The Great Evacuation of '05 -- Part I

Thursday, September 29, 2005

I normally blog about current events from a pro-reason, pro-individual rights perspective here, but I do the odd autobiographical entry from time to time. This will be a little bit of both.

What was it like to be one of the millions of participants -- over two million by one estimate I recall offhand -- in that sweltering and desperate, yet still remarkably civilized, chaos that I think should be known to history as The Great Evacuation of '05?

I will attempt to answer that question, but before doing so, I will warn that my experience was in many ways easier than most. I will also warn that I am writing this narrative primarily for the sake of recording the experience for myself. This is certainly not meant to discourage anyone from reading it and commenting if he wishes, but the narrative will reflect the kind of person who wrote it. This means that I will often describe what I was thinking and feeling at the time, and that I will consider these events in their larger context.

Katrina and Rita

Some say that the horrific aftermath of hurricane Katrina -- the reduction of one of America's great cities into a stinking, trash-strewn cesspool -- caused an inordinate response by the governments of Houston, Texas, and the other municipalities and counties in metropolitan Houston, an area whose population exceeds 5 million. Since, as of today, the death toll associated with this mass exodus is 107, this is a serious charge. This is also a patently ridiculous charge given: (1) the enormous size of this metropolis (of which about 1.5 million lived in areas that would be affected by a sufficiently large storm surge), (2) the projected strength of the storm at landfall (category 4 or 5), and (3) its projected point of landfall (90 miles southwest of Houston) three days before it was due to strike.

Those of us who live on or near the Gulf Coast and value our lives have to watch the Atlantic basin with a wary eye every day for the entirety of hurricane season every year. In doing so, we learn a few things about hurricanes. One of these things is that these storms have "dirty" (more intense) and "clean" (less-intense) sides. If you are to have a near-miss, you want the clean side, west of the eye. In the end, this is what Harris County (the huge county containing most of Houston and many of its suburbs) got, and from quite a distance. And yet its damage estimates today are still $111 million. This is also what Houston's beleaguered eastern suburbs got. Parts of Liberty County, which I drove through upon my return home to see numerous broken and uprooted trees as well as damaged roofs, saw "merely" the equivalent of a category 1 hurricane. This area was closer to Rita's landfall, but still on the clean side. Some residents there may be without power for over a month.

Three days before landfall, which is the latest one can reasonably make the call for well over a million souls to hit the road, Houston was supposed to see the dirty side of this storm -- if it stayed its course. The storm did in fact veer eastward. This meant that at one point, Houston stood an excellent chance of a direct hit from a storm whose winds alone, like a tornado miles wide, would do catastrophic damage, and not just along the coastline or in low-lying areas. While the raw power of the winds of a major hurricane has been well-known long before Katrina, that storm gives me some examples of the wind damage a major storm can dole out. I recently met someone whose apartment was destroyed by that storm as it barreled through Hattiesburg, Mississippi -- about 75 miles inland -- as a category three storm. My mother, who lives in rural Mississippi twice as far inland as Hattiesburg, escaped property damage, but still went without power or water for over a week. I saw trees uprooted along U.S. 49 almost as far north as Jackson on a recent drive.

Katrina was all over the news, but the damage she caused to New Orleans was mainly an accident of that city's geography and a failure by the U.S. government to take adequate measures against storm surges -- like flood gates at the mouth of Lake Ponchartrain. Much of her damage on the Mississippi coast included that caused by her storm surge, which often stripped the lower floors of multistory dwellings to their frames if it left them standing at all. It might seem plausible to someone inundated with the storm surge of media publicity about Katrina's knockdown punches to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast that officials in Texas panicked in the face of Rita. But if this is plausible, it is plausible poppycock.

And what of those who, like me, were not ordered to evacuate, but did so anyway? Doubtless, some were responding to Katrina's hype, but speaking for myself, I did not. I not only pay close attention to hurricanes, but I grew up in the pine belt. I happen to know that pine trees snap like matchsticks in hurricane-force winds. My house is surrounded by pines large enough to cause serious damage to it if they fall the right way. I would probably stay for a category one storm. Before we moved to this house (which we rent since we will likely move in a couple of years), I would have stayed for a two and maybe a three. But not in this house, and we were looking at a four or five just about down the barrel when decision time came.

