now incorporating the Sudbury Hill and Wood End Times

Friday, September 23, 2005

American diary #3 - Evacuation Rita

Kelly Peck

Urgent calls from sisters and mothers. They listen to weathercasters with symptoms of hydrophobia. Sleep? To keep the peace we pack the SUV. We leave at 2 am. By 2:10 we are heading north on the toll road. The Transit Authority has waived the tolls. This 3-lane highway meets the interstate 30 miles from here, near Old Town Spring. From there, Interstate 45 rolls through the heart of Texas. In Dallas, I-20 is coast-to-coast. I-35 heads north to Oklahoma City, Wichita, and Kansas City. It stretches to Canada. The night speed limit is 65 mph, day 75.

We take turns driving. Satellite radio pours out Bach, Sinatra, Earth Wind and Fire, and Mary J. Blige. Hurrican news. Rita winds are 175 mph. If there was a Category VI hurricane, this would be it.

I'm curious. How many people are in this exodus? Figure: Each vehicle takes up 3 yards. 1760 yards in a mile. I count 7 45-foot semi trucks per mile. Bumper to bumper, 580 vehicles, or 1000 people per mile, per lane. We've got two lanes. At I-45, the governor has ordered the four south-bound lanes converted. Now they go north. Eight lanes, 8,000 people per mile. Last evening the radio said this column was 100 miles long. Same scenario with Interstate 10 West, and highways 59, 290 and 90 North. 30 lanes, 1,000 people per mile, 100 miles. Three million people.

The radio says the Authorities hadn't planned for this.

We've been on the road for 10 hours. Didn't stop to pee. We've driven 30 miles. Used almost half a tank of gas. The Interstate with all 8 lanes was moving 1.5 mph.

At this rate, Dallas is two days away. The hurikan would pass us at Dew, Texas. It has a convenience store. I'm hoping the Authorities are re-routing fuel.

We turn back. It takes 30 minutes to retrace our 10-hour crawl.

We plan. We can camp out if necessary at a building made of cement and steel. It has recessed windows. It's like one of those movies. The trained professionals move in. Set up an assembly line. We rustle up trash barrels. Line them with plastic bags. Fill them with good water. Move everything off the floor and away from windows.

Work out how to leave our vehicles one on either side of the bayou. If it floods we can drive anywhere. Or bike.

Back to the store. The shopping carts available have a wheel that locks if the cart is taken out of the lot. There are no others. I help a shopper load her car. I get her cart. The place is abuzz. Thirty racks, 10 shelves high are emptied of breads and rolls. The produce department has half a box of apples left. No one buys potatoes, books or magazines, yoghurt, dairy or frozen foods. The water and soft drink shelves are empty. The canned goods shelves are normal. A few exceptions. There's been a run on garlic pesto. The only soups left are beef stock, and cream of celery. I get the last bag of ice, and the last ice chest. It has a New Orleans Saints logo.

I try to help a policeman. He just got off duty. I find him a box to carry his groceries.

People watching. A girl who could be a fashion model strutting the potato chip aisle like a runway. A geezer has emerged from his den for the first time since Eisenhower was President. He's pale. A Carib who has been in "plenty hurikan before." A half-Oriental who tried to cut in front of me. He got huffy.

The checkout lines are controlled chaos. I see carts full of candy and sugary treats. One woman's cart holds more beer than I've had in the last 20 years. No food. Just beer, wine and coolers.

I tell the cashier what an adventure this has been. We laugh. He comes out of his funk. These are the heroes. Instead of providing for their families, they serve others.

To get gasoline, it takes two people. One to wait in line, the other to direct traffic. The lines are 25 cars long.

The cell phone networks are overloaded. Have been for three days. Every fourth call goes through. I keep my calls short. Reach a friend. She invites us to her ranch. They raise sheep, goats, watermelon and water hyacinths. I advised her dad on hydraulic ram pumps. He is a Buddhist. This is his retreat.

I know back roads. We can get there tomorrow. Now it's late. Between us we've had 4 or 5 hours sleep.

There's not been a drop of rain. The storm starts Friday. The hurikan Saturday morning. If it comes. Maybe it'll go to Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley. The crops need the rain.

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