The Great Evacuation of '05 -- Part II

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Continued from Part I.

Night 1

Never having evacuated my home before, I failed to realize how long it would take to prepare to leave. The trip to and from the airport was somewhat illuminating insofar as it caused me to realize that anything involving travel would be slowed down, but I must confess that I was still not quite out of the dark on the scope of what we still had to do to evacuate.

Reducing the task at hand to its essentials (pack what's important, secure the house, and leave), I would have to say that I started the night out in "vacation mode". I figured we'd pack for a few hours, get some sleep, and leave in the morning. I was dismayed at our late return from the airport and told the wife that we'd probably be up until about 3:00 preparing to leave. I turned out to be a little off in that estimate.

Part of the problem involved plywood. As I mentioned earlier, we do not own this house, but rent it. Being busy earlier in the week and thinking that our landlord would probably come by to board up the place anyway, I simply hadn't given a lot of thought to picking up plywood. On the day I decided to evacuate, still three days before landfall, I called him when my pre-storm tasks at work were winding down. I figured I could offer my help putting up the plywood, assuming I would be still be there when he planned to do it. No dice. He had no plans to do this. So I got his permission to do this on my own, if I had the chance to get plywood.

On the way home, I learned that plywood was already in short supply and that there were huge lines at the home improvement centers for whatever plywood was due to arrive. Time was not on my side as it was. I would go to a Lowe's or a Home Depot after we picked up the rental car and I'd get boards then, if they were available. As you know from my first installment, this never happened. Lesson Learned #1: Have plywood for windows on hand in your garage if you live in a hurricane-prone area.

The Strange Calculus of an Evacuation

By now, it should already be clear that we were preparing for the worst by evacuating, but hoping for the best, which is what we luckily got in the end. But what of intermediate cases? Suppose the house were subjected to Category 1 or 2 winds, such that it took some damage, but was not essentially destroyed? That's what that plywood would have been really good for. If the house took any damage, I figured that broken windows would be its most likely form.

We and the cats would be gone, so the main consideration for us was our property. The cars were safely stored already, so they weren't a problem. All that was left was stuff. What goes with us? What stays? And how could we protect the best stuff that we decided to leave behind?

I call this section "The Strange Calculus of an Evacuation" because it was strange emotionally, and not because it was strange on any other level. The essence of the process was, of course, deciding what was most important to us and taking it with us. The strangeness came from knowing that whatever we left behind could be gone forever. Except for whatever was already in a garbage can, everything we would decide to leave had some value to us. We had expended effort to obtain it and decided to keep it for one reason or another. While we could certainly live without any of these things (or even the things we did take with us) our lives would be made harder without any of them.

Interestingly, there seemed to be two broad (but not mutually exclusive) categories of objects: those with practical value and those with sentimental value. In the former category were things like legal documents, insurance policies, tools, and supplies. These were all things that would save us time (or money -- really the same thing in that money represents stored effort) in recovering from whatever disaster awaited us. In the latter category were things like photographs, mementos, and pets. These were all things that reminded us of and reinforced our highest values, namely ourselves, each other, and our loved ones. If one thinks for a moment about this latter category of objects, one will realize that they, too save time and would have the practical value of helping us return as quickly as possible to a normal life later on -- by reminding us of our past lives during the process of rebuilding our lives. One could think of these objects as all having high practical value, spiritual (for lack of a better term) value, or both (although I do not accept the commonplace idea that practical and the spiritual conflict with one another).

In a similar sense that one's life is endangered by injury or illness, one's life is also endangered (but usually to a lesser degree) by the loss of property, which is an accumulation of time and effort on one's part to further one's own life. So the process of deciding what to take and what to leave -- and how best to protect what was left -- was really somewhat the same as lessening an injury from an anticipated mishap, or mitigating an illness so as to speed recovery afterwards. And with the distinct possibility that our lives would be radically altered for some time upon our return, one could, in that sense, say that the preparations for the evacuation were very much like preparations for some sort of an afterlife.

If this sounds strange (and it was), recall the full context: We were preparing ourselves to lose much of what we owned, and much of what we regarded as familiar and comfortable about our lives. But we were also taking steps towards making our lives after the storm start off as well as possible. The situation reminded me of nothing so much as the pharoahs of ancient Egypt, who were buried with what they were supposed to need for life after death. Except we were doing the packing ourselves, and we would really be alive later on! This has been the only time in my life that I can recall having found the notion of an "afterlife" valid or useful.

