Friday, September 23, 2005

Special Day 18 edition - Riders from the storm

A Day 18 special from warm Northern California, where, in a few days, $2.97 for a gallon of gas might begin to look like it was sold at Dollar General. Lord only knows how much the oil companies will stiff the American public next week after Hurricane Rita blows through the Texas Gulf Coast. Hurricanes that shut down refineries cause mega-jumps in retail gas prices. But fires and explosions at BP refineries in Texas City and Deer Park, that ALSO halt production, don’t cause a ripple. How come?
Instead of going down the main roads of NoCal, we have been taking the backroads of California, through the mountains and lava beds that decorate this part of the country. We stopped for lunch in a quaint tiny mountain town of Adin and instantly, the Norman Rockwell characters (the men looked like 49er miners with long, flowing bears) sitting in front of the general store spotted our Texas license plate,
”Are you fleeing from Rita?” they wanted to know. Nope, we said, we’re from Dallas. We just see tornadoes, crickets and bad politics. We were then told that bad politics was also a problem in the Golden State.
The same question was asked at the hotel registration desk, even thought eh reservation had been made two months in advance. After Hurricane Katrina scattered evacuees from New Orleans from coast to coast, anything would be possible.
Sleeping last night was not easy and not accomplished. My children are in the path of Rita and my unborn granddaughter needs to be safe. My son and daughter-in-law crawled up U.S. 59 toward Livingston and then cut across the unknown routes to escape before finding refuge in Center, with her parents. The entire trip, normally a two-hour jaunt, took 10 hours.
My ex-wife and my two other daughters have moved from their trailer home to her uncle’s house in Willis, north of Conroe. It isn’t much further away from the storm, but it is a better structure than the mobile home they occupy. She is disabled and awaits a second hip replacement. She has neither the money nor means to go any place else – one of many families with similar stories in the fourth largest city in America. The storms have peeled away the economic under belly of major urban centers in the South to reveal this large disparity in economic status. Those who can, leave; those who can’t, pray a lot.
If you have lived in Houston for any time, you know the danger is not from wind; it’s from flooding. That’s because most of the city is below the flood plain and thousands of homes were built in that kind of land without owner knowledge (quite a scandal back in the time). Tropical storms, particularly in 1994, have caused massive damage to homes, which are still sitting idle more than a decade later. The city has never really addressed this issue and flood control remains a constant threat and problem. Unless we want to uproot entire cities to rebuild, we will have to live with our progress and weather the storms yet to come.
No one on any blog, or on any TV news report (which I finally got to see in depth last night in Redding, Calif.) is getting to the truth of the matter. And here it is: No plan, no advance planning and no amount of warning can adequately evacuate a major American city prior to a major catastrophe.
Now it’s been said. Houston and the Galveston area was prepared to depart but the infrastructure cannot support more than a million people trying to go in the same direction at once. Can’t be done, folks. You have thousands of cars stranded by the side of Interstate-45 (not a particularly good straight of highway to start because of multiple construction projects and just plain bad road) and thousands more out of gas and stuck in the middle (with you, sorry Gerry Rafferty).
At best, traffic moved at less than a snail’s pace at 2 miles per hour and that won’t get you from Cedar Lake City to Spring in a day’s time. And what will five extra gallons of gas from the government do for stalled cars in an immobile parking lot with stations emptying quicker than a Cowboys’ crowd after a loss?
Houston is massive; it is the largest city by acreage in the U.S. Between the Reliant Center on south Loop 610 and Galveston, there are half million residents. Add another million in the city of Houston proper and you see the problem. People cannot be moved THAT fast on any route out of town.
And where are they going to go? Huntsville? Madisonville? Centerville? Fairfield? Corsicana? Ennis? I’ve just named you the cities along I-45 from Houston to Dallas. In between are miles and miles of empty Texas (sorry Asleep at the Wheel) and no place to stop. One thing Gov. Rick Perry could have done was to open all state parks with shelters free of charge for 2-3 days to house evacuees. That would help a little.
President Bush, concerned about Texas a lot sooner than he appeared in New Orleans, can still impose a price freeze on retail gasoline to keep the negative impact from wounding the economy further.
In New Orleans, people either couldn’t or wouldn’t leave; in Houston, they ALL tried to escape and no government was ready for either contingency. In fact, news reports have Houston’s evacuation plans taking a higher percentage of “no goes” into consideration than actually chose to stay. And the re-entry will be just as nasty and messy and the same provisions – re-routing traffic on the interstate and U.S. 59 must be done to allow for some sort of orderly flow.
Officials need to ask themselves if any Texas city can be properly evacuated. Corpus Christi has one north-south route (I-37), Brownsville hardly has one and Beaumont doesn’t really have that direction to travel. Take it one step further: no American city can empty in time to avoid such a disaster. These two storms need to be valuable lessons to the folks in Washington who wring their hands over a terrorist attack.
By the way, where has the Homeland Security Secretary – Michael Cherthoff – been over the last three days? He’s been the Invisible Man in the Bush Administration.
There was nothing I could do for my children since driving south was not an option. I can only pray for their safety and those of thousands, if not millions, of others. But in the end, Mother Nature wins out and there’s precious little we can do about it – be it in Houston or New Orleans or Florida or anywhere.

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