Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A 36-Hour Ordeal

I've been working on this post for a few days. I hope someone, some where finds it a bit interesting. I'm not happy with my telling of this story, but I had to tell it now.

Let me begin by saying thank you to Valerie, my younger sister, & my older brother. All of them listened to my frustrated, anguished calls, complete with tears and indecision and never lost their patience with me or made me feel foolish. I could not have made it through this ordeal without them. Also, I have to thank the crowd of fellow evacuees who waited in a mostly orderly gas line for several hours on US Hwy. 59. They kept me calm and positive by just being nice and helpful and not too negative. Thanks to the Polk County Sheriff Dept. deputies who were controlling traffic and crowds in Seven Oaks on Friday, especially a deputy named Mark. He was honest and helpful and patient with all. Finally, thanks to the dude who let me use his hotel room bathroom instead of the woods. Desperate times really do call for desperate measures.

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Here are the details of my evacuation.

I left home about 5:30 a.m. Thursday, 9/22, stopped to give Valerie her computer and get a cup of coffee and a coke--no water available at the bagel shop. I figured that I could stop somewhere else along the way to buy water and more food, if necessary. I had some snacks, but I planned to stop somewhere and get real food later. I truly had no idea that all stores and restaurants along the way would be closed. I was amazed at the traffic, but even when it took me all day to get out of Houston, I still didn’t think that it would be 36 hours before I arrived at my older brother’s home in Jacksonville. I was listening to the radio news reports, which were reporting exactly what I was experiencing. I even saw a woman, perhaps overcome by the heat, being revived by paramedics on the shoulder of the road in Humble, but I still believed I would be in Jacksonville before the night was over. Was I being na├»ve or merely avoiding the obvious? Late Thursday night, after sitting for about 30 minutes, not far outside of Houston between Splendora & Cleveland, without moving and seeing that my gas gauge was nearing a quarter of a tank, I decided to turn around go home. I knew that I could get back to my apartment easily on a quarter of a tank. I really didn’t want to ride out the storm alone, but I also didn’t want to ride out the storm in a shelter or stranded on the side of a road. By this time, tears of frustration were streaming down my face. I had to make a decision and neither choice was a good one.

I turned around and headed back to Houston. I stayed on the feeder hoping to find something open, some place to buy anything to eat or drink, some place with a restroom. The only place I could find was The Back Room, a bar. That bar was an oasis to me. I was able to get some ice water--the owner/barmaid was very apologetic about the lack of bottled water but she assured me the water was filtered. I was just grateful for the water, and even more grateful for the chance to charge my cell phone battery and use the restroom, which was surprisingly clean for a dive bar. I sat there for about an hour, calling family and texting Valerie. My brother told me to drive on and when I ran out of gas that he would bring me gas. I appreciated the offer, but I was worried about him being stuck in the same traffic, but he said we would find some back roads way back to J’ville. I trusted him and decided to turn around again and keep heading out of Houston. Also, I really didn’t want to ride the storm out alone in my apartment in Houston.

So, I got back onto the road around 10:30 p.m. As I drove, I passed so many small and large groups of vehicles parked wherever the drivers could find a space, probably hoping to rest for the night because by now we had wakened to reality of our overly long journeys. Any space on the shoulder of the road or in a parking lot was fair game for "camping space." I kept expecting my car to die, but it kept going. I decided that I had to find a place to park--side of the road or parking lot. I drove, well crawled, until 2:30, by that time my gas gauge was sitting on E. I pulled into a closed convenience store parking lot. People were parked everywhere, a line had formed beside the gas pumps. Obviously, there was some hope that the store had gas & would be open for business in the morning. All I hoped for was a restroom. I thought I remembered stopping there sometime and the restroom was around the back, but I was too afraid to check it out in the dark. The only lights were in the store, nothing was on in the parking lot. The scene was surreal. I couldn’t see a face anywhere, only forms moving here and there. Finally, I shut my windows but left the sunroof open, called my sister Susy so she knew where I was, and slept, off and on for several hours.

The morning brought no relief. The store didn’t open. I think I talked to my brother at one point & told him that I was going to try to get into Livingston & would call him when I ran out of gas. I ended up driving past Livingston, and although, I saw no evidence of it, I heard on the radio that one of the stations I had passed had gas. When I had passed it, though, all I saw were cars parked everywhere in the parking lot, no movement, no lights on. An eerie sight repeated over and over until the sun came up completely. I drove on. I passed so many cars with hoods up and makeshift "Need gas." signs posted on them. I really believed that my car would join their ranks at any moment.