Of course, the packing was much more frenetic than this reflection might make it sound, because it had an especially urgent and practical end, but that did not remove its strange emotional undertone for me, its strange mixture of loss and hope. It is an experience I have learned from, though I can't say I especially recommend it. In fact, the preparations started out in a rather straightforward manner and we both gradually became aware of how much really needed to be done. The process gradually became semiautomatic, rapid, and somewhat efficient. There was no time to indulge in emotion or sentimentality.

The wife and I seemed to split our chores naturally along the "spiritual" and "practical" lines I have already described. We profited greatly from having organized our things when we moved into the house. So we already had memento trunks. She filled these the rest of the way with our wedding pictures and prized knicknacks (like the rooster-shaped alarm clock that inspired my first pet name for her). She made sure we took our photo albums. There were a few mementos of mine that I hadn't thought of that she reminded me to pack (like my first teddy bear). I went through our financial records and legal documents. I moved things from the porch that might blown away or be turned into missiles by the wind.

The process of organizing everything occupied us for most of the night, and we finished the bulk of it only around five in the morning. Aside from occasionally speaking with my wife about one choice or another, I recall doing the whole thing almost as if I were an automaton. Aside from the constant sorting and packing, my mind was mainly occupied with what I could do to save as much of what we weren't going to take as possible.

I solved that problem by the time we were done packing. In our house, the hallway in the center is the only room that has no windows. After we finished our packing, minus putting the pets and some irreplaceable artwork into the car, it was about 6:00 a.m. I took a quick shower and moved several chests of drawers into this hallway and facing the walls. I bagged and set things that could be ruined if they got wet -- like televisions and office equipment -- on top of the drawers. Just before we left, I closed all the doors to the hall.

Our SUV was packed like the Clampetts' truck on The Beverly Hillbillies by sunrise. My wife's family has some Swedish Ivy that they have passed down for generations. I'd been propagating that, so after Katrina hit New Orleans, my wife thought we needed to take a pot of that along with us. That was going to start out on the dashboard, but luckily, she found out on the phone that such a measure was unnecessary, so that plant stayed behind with all the rest. I had also considered taking my didgeridoo -- a present from my wife during our honeymoon -- but decided its awkward shape would cause us no end of inconvenience and drive us batty. I told the wife that she was I all I needed from my trip to Australia and that I was happy with her, thank you very much.

The didge stayed in the tomb-like hallway. I turned off the gas to the water heater (but our water main was inaccessible). Per radio ads, our gas stayed on. I shut off our power at the main breakers. Since the trip back from the airport had consumed a noticeable amount of gasoline, I decided to top off the tank with the two gallon can I normally use for my lawnmower. I wanted to skip stopping at the gas station and hit the road. We then realized that it might be useful to have that can with us, so we took it along.

Which way to go?

We were headed to my mother's home in rural Mississippi near Jackson that weekend anyway for my high school class reunion, so this became our intended evacuation destination. There is no direct interstate route between Houston and there, but there are two routes that take about the same amount of time, normally about 9 hours. When I was single and in grad school, also in Houston, I took what I will call the "northern route": basically up U.S. 59 and across to Jackson on Interstate 20. When I began dating my wife, whose family lived in New Orleans at the time, I began using a "southern route": across to New Orleans on Interstate 10 and northward to Jackson on Interstate 59 and U.S. 49. I personally favored the northern route for our evacuation, reasoning that U.S. 59 is almost as good as an interstate the whole way up, but would be little-used because that would not be common knowledge to Houstonians. In case the trip out of town took longer than expected, we had a motel room in Texarkana reserved for that night and, in case the storm cut off the route to Mississippi, the next.

Just as we were about to leave, my in-laws called my wife. They thought we should use the southern route based on their familiarity with it (or even go to San Antonio). On the southern route, Katrina-ravaged New Orleans could be bypassed via Interstate 12. But on top of my hunch that the in-laws did not realize Highway 59 was a good road all the way up, I'd heard that there was no gas along the southern route. And San Antonio offered the further complication that we had no idea where we'd stay once there or whether any rooms would be left so late in the game.

I held my ground. This was particularly fortunate with respect to the southern route: I heard news reports later that day of progress being so slow along that route that people were giving up and going back home. I later learned that someone I knew personally did the same thing, turning back at Beaumont. Worse still, Beaumont and Lake Charles, cities along that route, were badly hit by the storm. Based on travel times that day, we could have easily driven right into where the storm eventually landed and then had the misfortune of getting stuck there or having to abandon many of our most important possessions there. Lesson Learned #2: Drive inland first, then veer off in a direction parallel to the coast.

We were on our way at 8:00 a.m. In a sign of things to come, the McDonald's we were going to drive through for breakfast was closed. Good thing my wife had made some PB&J sandwiches just in case: They were now breakfast!

