One Aging Geek

Monday, September 26, 2005

Running from Rita: part 3 the anticlimactic ending

Author's note: this series of posts is a first person account of a few days dealing with Hurricane Rita. The posts are all written after the fact but I will try not to let that ruin the story. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

Friday, September 23

Out of bed about 8:30am after lying there for quite a while. Son-in-law's father is up and has made coffee. After having a cup I brush my teeth and throw on some clothes. I'm off in search of gasoline. The fleeing multitude has sucked up almost every bit of gas to be found. All the way from Pearland to College Station we didn't see any open stations. Pumps were all bagged. Some had people parked just to take advantage of the shade, we did that at one point in our trek.

Last night as we wound around College Station I noticed that almost every Shell station was open and had gas and tried to take note of where they were. Luck is with me and I find an open station with no line about 5 minutes from the house. As soon as I get back I let the others know and they head out to fill up. We were all down a bit below a half tank so returning would be very iffy if we hadn't managed this.

Around 11am I start checking in with family to let them know that we're out and safe. Also check in with our close circle of friends. One couple has elected to stay. I was nearly in tears yesterday trying to talk them out of it and feeling positive we'd never see them again. Another couple who are close also stayed but we can't get thru to them on the phone. Both couples were boarding up and hunkering down. Other close friends who left have similar tales to ours of 2 hour drives turned into 10 hour drives in horrible traffic.

The forecast for the storm is incrementally further east and the friends who live just a few blocks from our house say they're expecting to only be in tropical storm force winds (under 70mph) but possibly for close to 24 hours. The storm has slowed and the weather people are talking about it possibly stalling out once it goes inland and dropping 25 inches of rain on east Texas.

The rest of the day passes in a blur of TV, naps, reading. We've no shortage of food or drink so we're very comfortable. My daughter has spoken to the owners of the house (on a trip to California) and while they've told us to feel free to eat or drink anything there, we've brought more than enough. We were all expecting to have to deal with power outages and closed stores for several days.

The national news is full of New Orleans today. They're getting the outer rain bands from the east side of Rita and the levees have overflowed or broken again. Some of the areas pumped out after Katrina are now filling back up. There's also the tragic story of a bus full of elderly evacuees from a nursing home. After probably spending 15 or more hours on a bus and getting near Dallas the bus caught fire. Estimates are that twenty-four people died.

By the 10pm forecast from the NHC the track has moved all the way to the Texas-Louisiana border. Relief is starting to set in. Wind forecasts for home are still lighter and the storm is losing strength even more than was forecast with sustained winds down to 120mph.

After some discussion about when to head home we all turn in around midnight. It's a little breezy in College Station but no rain yet. The tension is gone out of the house.

Saturday, September 24

Everyone is up and moving around about 8am. The storm has more or less passed. There must have been a sprinkle of rain and some minor winds because there are some wet leaves outside the back patio door. Tree tops are still swaying a bit here and there.

We've decided to get on the road early in the hopes of being on the front edge of the returning multitude. It takes us until after 11am to get loaded and clean up after ourselves. We leave our hosts some cash and a note of appreciation. I suspect they won't want the cash but what are they going to do. If they get insistent we'll tell them to donate it somewhere. Their hospitality to a bunch of complete strangers has been a great blessing.

The drive back is mostly uneventful. There is still some wind and we get a couple of light rain showers on the way. The direct route seems slow so we take an alternate that's slightly longer. A stop at grandmother's house finds them without power. But our caravan is splitting up here. Daughter and son-in-law collect their cat and head for their home. Son-in-law's father and mother (with grandmother and husband following) will go to their house. We get one last call from the friends who rode it out near our house telling us that power has been off most of the morning but is now on. The drive across Pearland is uneventful. A tree here and there down, lots of leaves and small branches, a sign down every once in a while. There have been wind storms that did worse. We arrive home about three hours after leaving College Station.

We get home to find that the top of one of our trees has snapped off and is draped across the cab of the pickup. I take some pictures in case I need to file insurance and then with the help of a neighbor and a hunk of rope pull it over and off. Damage seems to be confined to a very small dent and a few minor scratches. The house is 100% intact, no broken windows, no water blown in thru crevices, nothing. The feeling walking around the house is pretty indescribable. Not that I couldn't have picked up and gone on if the house had been flattened as we feared but... I am just very grateful not to have to do that.

