Escape From Houston

How I fled Rita.

Drivers stranded on I-10. Click image to expand.
Drivers stranded on I-10

I have just two pieces of advice for anyone who has to flee a large metropolitan area in the face of a Category 5 hurricane: Be sure you have a Magellan RoadMate and a Japanese car. Let me explain.

My 14-year-old son, Sam, and I left Houston at 10:30 Thursday morning with our golden retriever, headed for my parents’ condo in San Antonio. This is normally a three-hour drive. My neighbor, offering to share his hotel room at the Hilton downtown, warned me not to go—”It’s anarchy out there,” he said—but by then I was packed and was being drawn out of town by progressively more anxious calls from my parents and my boss. My husband, a newspaperman, had to stay. He kissed us goodbye like someone forced to stay in Atlanta as Sherman approached.

I was not particularly worried about Rita. I grew up with hurricanes, starting with Carla in 1962, and spent Alicia, in the early ‘80s, calmly babysitting my friend’s cats while the wind howled around us. In anticipation, I stocked the house with canned goods, flashlights, and batteries; got cash from the ATM; and filled up the car day before yesterday—go or stay, I was as ready as a Girl Scout trying to win her preparedness patch. I thought I even had a good alternate route out of town: I was going to go south and then head west on 90A, a back road I’d taken a few times before to San Antonio. If the phrase “going south” strikes you as somewhat ominous, please note that I have been living in Hurricane Central for the last few weeks, and was gripped by serious denial.

And so, Sam, Chuy, and I drove toward the coast, out Main Street and on to 90A, where there was, indeed, no traffic. At all. Somewhat further on we sped past a beat-up scarlet Nissan with the words “Rita, go away bitch” spray-painted on the back window. Fifteen minutes later, we hit gridlock. To the right of me was a family that had three kids and a bright cockatoo flittering out of its cage. Behind me was an Asian couple who took no solace from the smiling, happy Buddha on the dashboard of their pickup. In front of me, as far as the eye could see, were cars, bumper to bumper. “I think there’s a wreck up there,” a driver with binoculars told me hopefully. Meanwhile, the radio DJs kept using the word “catastrophic” and talking about “the cone of uncertainty”—that area where the storm might or might not hit, which included the exact point at which we were stuck. I had the air conditioner on—at the lowest setting, mixed with outdoor air, which by then was already 100 degrees. My son and I were both the color of tomatoes, and the dog’s panting was starting to sound like coronary disease.

We sat there for two hours, during which time we moved exactly three-tenths of a mile by my speedometer’s reckoning. I kept checking the gauges on my 9-year-old Honda Accord’s dashboard—so far, all was well. I had about three-quarters of a tank of gas—I’d run a few errands on Wednesday, but the car wasn’t overheating. I figured I needed only a half-tank to get home to San Antonio, and we had about 48 hours until Rita came ashore. Still, at the rate we were moving, the odds weren’t good. I turned off 90A the first chance I got.

We were somewhere near the suburb of Missouri City in what was most definitely a mandatory evacuation area. We spent the next hour or so heading north again, past oversized tract homes that, if past experience was any indication, might not be there when we returned. Every gas station we passed either had long lines in front of it or bright yellow plastic ribbons tied over the tank handles, indicating they were out.

I remained calm, and couldn’t figure out why, since it’s not my normal state. Then I realized I wasn’t calm—that this quiet focus was what it felt like to be terrified. I had visions of riding out the storm in Southwest Houston—a part of town I avoid on the best days—while the water rose up around the Accord, the dog whimpering as Sam and I huddled together, waiting for the end in a Ross Dress for Less parking lot. I thought about turning back home, too, but I kept worrying about the pine tree in our backyard crashing through the roof. I wondered, briefly, how long our neighbors would realistically let us stay at the Hilton, and how long the Hilton would realistically let us all stay. (During Alicia, the hotels pushed everyone out once the power went off.) Then I thought of my parents’ condo, with computers, clean beds, and air conditioning. I pushed on, toward I-10, despite increasingly alarming reports on the radio about people running out of gas and further blocking the highway, where many drivers had already been stranded since the night before. “Better start rationing those Doritos,” I told Sam, who had already gone through one bag and three Capri Suns with electrolytes, while the dog had already drunk two bottles of Ozarka.

It took about three hours heading dead west on side-streets before I reached the approach to I-10. It was utterly jammed. Then I remembered my husband’s Christmas present to me last year—a GPS device called the Magellan RoadMate. That may not sound like the most romantic gift, but I spend a lot of time in the car, and a lot of that time on strange roads on the verge of being very, very lost. “Turn on the RoadMate,” I said to my son.

The RoadMate displays a map so detailed that even the most directionally challenged can find their way to their destination. I decided to skip the freeway and let the RoadMate guide me. At 1:23 the radio brought news that the first rain bands had reached the coast.

By then we were on a series of farm roads, driving about 50 mph toward San Antonio, tacking first west, then northwest, then west again, according to the computer on my dash. I knew most of the towns, with their wonderful German and Central European names—Waelder, Wiemer, Schulenberg, New Ulm—but had forgotten how pretty and pastoral they are, racing around Texas on the interstates as I do. While the radio was predicting Armageddon, we drove past gnarled live oaks and sable herds of cattle, crossed the Brazos near Columbus, and veered past turn-of-the-century homes that were still waiting for gays and yuppies from the city to take them over. We pulled into a general store called “Po Boys Gas.” It, too, was out of gas, and mobbed by desperate Houstonians in search of homemade sandwiches (there were none) and bottled water (supplies were dwindling). “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Sam said, when we were further down the road, “The lady back there told me I-10 is open on both sides now.”

We used the navigator to tack south—past a house inexplicably decorated with four knights in shining armor out front—and got to the interstate, where, indeed, traffic was now moving at 60 mph on four lanes, all of them headed west. There were families picnicking at underpasses, and cars broken down along the road—clearly out of gas—but the traffic moved, so we stayed on until my boss called to tell me that I should get off the highway because it was going to bottleneck in Seguin, where the four lanes went down to two again. We had lost the radio by then, and so were blissfully free of horrifying news.

A few miles later we turned off the AC—I was down to a quarter of a tank, probably enough to get to San Antonio but I wasn’t taking chances. We rolled down all the windows, and soon, the car filled up with glistening gold hairs floating in the air—my dog shedding in the breeze.

We cut south. It was close to 6 p.m., the sun was starting to set, a bright orange ball with the kind of rays you see in children’s paintings, filtered through the beginnings of the fluffy cumulus clouds that signal storms on the way. Even this far west, people had boarded up windows of their homes—no one here needs a DJ to tell them hurricanes can change direction overnight. We finally pulled into a gas station that had lines but also gasoline, filled the tank, and, air cooled again, tacked northwest for the 30 or so miles toward my parents’ place. We had been on the road for nine hours. Near Seguin I passed a high school jammed with people and bright yellow buses and assumed it was a shelter. Then I looked again: Crowds had collected on small bleachers, and there were kids in pads and uniforms on the field. I had forgotten: This was Texas. They were just playing football.