Day 2

We hopped onto the Interstate 610 Loop near the enclave suburb of Bellaire and headed north on U.S. 59, a recently-improved 10-12 lane freeway through most of the "inner loop" portion of Houston. There was little traffic. Had everyone gone already? We turned the radio to an AM news and traffic channel, where we heard of massive traffic jams and gas shortages on the very road we were taking.

I figured that by "traffic jams", they meant the slow traffic we encountered the night before on the way to the airport. It would be annoying, but at least it would be moving. BUZZ! Wrong answer! Somewhere north of Tidwell Road, we hit the wall. The tail end of the mass exodus. We went from 70 miles per hour to a dead stop. Fine. Traffic jams come to a stop all the time in Houston, and then things get rolling again. BUZZ! Wrong answer! We were stopped most of the time for the next ten minutes or so, occasionally moving forward by a car length or so. Must be an accident somewhere ahead. BUZZ! Wrong answer! Some guy got out of his car to retrieve a drink from a cooler in his trunk. The guy behind him honked like he was blocking traffic. BUZZ! Wrong answer! The guy got back into his car and we were all in the exact same location several minutes later.

I'm a road geek. I love maps and I think huge freeways like 59 are the bee's knees. But if 59 was a life-giving artery, it was clogged like I'd never seen in my life. As far as I could see, it was not the usual wide, grey expanse being navigated by vehicles of all descriptions. Instead, it was a carpet of gleaming glass and chrome as far as the eye could see on a sweltering day. The radio brought us news of drivers turning off their AC -- on this carpet and others like it all over town -- to save gas. Some drivers were simply pushing their cars ever so often. Getting a little worried, we killed the AC even though it was a humid, nearly 100 degree day. I wanted to think the breathless reports were sensationalism, but I was running from a storm. I decided to check on something.

My gas gauge was exactly on "F". It was 8:23 in the morning. The odometer read something easy to remember, like 11,200. (It was digital, but did not register tenths of a mile. WTF?) Thirty minutes later, we had covered from one half to one and a half miles (Remember: no tenths on the odometer. Boos and hisses to Chevy!). This was worrisome enough, but we had also used one eighth of a tank of gas. At this rate, we were on the fast track to joining the small legion of unfortunates out of gas and going nowhere on the roadside.

This was not acceptable. I decided at that moment to make use of two items I brought "just in case" -- and simply because I like maps. We were still inside Houston, so my Rand/McNally Streetfinder, a book whose well-indexed pages show every single street in Houston, was quite handy for getting us out of our immediate predicament. An old AAA atlas of the United States would take us to Texarkana.

Side Streets and Country Roads

When we got off the glass-and-steel carpet about another 10 minutes later at the Mount Houston exit, I still didn't realize the full extent of the traffic problem. This may seem absurd in retrospect, but how many times, exactly, have you and a couple other million people hit the road at once?A million is a huge number not really graspable on a gut, "perceptual" level. The radio reports were all local to Houston, too, and reports on where gas was were confined to where it was in town. So I had this hope -- to be proven wrong within a couple of hours -- that the problem gradually cleared up away from town. Ordinarily, maybe I would have figured that out, too, but I'd had no sleep and was dealing with situation that I hope remains a unique one in my life.

In any case, I'm glad to be able to say that we made it to Texarkana in "only" fourteen hours. (This would be something like a six-hour drive normally.) Those who stayed on 59 all the way to the official evacuation point, the town of Lufkin, took 17 hours to get there. I'm proud we did this and glad we did, but I will not claim I hatched my plan of escape all at once. I flew by the seat of my pants the whole time.

The Street Finder got us up to the suburb of Humble on a few back streets. The going was very, very slow, but unlike on 59, we knew we were getting somewhere. Indeed, at one point, we really felt like we were moving, so I checked the speedometer: "Never has fifteen miles per hour felt so liberating!" I exclaimed. My wife and I laughed. By this time, we'd heard enough gas reports to realize that we should, as a precaution, begin looking for gas any time the fuel gauge was at or below 3/4. This meant we were already looking for gas even though we were still in metro Houston. In Humble, we got close enough to 59 to see that it was hopeless as an evacuation route, and that we should at least avoid it for a little longer.

