed.  We assess the road and fuel situation and decide to stay where we are.  More people arrive until there are 28 people spread over 2 houses, sharing food and resources.  The news is on constantly.  The storm has started shifting and is heading away from Houston like a bowling ball that turns at the last minute.  In the evening, as the weather cools, we head to the park to feel the wind picking up.  The sky, where earlier it had been clear and blue, is now red and angry with swirling clouds.  A car full of cheering teens passes us.  The kids run around chanting “go away, hurricane”.  When it starts to spit we head home.  The sky is black and the clouds are heavy.

The storm hits during the night.  The electricity goes out at 2am.  It gets hot and our youngest wakes up thirsty.  I lie awake listening to the noise.  Where yesterday I was preparing myself for the roof to be taken off, I now listen to something that sounds nothing more than a bad storm in England.

The morning is cool, so the lack of air-conditioning is only a mild inconvenience.  Outside there are splinters of branches strewn across the road, but the tall trees are still standing and nothing much looks out of place.  Instead of spending the day indoors sheltering from danger, we are outside, packing up our cars and heading home.  It’s over for us.  The hot weather acted like a cushion over Houston protecting it until the low pressure of the hurricane bounced off and headed east.

I realise, as we drive to our house, that I didn’t want Houston to be crushed.  These familiar roads are home to me now.  I have spent some of the most frightening moments of my life with these people and I am grateful for every one of them.  England will always be in my heart, but for now this is my home.

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