Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hurricane Rita was a close scare, much too close

I just spent what can only be described as two days of anxiety, tension, and rushing to prepare for Hurricane Rita (this post was started three days ago, so read accordingly. I have been adding to it 'til today). To my readers and friends, my family and I are safe and well. We live on the Northwest side of Harris County, so mercifully, we dodged the proverbial bullet. However, I have not been as concerned about a hurricane since I was a child. I am not stranger to hurricanes, having being born and raised in Puerto Rico, which is often in the path of hurricanes in the Caribbean. One of my earliest memories of hurricanes was of Hurricanes David and Federick in 1979. Readers may ask why do I find myself recalling hurricanes of my childhood. Mainly because I was at the age my daughter is now, the child who was afraid and wondered what would happen when Rita came. Would we be leaving? Would we stay?

My employer sensibly sent us home on Wednesday at noon (then again, in hindsight, maybe sooner would have helped). I commute, and getting home that day was not particularly easy. Already the roads were full of people wanting to leave. I usually take one of the buses that go on the HOV lane, but as often the case, they were travelling so full I had to wait for the next one. There was no next one, so I took a different bus that would get me to where I wanted albeit through the city, which I did not mind too much. However, given that the traffic was heavy, what would have likely been a trip of about 40 minutes to an hour became one of two and half hours. I got to the Park and Ride only to see that the highway next to it was already jammed with people trying to get on the Interstate to get out of Dodge. I knew my wife was likely on the road already, so I did what seemed sensible. I walked out of the Park and Ride, and I actually met her on the road. Yes, I walked out between cars, spotted her, met with her, and we then turned back to go home and pick up our daughter from school. At home, we began to make small preparations: making sure we had enough food, check the flashlights, you know, the stuff one usually does when a hurricane comes (well, I think of it as usual).

Our initial decision was to leave Houston. I have family upstate, so we would have been more than safe. Since my wife had to work on Wednesday night (her employer was not as sensible), we would not be able to leave until that morning. I kept an eye on the news, seeing how the traffic was only getting worse and worse, and then the stories began to flow about people being stranded out of fuel after only advancing a few miles. We had the hope things would get better. As we know by now, things did not get better, only worse. We waited on Thursday to see if there would be an opening to leave, by country roads if need be, looking up the maps for routes. In the meantime, I taped up glass windows, secured things like computers and some electronics in case of flooding (been here for only a year. I think my spot is high enough, but I hear the drainage in Houston in general is awful anyhow), and waited. We had plenty of water in a big trash can, food, batteries, flashlights, radio, candles, first aid kit, and the car had enough gas in case we had to make a quick run. We came to the realization by Thursday early evening that we would be staying here. I told my parents as much when they called. My dad, who is a hurricane veteran, having faced the likes of Hugo and others after I came to the states, was giving me a lot of last minute advice and reminders. My mom lit a candle. My middle brother (I have to younger brothers) would call now and then to check on us. Even though they felt so far, I felt them very close.

Which led me to think about David back in my childhood because it happened around the time I was my daughter's age. A child asking you if you have seen a hurricane and are we going to be ok sort of puts things in perspective. Part of the perspective was my memories of my father boarding up our house back in Puerto Rico. We had a nice house in the coast. The beachfront was about a block or so from my house. In fact, the subdivision we lived in was built over beachfront, so there were actual crab holes in the lawn since the houses were basically built on their land. My dad put up the plywood boards covering up the windows and glass doors. We had to make sure we had the needed supplies, and then we would sit in the house listening to the radio as the power went out. The wind howled, and it rained hard. All we could do was sit and wait for days. It flooded enough that the crabs came from the lawn to knock on our door to let them in the house. Ok, that last one was a joke, but the crabs did come out of the holes, though I am sure they managed better. By luck or providence, the flooding just came up to our front porch, but no further. I have not thought about that experience until now. And while I overall have a healthy respect for hurricanes, I did not really fear them (fact of life in the Caribbean), but Rita did make me think a bit more.

This brings me back to the present. Again by luck or providence, the hurricane turned away from Houston. It still did a lot of damage, and I was sad to see all the damage it did cause where it went, especially to areas that did not need it after Katrina. But it was a nerve wracking experience to wait for it. We took a small walk around our neighborhood before the landfall, and we talked about the likelihood things would not look the same when we ventured out again. We were fortunate that other than some wind and a little rain, we are well. Power flickered as did the water, but otherwise we are not the worse for wear as the saying goes. I will say I have not slept well in the last couple of nights. Last night was the first night I had a full sleep. My wife says it's leftover stress. Maybe so; I feel like we dodged a bullet, and yet, I know I could have easily been one of those people stranded on a freeway had we decided to try to leave. And that makes me angry. That so many people did as they were told in terms of leaving, and they were left stranded to their own devices due to poor planning. Had that hurricane struck as it originally intended, it would have been a disaster. I don't care about the politics; all I know is this could have been a major disaster because no one actually thought that all those people leaving would need efficient roads and fuel to do so. For now, I am thankful we are ok, and my thoughts go out to those who have suffered so much.

My employer is closed until Thursday, but I have to report back on Wednesday afternoon to prepare for the students coming back. My wife has been pretty much working the whole time. They closed until Sunday. My daughter is off until tomorrow. This has given me some time to gather my wits, and to reflect that, in the end, my wife and daughter are safe. Everything else is just things. Don't get me wrong, I am not wealthy. Losing our things would be terrible, but those can be gradually replaced. The ones I love are not. So, I am fortunate and hope we can catch a break. As for my blogging, I am slowly catching up on my readings, and I will try to get back to it. In the meantime, a small sigh of relief.

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