We found a gas station along our route and got a pump without having to wait in line like we thought we would based on all the radio reports. But the parking lot was packed nevertheless. I topped off the tank and refilled the lawnmower can as a precaution. And yes, this was dangerous, but until I thought of a better place to put it, I drove with the can on the floor between my legs. (Do not try this at home, or anywhere else for that matter! According to my perhaps somnolent logic, I was "running" from a storm at speeds often slower than the storm! What kind of accident could I get into?) My wife went in to get some bottled water since we hadn't had time to buy this earlier. The store was packed and it took her something on the order of 20 minutes for her to get through. We did have a few large Tupperware containers filled with tap water and had water purification tablets on the off chance we broke down in the middle of nowhere, but these were a cumbersome, last-resort measure.

While my wife was in the store, I perused the Street Finder, and found a series of Texas Farm-to-Market (FM) Roads (This is one of several idiosyncratic types of roads in the Texas state highway system.) that would get us from Humble to the next major town on 59, Cleveland. This route involved a big jog east along FM 1960 and across Lake Houston before we'd turn north on FM 2100. FM 1960, a major route, was over 30 miles per hour in some places, but traffic was often stop-and-go, mainly due to ill-timed traffic lights.

Before we get to Cleveland, we must pause for a moment for my favorite "road story" of the day. Along FM 2100 just north of FM 1960 is a town called Huffman, where we found, once again and to our great delight, a gas station with gas and without lines! We were not quite "down" to 3/4 of a tank yet, but by now, we saw and heard about enough dried-out stations that we weren't going to pass this up! I pulled in, slid my card , and started pumping. The pump pulsed about three times and stopped. At this point, a bearded guy popped up out of nowhere with the obvious news: "We're out of gas!" At the price of $3.00 per gallon, we made off with 0.057 gallons of gas, enough to fill about half a beer bottle, for which we paid the hefty sum of 0.17 American Dollars. The receipt is pictured here.

Remember when I said I removed the gas can from that dangerous place I was storing it when I found a better place for it? That gas went straight into the tank. We hit the road for Cleveland safer, but wondering where we might find our next gas. The north-south FM roads going up to Cleveland were slower, but still always moving. Ever since we hit the wall on 59, I kept track of our average speed. It was somewhere along this stretch that we finally surpassed 5 miles per hour as our average speed. This crept up all the way to 8 by the time we made it to Cleveland.

The Final Strategy

My wife was pleased at our progress, but bothered somewhat by the notion that there might not be much gas very far from 59, the "official" evacuation route. My main worry was that 59 would be horrible all the way up to I-20. I also thought that maybe -- with relatively little traffic -- small towns away from 59 might stand a better chance of having gas. She wanted to try 59 again at Cleveland and I was beginning to think that country roads were the way to go. So we devised a plan based on what we were doing anyway: We'd zig-zag around 59, taking country roads and checking on 59 from time to time. This way, if 59 ever improved, we could use it instead.

At Cleveland, it became apparent that all the traffic from the FM roads was local traffic heading to 59 to join the mass exodus. This had two potential implications: (1) 59 would probably still be a mess, which we confirmed, and (2) The country roads northward might have lighter traffic. Our next step would be to take more FM roads through the towns of Rayburn, Romayer, and Ace; and TX 146 to Livingston, a town along US 190, a road that connects 59 to Houston's other major northbound evacuation route, Interstate 45.

The traffic along this leg was faster, usually something like 30-45 mph, but there was plenty of traffic. A distressing number of gas stations were devoid of fuel. FM 787 was bumpy enough to cause one of the cats to get carsick, but Jerome, who has traveled cross-country with me, was fine. We made great time -- for that day -- to Livingston, a town of less than 10,000. This was also our next chance to check on traffic flow on 59.

Decision Time

We were just at 3/4 a tank again. We saw a gas station with gas in Livingston, but its line wrapped all the way around the block. I found the end of the line and waited there for a bit until an angry honk -- the only one I got that whole day despite arguably deserving a couple -- told me I was blocking the entrance to a car wash. "Who the hell washes a car on a day like this?" I thought. I pulled up next to the penultimate car , rolled down the windows, and turned off the engine. We sweltered for 15 minutes, cats panting and line completely stationary. "This is as close to The Grapes of Wrath as I ever want to get." I said. And then I thought: "And what if this outfit runs out of gas before we get to the head of the line?" Seeing that this line was nothing but a time sink, I decided to leave. We'd check 59 from our vantage point on U.S. 190 and, if necessary, follow 190 to Onalaska, where we could take FM 356 northward to Sebastapol and then head northeast to Lufkin.

