Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Here I Am, Rock You Like a Hurricane"

The Scorpions, "Rock You Like a Hurricane"

It's 11:50 pm. It's nice and cool outside (mid 70's) but a just a little breezy.

We spent the morning cleaning up the house, preparing water reservoirs (bathtubs, plastic tubs, etc.) and making sure all the supplies were pre-positioned. I made a trip to the one convenience store in the area that was open, and bought some necessities (a case each of Corona and Coke). Amazingly, they even still had gas to sell.

After that, the only thing to do was wait, so we took a swim in the neighbor's pool, and came back to wait. The wind started around noon, the rain about 4:15 this afternoon. By dinner time it started getting dark, and we actually had a bit of sun to make a pretty sunset. After that, it's just wait and watch and listen, watching the banana tree in the back yard and the pine trees in the front yard. Fortunately, the wind direction is such that no pine trees should fall into the house, but we did move the cars to other people's driveways so my neighbor's trees wouldn't fall across the driveway.

We hear that a block in Galveston has caught fire due to power lines. I saw a transformer blow while I was in the back yard, with the familiar pop and flash. Someone is going to come home to a warm house and thawed food. We've got the air conditioning down pretty low so that if the power here does go out, it'll take that much longer to warm up.

The wind has picked up enough to blow the trees precariously and make some noise. Some small branches have fallen so far, but nothing major anywhere that I can see. We've had no more rain than a typical summer shower, and in any event I'm well outside the storm surge effects.

In retrospect, I'm glad we decided not to leave. It was the right decision based on what we knew at the time (which was that it had moved up the coast and was going to hit Beaumont to the east of us, not Freeport to the west), though others who left earlier could say they did the same since at the time the storm was going to come straight up Galveston Bay. But over 2.5 million people were "displaced" by the storm - they all seemed to be on the Houston freeways within the past couple of days. Fortunately all of the stalled cars were fixed or fueled during the night and nobody was left on the roads. I bet it'll be more of the same when people want to come home.

Something else we'll need to closely watch... the garbage situation. Trash pickup was supposed to be on Thursday, and we had 1-1/2 full bins. The city suspended normal operations on Thursday so we're stuck with all that garbage plus only half a bin's worth to last us the whole week.

Back after watching a movie.... it's 2:50 a.m. The wind is still going pretty good, still no damage other than some small branches down. But we still have power (for now).

Friday, September 23, 2005

"Lovely Rita, Metermaid"

The Beatles, "Lovely Rita"

Well, at this point it doesn't look like The Big One, but Katrina has sure put the scare into Houston as far as Hurricane Rita is concerned.

Early in the week it looked like Rita was going to hit the Texas coast south of Houston, far enough away that we wouldn't see too much. Then the landfall point started to move up the coast towards Galveston. Not good. On Tuesday it was going to hit Freeport, about 30 miles south on the coast. That's the worst possible place for Houstonians, since that would put the storm surge right up Galveston Bay and maximize flooding in the area.

I spent 2 hours in Home Depot waiting for plywood only to hear that they weren't getting any more in that night and to come back at 6 a.m. Wednesday when they'd get a truckload. Chris went grocery shopping for supplies in case we lost power for an extended period of time - canned goods, dry stuff, boxed stuff, but they were all out of water. On Wednesday I got to the store at 6:15 and waited, and waited, and waited. I broke for lunch around noon and traffic on I-45 going north from Galveston was a parking lot. I saw a flotilla of Galveston ISD school buses. To be honest, I have no idea whether government types in the Houston area saw what happened in New Orleans from Katrina and started the evacuation 3 days early, or whether it was in their plans already, but I thought to myself "that's what they should have been doing in New Orleans". At 1:30 they told us that trucks with plywood were having trouble getting into the city and moving around, and they "should" get a shipment in at 6 pm. No thanks, I wasted half the day already. I went with Plan B, which was 2x4's and a stack of cedar fence pickets (plus 4 cases of drinking water). If nothing else, I can use the pickets to repair my fence next week. I was lucky that my neighbor had 4 extra sheets of plywood, and combined with some scraps I had left over from my chili cookoff team's old booth, we were able to cover all the windows on the bottom floor.

Cell phone service has been spotty the last couple days as the circuits are overloaded.

With the new predictions coming in, the weather guys crunched the numbers and while Rita was a category 5, they expected it to downgrade to a 4. With my house's distance from the water and from landfall, we'd "only" experience a 3 here, with winds around 100 mph or so. I've done that a couple times before (Alicia in 1983, for one) and so that was my cutoff point for whether to stay or not. Flood projections said with a Freeport landfall, we'd get about a 20 foot surge, which is a hell of a lot of flooding, but my subdivision is supposed to be able to stay dry even with a 25 foot surge. So as of Wednesday night, we were going to stay and ride it out.