Finally, I arrived in Seven Oaks, a very small community between Livingston & Corrigan, I decided that I could not drive any further. My gas gauge was sitting below E. I wanted to be able to leave my car in a parking lot and not on the side of the road somewhere. I noticed a line of people across the road in the parking lot of a liquor store. I got out of the car and asked some people carrying gas cans if that line was for gas. They said there were 2 lines, one for people who had gas cans and one for people who needed to borrow one. I immediately got in the have not line. I had been in line for only about 30 minutes when the tank went dry. The Polk County sheriff’s deputy who seemed to be in charge of the situation said that more gas would be provided but it would be at least 1.5 hours before it would be there. Three hours later, we were still waiting; patience was thinning but still there. A group of us had formed a sort of tag team. People went in search of shade (it was at least 100 degrees & very sunny--I have a horrible sunburn on my face and neck to show for my determination to wait for the gas, OUCH!), water, restroom, a plug for cell phone charging. The first time I left the line, I was desperate for a restroom. I was headed to the woods behind this hotel across the street from the gas line, but I saw a young man go into a room and leave the door opened. I decided that I would see if he would let me use the bathroom or not. He did. Man was I relieved! I told him he was a savior. Later in the day, it was discovered that the restroom at the closed liquor store was not locked as had been previously believed. I was glad to know it was there, but I couldn’t have waited until it was discovered.

At one point, one of the deputies started recommending that if we had 1/8 of a tank that we should consider driving to the nearest shelter. He said that buses would be provided for those of us who had no gas left if we didn’t get more gas. I’m not sure what the hold up was on the gas, something about the TxDot driver not being available. Eventually, the deputy sent someone to get some kind of special trailer hitch put on his truck, and finally sent someone in his truck, pulling the gas tank, to refill it. When it returned, I had been waiting more than 4 hours. When I finally got my 5 gallons into my car, it was about 5 hours later. Some nice people loaned me a funnel, and a nice man lifted the very heavy can of gas and poured that nectar of the car gods into my car. I have never felt so relieved.

With the help of a couple of deputies and my younger sister, I mapped out a way of bypassing the chaos that was apparently going on in and around Lufkin and still get to J’ville in just over an hour. When I got to my older brother’s home in J’ville, I was so happy to be there, to be out of my car. I felt safe and secure for the first time in 36 hours.

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A lesson learned: I like living alone, and I crave solitude much of the time, but evacuating alone was absolutely the loneliest experience of my life. I will never evacuate alone again. No one should evacuate alone. I needed some company and some driving relief, another brain for ideas. I needed a present shoulder to cry on.

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During the early part of my trip, I passed the time between calls/text messages from Valerie and my younger sister by reading Cloud Atlas. Yes, I can read and drive. :-) It is a skill of which I am extremely proud. I have developed this skill over many years of commuting to college and work. Normally, I wouldn’t even consider practicing this skill while driving in traffic--I reserve it for the open road--however, traffic was going so slowly that I really had little fear of being too distracted by the book. When I wasn’t reading, I did some writing in my journal. I will post some excerpts from my journal later.

4 comments:

Valerie said...

You do not need to thank me. We did it for each other, and you certainly listened to me as much as I listened to you.

Penny said...

I'm so glad it's over. I wondered about you all day that day and really into the weekend. I knew you were in the cars I saw on TV, that huge parking lot and it just horrified and terrified me at the same time. Thank you for telling your story. I definitely agree evacuating with someone would be much safer and saner!

SassyFemme said...

What a horrible experience. Thought of you and Valerie as we watched this nightmare unfold on TV. So glad that you're okay.

Mark L. Bail said...

Kim,

I figured I owe you a post, and I'm unconscious enough for have forgotten you live in Houston. I'm glad to hear you're safe.

I hope your job search is going well. I'm pretty happy at work, but I understand what you're feeling. Sometimes it's work, sometimes it's life.

My family have all gone to the Eastern States, a huge fair for New England, with my wife's parents (they're visiting from Dalla). I have a day to myself, and I'm listening to pirated music on my computer and killing time on the internet. I should be at the gym working out. I should be studying. I should be mowing my lawn, walking my dog, cleaning my cellar, and instead...

Mark