Friday, September 23

I'm a Hurricane Rita evacuee

For four weeks I watched the plight of thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees on television and in real life as many fled to Lake Charles for safe haven.

I felt for these people and thought more than once how I would never want to endure something like Hurricane Katrina.

Today I am a Hurricane Rita evacuee. I left Lake Charles at 7 p.m. Thursday heading north for the American Press news bureau in DeRidder. I brought my four children, my mother and our two dogs with me. I left my wife behind. She is a television reporter with KPLC-TV. She said she had to stay and cover the hurricane's arrival. I didn't like it but as a journalist I understood.

We said our goodbyes in front of the TV station and then I headed for U.S. 171 north. I immediately hit gridlock in Moss Bluff and began what would be a more than four-hour trek as thousands of other evacuees headed north. The normal time for a drive to DeRidder from Lake Charles is 45 minutes.

My children and mother were nervous and anxious. As we slowly moved north, we saw things that you might see in a disaster movie. It was like the evacuation scenes of Los Angeles in the 1952 film version of "War of the Worlds." There were stranded automobiles out of gas and broken down vehicles with people asking for a lift. An elderly man sat in a director's chair next to his stalled car watching the long line of vehicles pass by. All of it seem so surreal. It was only the beginning.
My on-board computer told me I was traveling four miles an hour and I had 30 more miles to go or seven more hours to go at that rate.

We listened to my friend, Gary Shannon of FM 92.1, on the radio taking phone calls from evacuees driving on La. 27, U.S. 171 and 165 and Interstate 10. All told the same story - long lines of vehicles, no gas, and little patience.

Some of the complaints raised an interesting issue. Why were there so many Texans driving on U.S. 171 and U.S. 165. Didn't Texas have three northerly evacuation routes out of Houston? Would the traffic be less if the Texans were not on the road with us. Who knows?

We saw a little girl sobbing along the roadside. Her dog had gotten out of the car when they pulled along the roadside to stop. The dog was hit and killed by another vehicle.

A middle-aged woman sat on top of a large box in the back of a pickup truck. She was smoking a cigarette and waving at people who stared at her.

Frustrated drivers drove along the shoulder of the road trying to make headway. Other drivers risked their lives following siren-blaring ambulances heading north in the southbound lane of U.S. 171.

My kids were hungry for hot food. There was none. All of the fast-food restaurants along U.S. 171 were closed. We had brought snack food and drinks. Oatmeal pies and bottled water were the main order of the day in the San Miguel van. There was a side dish of crackers and cheese.

The closer we got to DeRidder the faster the traffic picked up, but as we entered the city's outskirts the traffic gridlocked again. We were exhausted. I had filled my van up with gas but now I was down to nearly half a tank. No gas stations were open except one just outside DeRidder.There were long disorganized lines of vehicles waiting to fill up there. I decided to wait until morning to find gas.

About 11:30 p.m. we drove into the parking garage of the American Press news bureau. Shawn Martin, the bureau chief, met us. We settled in and slept like logs. It was a long night we will never forget.

Hector San Miguel
American Press City Editor

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