Fleeing from Roaring Rita

     I had to wait for 68 years to get an experience like that of yesterday. We packed few of our dearest belongings like important papers, passports, jewelry, pictures, precious videos, and some clothes and left at about 5 am, to be on the road before anyone else got there. We went to bed before 10 pm the previous night and woke up at 3.30, had a light breakfast before we loaded the Lexus SUV and left Houston.
     For the past 2 days, we were watching every twist and turn of this terrible monster, the impending hurricane Rita. All eyes were glued to the TV. Since mandatory evacuation orders were expected anytime, we wanted to make our move before the rest of humanity started stirring. The idea was to get to Austin, TX to be with our daughter Latha. It was only a 165 miles drive; probably may take 5 or 6 hours, rather than the usual 3, if the traffic was slow.
     The first 5 miles were smooth, hardly anyone being on the road, giving us a feeling of comfort and quiet confidence. From our residence in the West University Place, close to the Medical Center, we took 610 Loop, then the Westpark toll road to Beltway 8 North, with the intent of going beyond I-10 and take 290 west, so that we can reach Austin and join our daughter for lunch. Our surprise came as we entered the Beltway to see the four lanes packed and all the 140 vehicles almost parked. Since we could not back off, we joined the crowd. After four hours we realized that we had moved just about 10 miles. It was the beginning of an ordeal. The first 40 miles we covered in 7 hours, the next 40 in 5 hours.
     We had food in the car, so we ate idli, banana chips and some fruits had tea and water and listened to music; Suprabhaatham, Sahasranamam, Yesudas and the like. The car had the tank full of gasoline, so I was comfortable about covering the distance. But the problem more than filling the tank was emptying my bladder. There was nothing open to go and relieve as the tea and water kept gravitating and stimulating my reflexes. After realizing that many of the usual places were closed, we found a Kroger grocery store and a few hours later a Home Depot and then some kind Texas bushes came to my rescue. The old Indian experience came in handy. And to my relief, I was not alone, and there was no reason to feel timid. After hours behind the wheel, crawling at 5 miles an hour, I felt like over speeding driving 20 miles an hour when the lanes opened up for brief periods.
     The sights we witnessed will be remembered for a long time. People were generally friendly, no panic, many stalling and running out of gas, many picnicking on the roadside, a few ambulances coming to get the ones collapsing due to exhaustion, perhaps getting heart attacks waiting in line, miles of lines at gas stations who had gone empty long time ago, all the hamburger stores and convenience stores running out of food and water. A few million people were leaving greater Houston and East Texas areas area, some being mandatorily evacuated, others leaving out of fear, using the four or five long-distance highways. Miles and miles of freeways were practical parking lots, humanity escaping the wrath of nature.
     Rita was going to hit the Texas/Louisiana coast within the next twenty hours and the future of many of us was to be decided by then. The saving grace was that we were safely away with our lives, our dear ones, and all our family being in safe places, for now.
     Two days later: I stayed awake and watched the progress of Rita. As if drawn by some strange affinity, she seemed to favor the already devastated Louisiana by her sister Katrina. At about 2.50 am on Saturday, September 24, the hurricane made the landfall near Sabine Pass, at the Texas-Louisiana border. She had by then been downgraded to a Grade 3 force, from a grade 5 monster with 175 miles winds, earlier the previous day. Nature might have felt perhaps benevolent to choose the marshy, mostly uninhabited Louisiana coast to make its landfall.
     We were relieved that Houston has been spared. We prayed and profusely thanked God to save us from what could have been a major jolt, this late into our aging lives. We have been constantly staying in touch with our neighbor Liz Ayers, who decided not to leave and kept an eye on our house. Liz gave us the clearance in the morning to return if we so chose.
     With profound gratitude for everybody’s prayers and with the mercy of God, we got back in Houston after only a five and half hour drive. There were some delays on the road at junctions, but it was relatively smooth. Our home looked intact, power and water well preserved. There were scattered twigs and tree branches around our yard, just to remind us of Rita’s passage. She was definitely kind to us.
     What was remarkable was the human dignity and civility of all we have encountered on the road and elsewhere. In times of duress, you would expect people ignoring the others and grabbing a chance to promote selfish interest; none of that was seen in our three-day ordeal. People were considerate and allowed others to come into the lanes. There was an elderly couple on the roadside in Columbus, the lady on a wheelchair and her husband assisting her, pouring cold water into paper cups and offering it the motorists, while her daughter or a kind neighbor checking around if they could be of any help. This was under hot Texas sun, hovering well over 100 degrees, with no shade, no breeze, as they generously offered us their beaming smile.
     We just cannot but get to be better human beings watching such remarkable acts of kindness from others.
(September 23, 2005)

Author: Dr. Venugopal Menon

Was born and raised in a loving family in pre-independent India, became a doctor, served Indian army, got married, then came over to America with wife and a daughter, established as a successful Allergist, raised a family of three children, was involved in many social establishments, retired, and wrote memoirs, 'My Mother Called Me Unni, A Doctor's Tale of Migration'.

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