My wife can be very fickle about my various schemes, and taking country roads was no exception. Until all the empty stations, she seemed happy with the time we were making, but we were now at the 3/4 point, so she was getting paranoid about them. We passed a few other stations in Livingston with gas and huge lines. She wanted to try one of these, but I asked her to calculate the distance it would take us to get to Lufkin first, and to get the populations of Livingston and Lufkin from the map. (The figures were out of date, but it was their relative numbers I thought would be convincing.) Distance on planned route: about 100 miles, population of Livingston: about 5000, population of Lufkin: about 30,000.

We were on U.S. 190 in heavy, slow-moving (about 15 mph) traffic after we'd gotten used to decent speeds. As I said before, this road led to the I-45, the other major northbound evacuation route. On the radio, there had been reports all day that the southbound lanes of 45 were to be opened to northbound evacuation traffic, so I figured that most of this traffic consisted of motorists frustrated with 59 who wanted to try their luck with 45. We'd turn north at Onalaska and lose these birds.

But the wife -- my navigatrix -- needed convincing. I told her what I thought was going on with 190. The other side of the road was clear, so I offered this pitch. We had plenty of gas to get to Lufkin, a town six times the size of Livingston, which itself had gas. The problem seemed to be that all these small towns were just not used to all this traffic and were getting sucked dry. If Livingston, a "big small town", had gas, the Lufkin would certainly have it, and would perhaps be large enough that we might be able to find a place with shorter lines. At worst, everyone would be turning north like us. If we saw that, I told her I'd return to Livingston for the gas, an easy trip since eastbound 190 was basically devoid of traffic.

She agreed to this. I knew we'd be heading to Lufkin in short order.

Bun Rationing

But before we were to turn north, we saw a welcome sight: A restaurant was actually open. This Sonic drive-in restaurant was the first such establishment we saw open all day. As soon as my wife pointed it out, I said we were stopping there. My last decent meal had been a lunch of sushi the day before. And while the PB&J was nice to have, this carnivore never passes up meat. So we both ordered hamburger meals. We were told that the restaurant was running low on some supplies and asked whether a hamburger with one bun would be OK. Of course it was.

At the time, I joked about whether a burger with one bun was an "open-face" or a "half-assed" sandwich, but as Miguel Cervantes would put it, I "had hunger for sauce". That was the best damned hamburger. Ever.

We left the Sonic feeling much better. Our waitress mentioned that there might be gas at the station near FM 356, but they were out. Fortunately, my prediction about the traffic was right on the money. At least 2/3 of the westbound traffic was continuing on 190, while the rest went north on FM 356.

Our average speed all the way to Lufkin was somewhere around 60 mph.

The Best Little Pit Stop in Texas

Our approach to Lufkin was on TX 94. Shortly before getting there -- I think in New Hope -- my wife spotted a short gas line. I pulled over into it. Some guy was talking to the drivers ahead of me. "I guess that's a caravan." I remembered how my original plan had entailed the use of our two beaters. This kind of improvisation would have been nearly impossible in that situation. This made me especially glad we rented one large vehicle for our escape. As I was thinking about this, the guy approached me and told me to pull ahead into a different line. This was weird. Was this a trick to cause me to give up my space? But if one thing impressed me all day at every stop, it was how remarkably civilized everyone was acting. "Are you the owner? I asked. "Yes."

I pulled up and got gas, topping off my tank and refilling the two-gallon can, which I placed in the very back of the truck this time. I pulled over to park while the wife took a pit stop and bought snacks at the store. I observed the man making sure everything was running smoothly. His station was clean. I saw him change the garbage bag himself, a pleasant contrast to the (understandably) overflowing bins every other place seemed to have. This place was an island of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic, hot, and frustrating day.

My wife got back to the SUV and we were about to go when I realized I had some unfinished business to do. I got out of the truck and went over to thank the owner. I told him he had the best-run place I'd seen all day and that I hoped he made money hand over fist for the rest of his life.

With that, we took off, making our final approach to Lufkin with a full tank of gas. All we had to do was check on US 59, which had a decent chance of being clear, what with Lufkin being "the" evacuation point.

And it was. Our trip to Lufkin from Houston on often-crowded country roads had taken us 10 hours compared to the 17 hours it took those who stayed on 59 the whole way that day. This trip normally takes only 2 1/2 hours. But at Lufkin, the road was moving at normal speeds. We rejoined 59, which goes all the way to Texarkana, and made that leg of the trip in only 4 hours.

To be continued....

Note: I think I can finish this ... saga (as it has turned out to be) in one or two more posts. In the next, I'll cover the return trip and then (either in the same post or one more) discuss some thoughts I had on the evacuation and "price gouging", which might have spared some uncertainty at the pump and/or caused more motorists to have greater foresight.

-- CAV


9-24-06: Yes. 2006. Added link to conclusion. Added strikethrough.

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