Monday, September 26, 2005

Anticipating Rita

Getting ready for our very own hurricane was like having no date for the junior high prom -- you know the event is going to be awkward and uncomfortable but when you went to all the trouble to get a dress you kind of want some place to go.

Wednesday was dedicated to prepping my sure-to-be-flooded apartment. One of the reasons I have such a customized place is that the previous owner of the condo remodeled after Tropical Storm Allison ruined a couple of the rooms. By the time I shut out the lights that evening, I was emotionally prepared to say good-bye to my post-divorce furnishings. I'd done my best. The place looked like Thing 1 and Thing 2 from Dr. Seuss had paid me a visit. Every object was off the floor with a boost from whatever concrete or brick items I could find. And ever object was piled high with every other object it could hold. Still, I figured I'd return home to ruin.

I left my place because we knew it would flood. I went to a friend's who had invited me to stay with her and her daughter. Something about that offer (and, thankfully, I had many to choose from) seemed right. I teared up when she made the offer and we both agreed that we liked the idea of making it through this together. At some point, she determined that rather than stay at her place which was near a bayou and could possibly also flood, we should make the 1 1/2 hour trek to an encampment our workplace has connections to. I told her that I was with her come hell or high water.

We didn't get much water but I'm fairly sure I've now seen the upper levels of hell.

We struck out at 12:45 a.m. We figured if the news guys were right, we might need to allow ten hours in the current traffic to make the trip. We figured wrong.

Ten hours in and we weren't out of Houston yet.

23 hours after we started we were safely at our destination.

Read that again just for effect . . . 23 hours.

Along the way, we discovered 740 AM and got word that by 9 a.m. they would be opening contraflow lanes on I45. We hung to that hope of some relief to the bumper to bumper inching we were doing. Then we got word that gas trucks would be stationed along the way. And water would be there as well.

Soon we gave up on any "words" coming from officials. They looked good on a paper plan somewhere I'm sure. But they didn't translate into reality. And after a while other words were really beginning to annoy me. Being told to be "patient" and to have "good sense" wasn't going over well with me. I kept imagining what the command center might feel like with its air conditioning and maybe a few hundred people. Then I'd look around at the thousands before and behind me and want to make my way through the radio waves and to the newsroom where I could share my own thoughts on advice giving from a distance.

While we kept the air low, we did at least have a cool breeze blowing. Others we saw must have had less gas and they opted to sweat it out. As the day progressed and temperatures rose, the sights became less and less comical. Earlier we'd been amused at the variety -- convoys with their country's flag waving from the antenna of every numbered vehicle, whole families with their beloved pets crammed into the cab of a pickup truck, open topped convertibles with young men who had already taken off as much as society would allow.

Soon however we began to notice the variety in our own vehicle. My friend's daughter has kidneys made of steel. She wasn't going to even think about waste elimination. No way. I was uncomfortable but holding out hope that any moment there'd be a break in the traffic flow and I'd soon be able to let it flow. But my friend assures me she pretty much has cheap-paper-towel-for-kidneys and about 12 hours in, she'd had it. So we pulled over (which was amusing in itself given that we weren't really moving) and she ran over to my side of the Passport where her daughter and I held a sheet around our doors and created a "stall" of her very own. The fun was in watching the cars on the feeder road slowly pass by and the realization of what they were seeing slowly materialize in their smiles.

My own restroom experience provided little rest. We'd determined that no gas or relief was really ever coming on the interstate so we took a highway. That resulted in bumper to bumper traffic in only one lane. At the time I was not counting that as my shining moment in making decisions. But we soon saw a high school and a possible restroom near a track field. So we took off over grass and field to get there. Sure enough, it was. It also hadn't been cleaned since it was last used and used it really had been. I tried to flush with my foot and was about to congratulate myself on the running water when I realized the water pressure was in really, really good shape and before I could jump I was a victim of back splash.

At this point, I began to question God's sense of humor.

Seemed every decision brought hope and every turn in the road offered a new view of despair. We'd take the highway and be greeted with a line of traffic at a dead stop. We found a gas station and some food and then met up with the longest and deadliest jam we experienced all day.

But we stayed amused. I found humor in the good people of the small towns who tried to make the drive more bearable. There were teenaged girls handing out water in New Waverly. A waitress carrying water carafes to their tables with her ample bosoms drenched from the walk but a smile on her face. Grandpa in cover alls ostensibly directing traffic at a dead end. Gomer assisting him. At least I think he was official, it was dark and he was holding orange cones. Another dude in flip flops and baggy shorts helping the gas lines avoid chaos. A sheriff complete with badge, cowboy hat, and gun who simply pointed out the fact that no, the two cars you think are ahead of you in line are actually the two we've let in from the other side of the road where at least a 45 minute wait will allow you to fill up.

I discovered my emotional and mental limit was somewhere around 21 days with two catastrophes under my belt and 21 hours on the road. At that point I didn't want to be nice anymore, to follow the rules anymore, to minister to anyone anymore. I banged my head against the seat back and took a walk. Not a problem at that hour given that we weren't really going anywhere at the time.

When we finally arrived at our destination, an elderly Hispanic woman drove up immediatley behind us. Her daughter and our friend was there as well. The elderly woman didn't speak much English but she was quick to tell us her 11 hours on the road was horrible. I thought, "you don't know the half of it, in fact, you didn't even put in half of what we did" but I didn't say anything so crass. Instead, my friend assured her we would show her the way to her daughter. We left the office where we had discovered our room assignments and made our way up the hill in the cars. Only "we" weren't "we" anymore. Seems the elderly woman was no longer following. So with our actual building in sight, we turned around once again to see what had happened.

She'd driven into a ditch.

At that hour and with little to no sleep for two days my Spanish and that much-ballyhooed patience was limited. But I left the car, put my arms around the crying woman, spoke to her in what I words I could muster in her heart language and walked her to our vehicle.

Ants bit me. I was fairly sure, God was well past laughing and had something else in mind but I couldn't figure out what it might be.

Of course, the door was locked on the bunkhouse. I banged. Without hesitation. The daughter arrived. I delivered the mom and asked for the bedroom.

23 hours into this trip, I showered, and laid my head on a pillow with the knowledge that the most recent turn of the storm now had it headed away from Houston and in our direction.

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