Tuesday, September 27

I'm a Hurricane Rita evacuee - Part 2

My four kids lay sound asleep side-by-side on the floor of the American Press news bureau in downtown DeRidder as Hurricane Rita reached us in the early hours Saturday. The lights went out as the high winds began to whip the old brick building.
In the dark, the 100 mile per hour winds shook the building. I could hear loud, terrible noises that sounded like metal bending or things being torn off the roof. The awning in front of the American Press building began to bang against the glass windows and front doors. It seemed like it might shatter the glass before the morning light came.
I tried to determine what I would do if the winds ripped off the building's roof or smashed the large glass windows in front. The building had a separate garage connected to the back of the building. This would be our refuge if my worst fears came true.
I fell asleep and awoke hours later to a loud banging noise. It was the awning again. By now it was daylight and the winds were still whipping, sending pieces of shingles and sheet metal through the air. We started to see the damage the high winds had done to the building and downtown DeRidder. The winds would continue most of the day. We finally took down the awning because it kept banging against the glass windows.
As the day progressed, the kids tried to entertain themselves with no air conditioning in the building. A friend of bureau chief Shawn Martin's came by and dropped off some MREs we could eat. The MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) are used by the military, but you would think they were designed for kids. My children loved the chili mac and the jalapeno cheese spread. The MREs even had small bags of Skittles and M&Ms in them. The MREs used water to heat them. It took the kids' minds off the predicament we were in. They had not bathed in days. They didn't like it.
Managing Editor Bobby Dower and I worked all day. Shawn had figured out a way to use my van as a generator to run our computers and get us an Internet connection since we had no power. We listened to the television and radio. We filed stories that I was able to put together along with other stories filed by Shawn. By Sunday morning, we began to walk outside and look at the damage firsthand. There were trees down everywhere. I walked my two dogs and took some pictures. I thought about how nice it would be to go to church. The Press building was starting to get too hot because the sun had come out. Bobby decided he would head for Lafayette. The kids were miserable but their morale was high. My youngest child, Ricky, 7, made action figures out of plastic cups and utensils. I knew we had to leave. I decided to head for Houston where my brother lived.
Staffer Elona Weston came by to file some stories. Elona and her husband, Tom, rode the hurricane out with their dog in a local church hall. She drove me to her home where she had a working phone. I contacted my brother in Houston and told him we were coming. On the way back, Elona drove me by the city park. It was destroyed with dozens of large trees down and park pavilions blown away. The playground equipment remained standing.
I used the van one more time to power up the computers to e-mail my wife back in Lake Charles what we were doing. I told her not to worry. The kids and my mom packed their stuff quickly. We loaded the van and headed out. Fortunately I had a full tank of gas. I had filled up in DeRidder the day before the storm hit. I wondered if the gas would be enough to get us to Houston. I didn't have a Texas map. I decided to drive on U.S. 190 west to U.S. 59 south which would take us to Houston. We left at 3:45 p.m. Sunday from DeRidder and would not arrive in Houston until nearly seven hours later.
As we hit the road, we started to see more mass destruction from Hurricane Rita. It look like a war zone. The first town we came upon was Merryville. Huge trees, snapped like twigs, crossed over power lines on both sides of highway. We came upon some convenience stores that had opened their doors. They had no electricity, but gobs of people filled them trying to get supplies. It didn't look pretty.
As we entered Texas, we soon saw long lines of vehicles lined along the highway in the opposite direction waiting to get into distribution points where supplies was being given out. Trees were down everywhere, particularly on power lines. Many were nearly in the road. Entering Newton, we knew the power was out. The traffic lights didn't work. High winds had damaged Newton High School. We later saw a field of small pines trees in which all of them leaned northward, pushed that way by the hurricane winds.
Every town we came to - Jasper, Woodville, Bon Wier, Indian Springs - had no electricity. People standing on the roadside looked like they were in shock and didn't know what to do. We finally made it to Livingston, Texas. There was still no power but I got onto U.S. 59 south. Little did I know we would hit three separate detours on U.S. 59. It took us miles out of our way and drank my gasoline. I finally had to turn off the van's air conditioner and roll the windows down to conserve gas. There was no gas anywhere. We had to make it on what we had. I saw people stranded along the road with their vehicles, waving signs asking for help. I didn't have any gas to spare.
It seemed the farther south we went, the more delays we encountered. The first detour made us drive more than 20 miles off our original route. My gasoline began to get lower and lower. We saw one house along the way that had a large sign posted in front. It read: "Help us. 43 people here. Water and ice needed." I only had 10 bottles of water. I came to an intersection in the middle of nowhere. A chubby kid sitting on a box along the curb asked me if I needed directions. I said no. I finally made it to U.S. 59, only to hit another detour. A bridge on the highway had been hit by a barge. It was closed until road crews could determine if it was safe.
We were told by the highway patrol to double back another 10 or 15 miles. I was starting to reach half a tank of gasoline. We still had a far way to go. We kept looking for a sign that would tell us how much further we had to go to reach Houston. It was now dark and there were vehicles everywhere. We started to hit long lines heading for Houston. The traffic sometimes came to a standstill. Trucks and cars began riding on the shoulder to get around the traffic jams.
We hit a third detour which eventually took us back to U.S. 59 near Cleveland, Texas. I didn't know if there were any more detours. Traffic was heavy at first, but soon the highway opened up and I started to speed down the road. We reached Houston at 10 p.m. The kids wanted to eat at a restaurant. Everything was closed. We managed to get an order of chicken wings to go from Hooters. The kids ate them up. When I reached Houston, I had enough gas left to go 70 more miles.

Hector San Miguel
City Editor

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