The aftermath It's Monday afternoon as I type this. Since arriving home I've been filling bags with downed leaves and branches and getting good use out of my chainsaw. Also put the A/V system and the computers back together. The only problem there was that the ethernet cable I grabbed to hook up my server was bad. Gave me a bit of a turn until I swapped that out. For some unknown reason my external drive, which had seemingly semi-croaked a week ago now seems to have healed itself. But I have lost trust in it and will replace it anyway.

Saturday morning a nearby grocery store opened and was mobbed. People are still panicky. I saw people buying groceries like they thought there never would be any more food. One lady left one of her children as a placeholder in the checkout line while she filled a shopping basket absolutely full, then hopped in to line where her kid was (right in front of me as it happens). I got a few things to replace the contents of the refrigerator, just enough to get us thru a couple of days. In our certainty that this was going to be a catastrophe we turned off the power at the main breaker before leaving. Mostly out of concern for the air conditioner in case power surged or cut on and off. [Note to self: if you turn off the power it's a good idea to not leave the ice cream in the freezer on the top shelf.]

Gas is still a little hard to come by but the Honda made it back with two-thirds of a tank and the pickup is full so we're good for several days.

The rest of the neighbors are trickling back in. About two hours after we got back on Saturday we heard on the TV that local officials are calling for a staged return and that we weren't supposed to come home until Monday. Oh well. I'm not sure how they thought that people in other cities up to several hundred miles away were supposed to know that. We listened to the radio all the way home. What we heard was a mixture of "stay away" and "all is well here come on home" from different localities. About half the families on our block were home before we were so obviously they didn't get the word either.

We got together with our closest circle of friends last night and ate pizza and drank margaritas while we swapped stories.

As the saying goes, all is well that ends well. I'm not a native of these parts but aside from the monumental traffic jam I have to say that Houston officials really seemed to have their stuff together through all this. While we were spared the devastation that New Orleans saw I think there's still a contrast in what the government did. Some may say that this was due to lessons learned from Katrina but I think that was a pretty minor part. One of the officials said on TV something like: We've been working with different organizations for years so when there were problems we already knew who to call and had established relationships.

Running from Rita: part 2 the epic journey

Author's note: this series of posts is a first person account of a few days dealing with Hurricane Rita. The posts are all written after the fact but I will try not to let that ruin the story. Part 1 is here Thursday, September 22

We're up at 6am without having gotten much sleep. The last forecast we have from NHC is last night at 10pm. The track is still west of a direct hit on our area but much closer. The wild card is a high pressure system that is drifting eastward. Rita will be steered along the edge of this system. So everything depends on how fast the high moves.

At 7 we get a call from our daughter. They were planning to come down from Houston to here and caravan out. Now they think that we should all congretate at the son-in-law's grandmother's house just off highway 288. They want to go as soon as possible. The news is full of how bad traffic is.

We quickly finish up, disconnecting and bagging the three week old plasma high def TV and assorted audio/video gear. The little DV camcorder and the digital cameras in their bag go with us so we'll be able to photograph the damage when we return. At 8:15 we take a last look around and load up the pets and ourselves for the short drive to the in-law's house. They're still loading and arranging. He has a generator that I help him load in the back of his Escalade.

Finally at a little after 10:00 we're on the road. It's nearly 11:00 by the time we get to grandmother's house. A short time to get organized there, check maps and we head out. We're in three vehicles. Daughter and son-in-law are in their 4Runner with grandmother and her husband. Back end full to the top with food and luggage. My wife and I have our 55-pound dog, our cat and our daughter's cat (grandmother is allergic) with our food and luggage in our Accord. Son-in-law's parents are in their Escalade with their two cats and a dog plus the generator, more food and luggage. We've all got our cell phones and full gas tanks so while we anticipate a long drive and have some worries about gas we're pretty confident we'll get where we're going without major problems.

We take some back roads across the south side of Houston. The first 20 miles or so are easy then we hit traffic on highway 6. After creeping along for a bit son-in-law takes us off on what looks like a plant entrance road. Some turns and twists later we're back on highway 6 but several miles further on and traffic is gone. Not to belabor this but we do more or less the same thing several more times.

After a couple of hours we've made good progress and are on the northwest side of Houston, probably 30 to 40 miles towards our goal. There traffic is at a stand-still. The radio says that they're opening the inbound (east) lanes of I-10 to outbound (west) traffic. After some arguing via cell phone we turn back south, back tracking probably 10 or more miles. No sign of the alleged opening. I-10 has a high-occupancy vehicle lane down the center flanked on both sides by concrete barriers. We get on, then get off, then see people dodging between barriers to use an HOV exit as a way across. We get back on but are too far along to be able to do the same thing.