Meanwhile, the local governments (having jumped through all the right hoops as far as FEMA and the federal government response requires) announced mandatory evacuations for three zones close to the coast. Zone A is right along the coast, B is several miles inland, and C is further than that. I'm in the C region. Even though they ordered a "mandatory" evacuation, many people chose not to go. But way too many people did, including people who were in no danger of flooding. So many, in fact, that the evacuation routes got clogged with at least a million people trying to leave (the biggest evacuation in US history), leading to 100-mile bumper to bumper traffic jams on highways, especially to the north and west of Houston. Average speed in those jams is 2-3 miles per hour. How about 8 hours to get from one side of the city to the other (45 miles)? How about 24 hours to get to San Antonio (200 miles) or Dallas (250 miles)? Compound that with record heat (100 degrees on Wednesday, 98 on Thursday) and thousands of cars started to overheat or run out of gas. People were forced to turn around and come back home - a journey of 11 hours one way and 15 minutes on the way back, as people's gas supplies ran low. There are no open gas stations anywhere, they've all closed and left. They finally got some tanker trucks to bring gas to the stalled cars on Thursday afternoon, but if you watch the news, you still see (at 1:30 a.m.) bumper to bumper traffic getting out of town. People aren't going to make it to where they wanted, and so the Red Cross is setting up emergency shelters along the way in whatever church or warehouse is available. They didn't turn the southbound lanes into northbound ones until Thursday afternoon, but you still have to go 100 miles to get to that point. There's a traffic camera showing 15 lanes of northbound traffic with nobody moving. This is going to be the biggest failure (probably) after it's all over and being analyzed. I think that people were shocked by Katrina and everyone wanted to get out, whether they needed to or not. It took my parents 12 hours to get from their home in west Houston to Austin, a 150 mile trip that normally takes about 2.5 hours.

Thursday morning we woke up to find that the track had shifted north and instead of Freeport, Rita was supposed to come right up Galveston Bay. I'm just a couple miles from there, so that would mean that we'd get the full eye-wall winds of 150 mph. Time to bug out! I finished boarding up what I could outside and started to pack what I'd need and what I wanted to save. Important papers, tax returns, insurance info, photo albums, other things of sentimental value, and enough CDs to last 12-24 hours in the car. I started to plot a route to Victoria, a city southwest of Houston, via back roads only (hoping that nobody else would think of that too). By 10 a.m., though, the new track had gone even further north and east and was going to hit near the Texas/Louisana border. Those poor New Orleanians who evacuated to Houston - close to half the city came through here, and thousands are still here as either temporary or new permanent residents. Just a few weeks after their disaster, they're having to leave again. But now, the storm is going to hit east of us, which is bad for the residents of Beaumont and Port Arthur but good for us, since we'd be on the "clean" side of the hurricane with slower winds (from the north instead of from the south, as on the "dirty" side) and less rain. Weatherman predictions said we might not hit even 100 mph winds, with 8-10 foot storm surge. So based on that, and not wanting to get stuck in traffic while the storm hits, we've decided to hunker down once again.

I took a drive around the neighborhood this afternoon, now that so many people are gone. The Gulf Freeway (I-45) is nearly deserted, with a couple of stragglers here and there going north or south. Every place of business is closed, though I did find two gas stations still working. It was eerie seeing everything so deserted - I half expected to see tumbleweeds blowing down the main roads. NASA, where I work, is closed. (Ironically, NASA facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi were damaged by Katrina, and the launch center in Florida got hit bad last year by two hurricanes. Expect further hurricanes to hit Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, and southern California soon, as someone has it in for NASA centers! At NASA here, Mission Control handed over the International Space Station temporarily to their Russian counterparts so they could shut down MCC-Houston.

It's very quiet here now. I don't even hear any birds out.

Houston's last major hurricane was in 1983, when Alicia came to town. We didn't consider evacuating or boarding up (as far as I remember) The eye came right over Galveston Bay and went just west of downtown (it passed over the Galleria, if you know where that is). But that was a generation ago, and only us old-timers remember it. Everyone else just sees Katrina and is scared.

They expect the winds and rain to start up here in the early afternoon, with hurricane force winds and rain from around midnight Friday to noon Saturday. Power should go out sometime during the night. We're boarded and taped as best as we can be. We've got our rideout supplies with three tanks of propane if we need to cook on the grill for a while. The latest tracks show the storm still hitting the Beaumont area, which is good news for us. Hopefully we don't have to spend too much time without power, as they're still expecting temperatures in the 90's once the storm passes. As long as my trees fall away from the house, I'll be OK (and with north winds, they shouldn't hit). However, I did recently wish for a small storm that would let my insurance company pay for a new roof. I was talking about just the shingles, I really don't want a whole new roof.

Keep your fingers crossed that Rita doesn't take a jog to the west back closer to us. Damage report to come later, some time after I get my power restored.