September 22, 2005

Hurricane Rita

Everyone was asking me for a report on life in Houston with the presence of Katrina survivors. I was blown away by how generous Houston was to open the city to these poor folks. But now that Rita is hitting I see why we need to be this openhearted. We’re next. I'm getting all kinds of phone and email messages about Rita the next "nasty bitch of a storm" as my friend Chris says.

First of all, I’m in Oakland, got here last night. This trip has been planned for months. I am scheduled to return on Tuesday, if there is a Houston to return to.

Stephen, on the other hand, is in Houston unless he is required to evacuate. His company closed yesterday around 2pm and sent everyone home, each with one of giant bottles of water you use in the office water cooler. I picked him up and we waded through the traffic that was slowly building as people began leaving work early, heading to banks, grocery stores, and gas stations.

We took a trip to Kroeger’s our favorite grocery store. Within the 30 minutes that we were there it was quickly becoming a mob scene. Thinking we were ahead of the curve we slowly wandered through the grocery store as though we were on a regular shopping trip. By the time we got to the important stuff; water, canned goods, matches, peanut butter, the isles were empty. People scooped it all up. Luckily most folks didn’t think about the health foods section and we were able to get the last jar of organic peanut butter. We noted that vegetarians will some day rule the planet. Stephen also stocked up on beer and wine, red of course, in case the fridge wasn’t working and he couldn’t have chilled white. So California we are.

My heart broke for an elderly man in a wheel chair who was on oxygen and had about 12 frozen dinners in his lap. How would he cook those if the storm hit and we were without electricity?

Arriving home our neighbor Judy checked in with me on the history of our little block. Apparently it never floods. But she didn’t know how well the roof or windows would hold up to the winds. You’re starting to get the picture.

Only when I arrived at the airport last night, to fly out to Oakland, did I realize how freaked out everyone had become, as though the grocery store and neighbor’s warnings hadn’t been enough of a clue. The lines for Southwest were horrendous. People were purchasing tickets right then and there. Kids were screaming, people were frantic, one man skipped the entire 300 person line, cut in front of me and started using the check-in kiosk. Sorry, but I had to send him back to his spot. Note: his last name was Bush.

With ticket in hand the next step was security which was worse. We waited online for 45 minutes, good thing I had arrived 1.5 hours early. Last week I had flown this same flight and had breezed through ticketing and security. Wednesdays must usually be quiet because several of the security lines were closed. Southwest flight attendants were taking up some of the posts. I love that airline. They never lose their cool. On last week’s flight from Oakland to Houston a man went into a seizure and the flight attendants handled it so professionally.

I finally got through security with 10 minutes to spare before my flight was scheduled to depart. People were running to the gate but when arrived we learned that the flight was delayed. With time to spare I wandered into the variety store and watched as the JetBlue flight coverage was broadcasting on the CNN. Like theater, you have to suspend your disbelief if you want to fly these days.

Our flight arrived 45 minutes late into Oakland but at least I made it here. Although it was the last flight out of Houston last night there were empty seats. It certainly felt full with the screaming kids and nervously chattering passengers.

As for Stephen back in Houston – I think he’s in for quite a ride. It is a 50/50 chance that he will be forced to evacuate. Honestly, this storm is going to be bigger than anything he or I can imagine. I’ll keep the blog updated when I hear from him. What’s on my mind is figuring out what personal items he should pack into the car, just in case.

Links to follow the storm:

Photo: Carlos Antonio Rios / Chronicle Chronicle