This is where we spend about the next four hours. Creeping along between concrete barriers. The dog seems to sense our tension and is bouncing around in the back seat. Every time she gets close to the daughter's cat (who hates all other animals) the cat hisses, the dog panics and tries to leap between the seats into the front. I alternate elbowing the dog back with a couple of nose slaps. She finally turns herself around and faces the back corner, for all the world like a little kid sulking. About an hour further on the air conditioning gives up. No sign of the car overheating and no idiot lights, just an unhappy noise. Rather than risk breaking the serpentine belt I switch it off. It's about 100 degrees outside and moving at less than 10 miles per hour doesn't generate any appreciable breeze so it's pretty miserable. The cats quickly start looking overheated, panting, eyes down to pinpoints. We splash them with water every little while which they don't much appreciate.

The Escalade has ended up a little ahead of us and he follows an exit to highway 90A which he says is wide open. We're now in Katy. Katy was once more of a true town but now is more of a suburb of Houston even though it's quite a ways out to the west. We find a roadside burger joint and stop for a restroom break and some cold drinks. The place is out of ice and runs out of food as we're there. We're not really heading the direction we want so son-in-law leads us up some more back roads. We're in a line of cars but are moving quickly now, 60mph or more.

We eventually hook up with a road I recognize, FM 362. That takes us up past Waller, Camp Allen, and Navasota. At some little junction in the country where there's a bar a number of the locals are standing by the side of the road offering directions to the fleeing multitude. Very cool! At that junction we have to head back across to highway 6. At first 6 is moving well but about 30 miles out from College station it comes down to a creep again. It takes us almost an hour to go six miles. Then son-in-law strikes out on more back roads looping us around to the west and coming in to College Station from the southwest instead of the southeast. That makes the last 20 miles into more like 30 but we do it in about an hour.

About 15 minutes of winding thru College Station past Kyle Field where the Texas A&M is preparing to play a football game a day early brings us to the house where we can collect the key to where we're staying. Ten more minutes and we're there.

It's about 9pm, we've been on the road for almost 10 hours and covered approximately 120 miles. Most of the way up we've been listening to a radio station that simulcasts one of the TV stations audio so have had continuous news on the storm forecast. Each successive forecast has moved the projected eye track to the east. Most of the day the forecast for the eye track has been up the eastern edge of Galveston bay. It's a category 5 storm with sustained winds around 165mph. On this track our house will be in sustained hurricane force winds for about 10 to 12 hours. It looks bad but we hope for more eastward movement.

The house that's been given over to us for the weekend is a large 4 bedroom on a golf course. Very beautiful place. One bedroom has been made into an office, the other three give us beds for six. There's a big couch in the living room and another one out on a patio that has been glassed in (it would be a sun room if it wasn't surrounded by trees). So with couches nobody will be on the sleeping on the floor.

The rest of the crew wants to go eat. I announce that "I've been in a car without A/C for the last 6 hours and I'm going to be very unpleasant to sit next to if I don't get a shower". We sort out bedrooms and unload, then a quick shower and off to "the best Tex-Mex food in College Station".

Back at the house, the 10pm forecast is out and the eye track has moved eastward again, out between Galveston and Beaumont. Very bad for Beaumont but some relief for us. Sustained winds are down, which was projected but is only now happening.

Very little sleep again tonight. In a strange bed in a room with the cat and the dog. The dog remains restless. I take her outside to pee twice during the night before finally just closing her in the bathroom. The dog usually recognizes me as the alpha pack member and does anything I tell her but so far I've crammed her into a hot car several times and now into a tiny bathroom so she's very unhappy with me.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Running from Rita: part 1 preparing

Author's note: this series of posts is a first person account of a few days dealing with Hurricane Rita. The posts are all written after the fact but I will try not to let that ruin the story.

Tuesday, September 20 I'm in a class all this week at work so am at our facility but not in my office. I'm still keeping track of email. Two people so far have mailed me PDFs of the Houston evacuation routes.

After class the talk is all of where to go and how soon to get out. People are in very nearly a full scale panic. At first I really think they're crazy. At this point the storm could hit literally anywhere on the Gulf coast. Just as I sit down to my desk I get a call from my daughter (grown up, married, lives and works in Houston). She has made hotel reservations in Dallas, somewhere that take pets. She and her husband have a cat, we have a cat and a dog. While I think it's overkill I agree that we should head up there. The reservations are for Friday and Saturday night.

I'm starting to think I'm the one who is crazy. Everyone around wants out of town.

