Sunday, October 2

I'm a Hurricane Rita evacuee, Part 3

It has been a long week. It’s now Day 10 since Hurricane Rita slammed my town down but it seems like Day 100. A lot has happened since Rita paid her rude and crude visit here.
I got my four kids and my mother to Houston last Sunday and spent the day there reenergizing. I never knew how good a hot shower or a hot meal could be until then. I stocked up with supplies and headed back to Lake Charles on Tuesday.
I knew I needed to get back home. My wife, a KPLC-TV reporter who rode out the hurricane in Lake Charles, told me we had major roof damage.
Sure, I had to check my house but there was more stuff going on. Lake Charles evacuees spread out around the U.S. were starving for information about their hometown. My newspaper was trying to be that source. I was ready to hit the ground running.
I left Houston Tuesday morning filled up with non-perishable food, bottled water and a ton of batteries. When I got to Baytown, I was down a quarter of a tank in gas so I decided to fill up at a convenience store. There were gas lines everywhere.
I was lucky. I was only four cars deep from the pump. Two women in a pickup truck were filling up their truck but the next thing I knew they opened the bed to their truck and pulled out nine ten-gallon gas cans. People in the gas line started to honk and yell. The women ignored them. It seem to take forever for them to fill the gas cans.
After they finished and drove off, the line started to move much quicker. Once I got to the pump, I asked the guy behind me about the two women. He said they were from nearby Dayton. There was no p\ower there. It had been hit hard by the storm, he said. They needed the gas to run several generators they had bought. I felt sorry for them.
Once on the road, I started to see the impact of Rita on southeast Texas. Another guy at the convenience store had told there was no gasoline between Baytown and Lafayette. He was right.
As I approached Winnie, I could see more power lines downed by trees snapped in half by Rita’s winds. People were stranded there with no gasoline waving at vehicles passing them on the interstate. There was no power in the town and everything was closed down.
It was about 60 miles from Beaumont when I could see many buildings and homes from the interstate. They had roofs ripped off or major structural damage. The winds must have been hellacious. Large billboards were even blown over.
Ten miles from Beamount, the exits off I-10 were closed. National Guard were stationed at each one. When I reached the Ford Arena outside Beaumont, I saw it was being used as large staging area for relief groups, the military and local evacuees. There were two large medical Army helicopters in the parking lot.
In Beaumont, there was so much damage. Hotel had their windows blown out. Restaurant signs destroyed. There were power lines down everywhere. Trees were uprooted. I wondered how this compared to Lake Charles.
The Jack-in-the Box restaurant along I-10 had seen its large sign mounted on a huge black metal pole toppled by Rita. I saw TV news crews shooting video of the downed structure.
After Beaumont, I came to Vidor. A lot more damage to trees and power lines there. The Vidor Church of Christ had its roof ripped off exposing the inside of the building. There was no one around.
In Orange, the old Baptist Church had suffered the same fate. I was shocked to see that my favorite restaurant in Orange, “Joe’s Crab Shack,” had been heavily damaged by the storm. The roof and the building appeared to have been blown apart. There was still no gas and no power.
All this time, deserted vehicles littered the Interstate’s roadside. They were either out of gas or broke down. The owners were nowhere around.
Once I crossed into Louisiana, I decided to stop at the Welcome Center there. I noticed there were a lot of people there. I thought maybe the center had generator power. I was wrong. The people were trying to get into the restrooms. They were closed up tight.
All of the buildings including the Welcome Center had some roof damage. There were broken windows too. Many of the trees on the property were uprooted. There was litter scattered all around. Truckers were parked here to rest.
I passed through Vinton and all I could see was destruction. This wasn’t just roof damage or downed trees. It was devastation. The Lucky Peacock Hotel and Casino was heavily damaged along with other truckstop casinos there.
As I passed Sulphur I saw many of the restaurants had suffered wind damage along with the motels there. I kept thinking about how bad it must be in Lake Charles. I tried to prepare for the worst.
I had heard the Interstate 10 bridge had been closed but it seemed this had changed. The exit to the Interstate 210 bridge was blocked off by State Police and Interstate 10 was open.
Once over the bridge, I saw the Isle of Capri casino on the lake had some roof damage to its hotels and pavilion but it seemed to be in pretty good shape. This wasn’t the same story for Harrah’s.
It was an incredible sight. The hurricane winds had pushed the Island barge and the riverboats docked on both sides parallel to the shoreline. The boats and the barge weigh thousands of tons but were pushed aside by Rita like floating debris.