I've lived in Houston for over a decade and only once before even considered evacuating. But this decision was a no-brainer. Katrina or not.

Day 1

I'd been nervously eyeing Rita for several days already last Wednesday, when I woke up for work as usual. Normally, being in the five-day cone of a storm is not a big deal. The track usually veers off to one side or the other, but Rita was not doing this. Indeed, by 4:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, we were still too close to the center of the three day cone for comfort. (The National Weather Service updates its hurricane forecast at 5:00 and 11:00 a.m. and p.m. EDT every day.) Even though I heard rumors that an evacuation order would go out that day, I held out some hope that the projected path would start changing by 10:00, but had also decided that I would make the decision on whether to evacuate then. The path and projected strength at landfall, the wind radius, and forecast error spelled doom. I decided to evacuate and shortly after, my employer decided to close at the end of business Wednesday and evacuation orders for Houston were given. (Houston has three zones, based on storm severity. Galveston and other such low-lying areas were already told to evacuate. That day's orders were, I believe, merely for the areas that had to evacuate for major storms.)

Based on our facility's experience with the drenching Houston got at the hands of Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, I had to stay at work for several more hours to secure equipment from possible water damage. I found it slightly disconcerting to converse with my coworkers, many of whom were going to weather the storm. There was a small but distinct possibility that I was having my last conversation with some of them. Other coworkers were undecided, which seemed even more incongruous to me than the desire to weather out the storm. As you will see, I had no idea how heavy traffic could be in a mass evacuation, but I did at least appreciate that waiting until the last minute to leave could be very bad. We offered a ride to a foreign coworker of my wife's, but he decided to remain in Houston.

I came home from work in mid-afternoon to begin some packing. It was then that the consequences of a direct hit really struck me. I am solitary by nature and my home is my refuge from the social pressures of the world. I can relax fully only at home. It occurred to me how much, despite the fact that we are here only temporarily, I really like our home. I took a short break from the packing to relax and enjoy an Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout from the fridge in the back room where I keep my home brewing equipment. I was aging an India Pale Ale I'd recently bottled in that same refrigerator. "I'm really going to miss this place if that storm hits," I thought. "I want to enjoy it here at least one more time."

I love my wife dearly, but she has the most annoying habit of taking forever to get done at work before trips. Why would an evacuation be any different? We'd decided, on the advice of her parents (who are very experienced at running from hurricanes), to rent an SUV for our escape. This turned out to be far better than using our two rather old cars, as I'd originally planned. (They even rented it for us, for which I am very grateful. Science is not the path to wealth.) Well, we were slated to pick it up at 6:00 and she got home at 5:00. I was concerned that we'd miss getting the SUV since it normally takes about 45 minutes to get from our house to the airport north of town.

I don't rent cars often enough to appreciate how flexible some companies are about pick-up times, so this concern turned to panic as we were not even a quarter of the way to the airport at the 30 minute mark. Harris County has a very nice system of tollways that normally permit one to avoid the congestion of the freeways. But these were completely choked with traffic! We surmised that this situation, like the very heavy side street traffic we also encountered when I chose to use city streets for part of the trip, was due to the evacuation. (Later, we learned that the tolls were removed to facilitate the evacuations to our south.) Fortunately, Budget was very flexible, allowing us to change our pickup time three times: once because Mrs. Van Horn was so blasted late getting home and twice more as our trip to the airport stretched from its usual 45 minutes to two and a half hours. (Even on the eight-lane U.S. 59, traffic was excruciatingly slow -- or so I thought until the next day. Seeing a huge line, I parked my car in the center of a middle floor of a garage (as a precaution against storm damage) and returned via shuttle bus. Upon my return, the wife was first in line after having waited in line for 45 minutes to get the SUV. (Actually, this was to have been a mini-van, but those were no longer available.).

After dropping off the wife's car in another garage, we got home to pack shortly before midnight.

To be continued....

-- CAV


10-2-05: Added link to Part II.

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