Wednesday, September 21

Mrs Aging Geek and I live in a suburban community to the south of Houston. We are just off the edge of the mandatory evacuation Zone C. People in the next community to our east including a lot of our friends and our church are in Zone C and are to begin evacuating tomorrow. Hurricane Rita is just crossing the tip of Florida. The projected path from the National Hurricane Center has it making landfall at Matagorda Bay, about 90 miles southeast of us. A "miss" to our west is very bad, as bad or worse than a direct hit. The counterclockwise circulation brings the worst rain, strongest winds, and the storm surge up the east side of hurricanes in this area. They're projecting this to be a strong category 4 when it makes landfall. And of course "landfall" is something of a joke. Everyone tracks the eye and of course that's where the worst of it is but a storm of this size will have hurricane force winds up to 100 miles from the eye. With its speed that means that anyone near the path of the eye will be in those winds for many hours.

We have decided to leave. Our neighborhood is already starting to look empty as lots of others have made the same decision. I've been in this house over 20 years but never have had anything to board up the windows. And today is way too late. Last night on the way home from work I stopped in the nearby Lowe's store and there was nothing resembling plywood to be had. Today they are still getting trucks in but there is a line that stretches across the outside of the store and it looks like they're selling it straight off the truck. Not very many of our neighbors are boarding up, more are just piling themselves and their pets into a vehicle and hitting the road.

The Kroger where we buy groceries is slightly crowded and people have a strained look. Luckily they have lots of bottled water. We lay in a supply of bottled water and food that can be eaten out of the can in a pinch. Also some cleaning supplies for the aftermath.

The rest of the day is devoted to "battening down". All the outside furniture goes into the garage along with other loose items that could become missiles. Potted plants are all crammed into the corner on the side of the house with no windows, a narrow area between our house and the fence that separates our yard from our neighbor's yard.

Late in the day my daughter calls again. A co-worker who is from Bryan has relatives who are out of town and who are willing to let us stay in their house. We decide to do this for two reasons, it's a lot close than Dallas (120 miles versus about 250) and because we can leave tomorrow instead of having to wait until closer to when our reservations are. In addition to the four of us, my daughter's in-laws and two grandparents will be going. The in-laws have two cats and a dog. So our group will have a total of eight people, four cats, and two dogs.

With the time to leave changed our preparations get a little more hurried. Upstairs inside the house we deal with the computers. We have one of our own, two from my work plus a laptop and assorted gear including a 200GB USB external drive. After doing some dumping to DVD and to the laptop, the computers get disconnected and put in garbage bags. The bags go up on a couch covered with cushions. The external drive will go with us. I'm trying to figure the damage scenarios. Will the roof get torn off exposing the upstairs to rain and wind or will water rise flooding the downstairs?

We're both kind of wandering thru the house. I have this feeling that I won't see it again. Pictures from the aftermath of other hurricanes keep running through my head. People sifting through the rubble that used to be their home. As we pick out clothes to take I'm thinking not just of what I might need for the next few days away but also about what I might want with me if all I have is what I carry out tomorrow. Most of our photos are digital so are in several places, a copy on the external drive, a copy on DVD backups, some on my laptop. I go thru the photos in the living room pulling them out of their frames and stacking them. We've also gathered important papers, passports, insurance policies, bank info and the like and put it all in zip lock baggies.

We'll leave about 9:00 tomorrow morning. For the evening we sit glued to the TV compulsively watching the news and weather channel people say the same things over and over and still make them sound like something different. Very little sleep this night.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over'

WASHINGTON, DC–Mere days from assuming the presidency and closing the door on eight years of Bill Clinton, president-elect George W. Bush assured the nation in a televised address Tuesday that "our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over."

I'm not sure if I'm just seeing this for the first time or if it's been so long ago that I forgot. In either case it's very very funny.

Possibly because the title quote sounds exactly like one of Dubya's usual gaffes.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Whither NOLA

In skimming over news and blog postings about the destruction of New Orleans this morning I saw this vision of a possible future. It's one that's been envisioned in science fiction both good and bad.

What will the "soup bowl" where New Orleans used to be look like in a couple of years? One possibility is that it will look a lot like it does today. Full of water, toxic substances, bodies, desperate people, and criminals. Kind of like Manhattan in the movie Escape From New York.

I don't think that's a likely outcome. The thing that will salvage NOLA is the port. A lot of chemicals and oil passes (passed) through that port. There's too much money involved in rerouting.

But I don't think the city's other main industry, tourism, will ever be quite the same. Who wants to see a rebuilt version of Preservation Hall or a Disney version of Bourbon Street? Hm... maybe that's the answer. Give the French Quarter to Disney.