As I got off the interstate onto Lakeshore Drive, I started to see the city’s biggest landmark, the Hibernia Bank Tower, had many of its windows blown out. The Civic Center looked like it had been damaged too.
I stopped at KPLC-TV to see my wife. She looked worn and frazzled but seem to be in good spirits. She told me to go to our house. She also said to be prepared for what I was about to see in our neighborhood.
I live on Iris Street between Common and Kirkman Street. As I drove toward our house, I could see what she meant. Downed power lines were scattered on the streets along with shingles. Downed trees and tree branches seemed to be everywhere. As a native of Lake Charles, I have seen my share of storm damage but never like this.
The infamous ice storm that blacked out the city for a week in the 1990s was the last time the power had been cut off to such a large area in our town. Tree branches covered with ice broke off onto power lines cutting off electricity.
In Rita’s case, the power lines were knocked down by entire trees. Some streets were blocked in our neighborhood and fortunately they were deserted. No one needed to be here right now especially kids.
As I drove up into my driveway, it looked as though my house was unscathed. My large backyard was a mess though. I have more than a dozen large trees- oak, pine and pecan - there. More than half them were knocked down. The biggest tree in my yard is a towering oak that I think is more than 100 years old. The massive tree survived Rita but the hurricane winds stripped it bare of its huge branches.
My mother’s two-story cottage, which lies in my backyard, appeared to be undamaged. Many of the large trees that fell had just brushed her home. Her roof was in good shape too.
A check of my house inside found that my earlier excitement about being unscathed was premature. As I went up into my attic I could see sunlight. I had three large holes in my roof and water was dripping in. A further check of the house found water damage in one of my bathrooms.
I was depressed at first but realized I was very lucky after I saw my neighbor’s house down the street. He had a large tree fall on top of his house collapsing a large section of his roof and allowing water to run down his staircase.
I had bought some tarps in Houston and managed to cover two of the holes but I couldn’t reach the third one because it was on the slant of the roof. I didn’t need to fall off and kill myself. The odd thing about this hole was that it appeared as though someone had taken their fist and punched a hole in my roof breaking the boards.
It must have been some kind of projectile that did the damage but I was not able to find it anywhere. I cleaned up our front yard and later cut the grass.
My first thought after I assessed the damage was that I wanted anyone who passed my house to know while we might be down we certainly weren’t out. I hung my American flag in front and posted a large sign I made on the front window. It said, “Survivor of the Hurricane of 1918, Audrey and Rita.”
I forget to mention that my house has had a charmed life of sorts. It was built in 1910 and completed three days before the Great Fire of 1910 that wiped most of the downtown and 60 residences.
A Catholic cemetery at the corner of Iris and Common Streets acted as a fire break as the flames moved down Iris Street. My house was spared. It also came through the last two hurricanes that hit Lake Charles. I don’t know what kind of damage it had back then but the house was still standing as it is today.
The other good news is that my cat survived the hurricane. We took our two dogs when we left for DeRidder before the storm hit but our cat was nowhere to be found. I fed him a whole bowl of cat food as he limped up. He ate all of it and more after that. I thought to myself what a great interview he would be if he could talk. What did he see and what did he hear when Rita arrived?
My neighbor across the street, Mark, came over to talk. He had some storm damage to his roof and most of the palm trees he has in his yard seemed to fare well in the storm. He said he had evacuated before the storm to DeRidder too.
Probably the oddest thing to happen at my house this week was the sight of ten shirtless men asleep on my front porch. I drove up the other day to pick a few things and saw this pile of guys sprawled out. I asked them if I could help them and they all looked at me in a daze. I immediately realized they didn’t speak English.
As it turned out there were part of a tree-removal outfit that had been clearing debris at the rental house next door. This yard was now all nice and clean but for some reason the men had put all of the debris in my front yard. The foreman, who did speak English, couldn’t say who he worked for and said his men were too tired to remove the storm debris from my front yard. They had been working since 7 a.m., he said. I knew this was going to be a bad day. What else could happen?

Hector San Miguel
American Press
City Editor


Elaine said...

I thought to myself what a great interview he would be if he could talk. What did he see and what did he hear when Rita arrived?

Haha. I would have wondered the same thing.

So glad your home fared well, Hector.

- Elaine B.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Tos. Keep up the great writing.


Kathy Kay said...

Hector -- where's Lucy? Sally wants to talk to her.

Kathy K.