Rita Beatahs

Houston dodges a bullet and finds traffic hell

Seldom has Houston been more freaked out than it was in the Week of Hurricane Rita. Helped by disaster-loving local forecasters, fueled by the horrific photos from New Orleans (my God, what would happen if Houston's levees broke?! Oh, that's right -- we don't have any), people hit the panic button early. Interstates 10 and 45 turned into the Superdome, without the rapes but with 24-hour saunalike drives in cars filled with bitchy relatives.

Here are a few scenes from Rita's visit:

Contraflow

One Houston Press correspondent, using years of amateur hurricaneology and self-denial, was convinced the storm would hit Louisiana. His wife, unschooled in such survival skills, was not.

So she took the kid and headed out Wednesday night to Austin, leaving our correspondent with a football-filled weekend to himself. Except his wife began a barrage of freaked-out calls citing every factoid she'd been able to pick up on the radio: "It's down to 903 millibars!" she screamed. "I cannot sleep if you stay there!" Our correspondent wanted desperately to ask her to define "millibar," just to see what he'd get, but instead decided he could not put up with the long-distance torture of a crazed wife.

So he got on the Southwest Freeway, figuring it'd be better than the interstates. And moved precisely two miles in five hours. And most of those hours were spent with the car and the a/c off, in 100-degree heat.

As he reached Highway 6, the inspiring words "Fuck This" came as if in a dream. The storm was headed north and east; he'd head south and west to the coast.

And all traffic magically disappeared. Just about all human activity disappeared, too. For three hours or so he drove to Corpus Christi as fast as he wished, past a boarded-up moonscape of coastal shacks. At least Corpus, veteran of many storms, would be open and swinging, he thought.

Wrong. Even with Rita a good 350 miles away, Corpus was deserted. The paper wasn't publishing. Downtown was empty. A Ramada Inn stayed open, and the bartender there explained, "It's stupid, but people are just going nuts because of Katrina."

A nearby beer-laden convenience store was open; the TV worked; Notre Dame won. All in all, not a bad weekend. If you could somehow erase the memory of those five ugly, ugly traffic-jam hours.

And the house, upon the family's return? Well, a week or so before the storm, the kid had Scotch-taped a temporary sign to the mailbox saying the doorbell was out of order. The sign was still there after Rita. Any Shelter in a Storm

Things were lively at the Pigeon Shit Hotel as Rita approached.

The PSH is the nickname homeless residents give to their digs under the Pierce Elevated. About 100 of them were gathered there just before the storm. Two Metro buses idled nearby, eager to take folks to shelter, but not everyone was going.

"Get to the bus and go to the shelter," a cop pleaded though a PA system. "It's not gonna be safe out here tonight."

The announcement was met with some shrugs.

"If I'm homeless, I'm homeless," said Benjamin Aneke, a dreadlocked Jamaican. "We've got to pray. Pray and maybe things will be better."

Henry Shaw had built a storm shelter from milk crates, cement blocks and cardboard. He came through fine. "Nothing gonna happen," he said from under the overpass after the storm passed. "Just look up there, it's all cement."

Still, he said he wouldn't recommend the Pigeon Shit Hotel for anyone looking to ride out the next storm. And he doesn't plan to do it either.

"I won't be here," he said of the next hurricane. "I'll be living in a house."

Baby Fears

The homeless were supposed to be taken to the Delmar Stadium basketball arena, but cops starting turning people away from the semi-decrepit facility early. That suited Rotasha Oaks just fine.

She was inside with her one-year-old daughter, Ariyona, a girl with immune-system problems who didn't need to be stuck in a crowd.

"If her doctor knew she was here, she'd probably kill us," Oaks said.

Ariyona has heart problems, has had pneumonia five times and has a feeding tube in her stomach. Oaks and her husband tried to avoid heading to Delmar, but getting to Fort Worth was impossible, especially after they blew out a tire.

Oaks said she called the city's 211 line -- the number for special-needs people -- and was told a bus would get them from the McDonald's where they were. It never came.

"It's really a big disaster for us," she said.

Party of the Apocalypse

Intrepid Houston Press music editor John Nova Lomax did what any intrepid music editor would do during a hurricane: He hit the bars and parties. (And fought with his wife, of course. Marital relations all around Houston had some bad Rita-related moments.)

A few highlights: "I headed out to a packed Randalls on Shepherd, where I loaded a cart with still more water, still more cans, a huge jug of Gallo sangria and two six-packs of Lone Star tall boys. This Randalls by now looked like a store in Soviet Russia -- hideously long lines for ever-diminishing supplies. While I waited in line, a River Oaks-y woman turned to me and, apropos of nothing, said, 'I have a generator, you know. We're going to be fine.' 'Really?' I said. 'I'm floating a check to buy these groceries.' I don't think she even knew what the phrase 'floating a check' meant."

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