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 (myGod
, 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:
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."
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."
Rudyard's, Under the Volcano and Valhalla were hopping all throughout the impending storm, as were Brasil and the West Alabama Ice House.
Private parties sprang up on the street. One older black guy wheeled his Reagan-era sound system out to the corner of Richmond and Hazard and blasted out 50 Cent and Motown. "Our manager left and we're poor folks," said one blond. "We just don't know how to act."
Lomax did, and came up with the party's slogan. "When the man evacuates, you must celebrate," he said. And they did.
The Pee Will Set You Free
It's not often you're fervently thankful for a deluge of cat pee. Unless, of course, you happen to be a cat with urinary problems.
But cat pee and crap saved at least one Rita evacuee from hours of the highway torture that afflicted millions of his fellow Houstonians.
This particular evacuee was in a car with his girlfriend and two cats. Behind them was the girlfriend's mother, in an SUV with two big cats and a black Lab.
They moved swiftly enough to Alternate 90, congratulating themselves on their good luck, until they quickly found that thousands and thousands of other folks had gotten the same idea. After a half-hour of going nowhere, the cell phone rang.
It was the mother, behind them in the SUV. One of the cats had pissed and pooped all over the seat, and the air- conditioning had gone out. Traveling doesn't get much better than that.
She offered to return home on her own but, as the evacuee said, "We decided to stick together as a family. So we went back, boarded the windows and waited for the disaster that never came. And we all had Toby, the cat, to thank for keeping us out of gridlock and in the comfort of our home."
Toby, that pee is gold, I'm tellin' ya!
As in any disaster, the local Better Business Bureau is keeping its eyes peeled for gouging. They've had "a ton of complaints," says president Dan Parsons.
There was the convenience store in Sealy charging $6.19 for a single D-cell battery. There was the veterinary clinic near Baytown that wouldn't take animals unless they were to be boarded for a full week and "totally revaccinated" by the clinic, which was charging inflated prices for that service.
There was the guy who stopped at a convenience store in New Braunfels because it looked open. Instead it had no gas and no food. So the guy asked to use the bathroom. "There's a $3 charge for emergency use of the bathroom," he was told.
Capitalism at work, man.
Parsons said the stymied consumer took matters into his own hands, so to speak. "He told me he just said to himself 'I'll piss on the whole situation' and walked around back and took it out on the wall."
That scene pales with the story out of a large store/gas station in Columbus. "Some entrepreneur," as Parsons put it, posted himself outside the bathroom doors and charged five bucks for entry. And -- and here's where you just have to stand in awe at the business mind -- if users stayed in there more than three minutes, there was a $1 surcharge.
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The guy kept his business going for at least an hour, Parsons said; one poor diarrhea-afflicted traveler ended up paying several times for the right to cut in line.
All the fun went away when an actual store employee came back to do a chore and asked, "What the hell are you doing here?"
The guy took off into the nearby woods, likely carrying as much as $250. Police are looking for him.
Geez, you try to help people in need, and you end up on the lam. There is no justice.