By August 23, 2012 Read More →

Hurricane Rita: Collateral Damage 100 Miles Away

[intro2]Hurricane Rita happened just a month after Katrina and everybody was so burnt out with media about Katrina that Rita was pretty much ignored.  [/intro2]

I know we’ve all already heard about Katrina ad nausium.  In some ways, that’s one of the points of this story.  I think this applies to today, because there are often multiple disasters going on at once, now.  National media attention (contributing to red cross donations and assistance) and federal assistance can easily be spread thin or exhausted if your local disaster is eclipsed by somebody else’s disaster in another part of the world or nation.

Hurricane Rita was a serious disaster for SW Louisiana and SE Texas.  Even seven years later, many aspects of those communities still haven’t recovered and will never be the same.  But my story, my perspective, isn’t even IN the disaster, just near it.  I want people to realize you don’t even have to be at ground zero, and it doesn’t have to be a catastrophic event to change your life and the way you think.

I lived, at that time, about a hundred miles inland in a small city of about 48,000 residents.  Just a year before, I had moved inland, away from my childhood home in the Lake Charles, Louisiana area leaving behind over a hundred members of my big Cajun family.

For decades, Louisiana residents had become complacent, pretty much joking about hurricanes and having ‘hurricane parties’ just as an excuse to have a rowdy night when there was a blob on the radar.  With the highly publicized events of Katrina, Rita’s approach was taken much more seriously.

Two days before the storm hit, my aunt who lived in Carlyss, near the Calcasieu/Cameron parish border, called and said “we’re coming to your place.”  I thought this a bit odd, to have people just invite themselves over, but I totally understood and welcomed her and her family.  She has been somewhat of a matriarch of the family since grandma died, and I was in a way honored to share my home with her.  She is kind of a communications hub for everyone, and through her, I knew pretty much where everybody in the family was headed for the storm.

I was blessed with a fairly large house at the time, about 2400 square feet, 4br/2ba, and had plenty of room for guests.  However, I was not a prepper yet.  We were weekend campers, so we had lanterns, stoves, and plenty of propane.  Just being a Louisiana native and a weather-watcher by hobby, I had already set aside lots of fresh water in 48 quart ice chests just in case.  I knew to fill the cars with fuel.  But I did not have much food in the house.  I am far from Martha Stewart.  I am not a good cook and my emergency accommodations consisted of college-student grade furniture and inflatable mattresses and couches and recliners.

My aunt came along with her husband, and three of her grown children and two little lap dogs.  She brought some food from her refrigerator and freezer, with the understanding that we’d go shopping when she got here.  I’m so glad, in retrospect, that they came early, and we did that first round of shopping  before the chaos struck.

For the first 24 hours that I had house guests, we all got settled in comfortably and my aunt kept the phone tree going constantly.  My uncle and myself kept an eye and ear on the news and weather.  Everybody was taking this storm seriously this time and getting out, but many waited til almost too late.

During all this, I had been trying to convince my mom and dad to leave their house just a few miles away from what would be ground zero and to come stay with me.  My dad was all blustery about, “nah, we rode out Hurricane Audrey just fine.  Those people in New Orleans are idiots.  We’re set up good here, we can take care of ourselves, and I want to be around in case any looters come.”  I couldn’t convince him.  I was concerned, being 2 hours away and the possibility of losing communications with them during and after the storm.  Nothing I could do about it, though.  My dad is stubborn.

By that evening, the winds are picking up some, and there are clouds overhead, but the storm isn’t due to make landfall til the next afternoon.  I find out that my husband, who is a driver for a major company, will not be allowed off work.  The truck he drives is large and susceptible to being blown off the road during high winds.  So I had another thing to worry about.

In the mean time, I was enjoying the excitement of all the goings on because it was so different from the hum-drum of everyday life.  I was loving having family stay with me, and was having a great time chatting with them.  My three small sons really enjoyed the attention and the dogs to play with.  My aunt is a great cook and set to doing it well for all of us.  My female cousins made cleanup an enjoyable social event.

After checking the news and weather again, we all went to bed.  I tried to sleep, but I lived on a sheltered dead-end street near the center of town.  Normally its quiet, but when I stepped outside to get a look at things in the orange glow of the street light, I could tell the feel of my neighborhood had changed already.  I could hear an unusual amount of city noise and traffic when it was normally dead still and quiet.  All the trees on our street were waving around in the increased winds, causing strangely violent shadows against the house and yard.  At the end of my street on a larger neighborhood road, there was a lot of traffic, some on foot or bicycle, young people milling around enjoying the agitated atmosphere at eleven o’clock at night.  I couldn’t relax.  Things felt edgy.  I laid on my porch swing until 2am and just kept an eye out.

The next morning, while trying to call everybody, my aunt realized she had lost contact with one of my uncles and his family.  She called and called until she got a scratchy connection with him.  He and several of his kids, grandkids, and dogs had spent the night in the walmart parking lot of my town!  There was no way family of mine was going to live at the walmart parking lot for the duration of a hurricane, so me and my uncle set out to find them and guide them back to my house.

Now, I had not been off of my street since the day before, when my aunt and I had gone shopping.  That morning, with the storm due to make landfall starting that evening, the town was completely different.

What normally took about 5 minutes to get to walmart took us fifteen minutes, and alternate routes to avoid the clogged main roads.  I was driving, but nearly in shock.  People, evacuees, were literally standing in family groups in the grassy road medians, looking like lost cattle.  Every parking lot was crammed full of cars, campers, people and dogs.  There was a lot of foot traffic even across busy roads, slowing movement down farther.  And where the heck had all these homeless looking people on bicycles come from?!?  We eventually found my family at the walmart and I could not believe how things looked there.  It was like a refugee camp, every parking spot full out to the edges of the huge lot and beyond, in the grass.  Rent a cops and city police were patrolling through the lot, trying to keep things calm, I guess.  It was still loud and chaotic.  And three carloads of my family had stayed in that madhouse overnight!

With eight more people on top of the ten already in residence at my place, as well as two lap dogs and now three pit bulls, we made our way back to my house.  Once there, I was mighty concerned about those pit bulls.  Sure, everybody says “my dog won’t hurt anybody,” but that’s not always true.  And I had 3 little ones in the house that really liked to pet and love on dogs.    I felt bad having to tell my cousins the dogs couldn’t come in the house, but I had to.  No way was I having three huge dogs of questionable temperament milling around among 18 people.  My previously roomy house was starting to feel cramped.

My uncle who had stayed with his extended family at the walmart parking lot was exhausted.  He and his boys had stayed awake the night before to keep an eye on things because they didn’t feel safe with their women and children there.  There was a bit of time over coffee to hear their story of how they ended up at walmart.

My uncle had been trying to round up his family to leave Cameron parish earlier than they had, but it took longer to get people and stuff together than anticipated.  The fact was, they had left home only about 6 hours later than my aunt who had already been at my house for over a day now.  In that relatively small time lag, seems everyone in the Calcasieu-Cameron parish area had decided to hit the road. I figure that must have been caused by a particularly bad weather report, or an announcement from the governor or something.   A journey that my aunt’s family had made just fine, a road trip that normally takes only two hours at the posted speed limit had taken my uncle’s family eighteen hours!!!    Despite the state police’s implementation of contra-flow procedures along all evacuation routes, traffic had been stop and go, sometimes at a standstill for hours.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like traveling among all those people, many of them anxious, stressed and with road rage, some running out of fuel, with cranky, hungry children, etc…

Turns out that after a brief rest, lunch, and use of the bathrooms, most of my uncle’s family left because they didn’t appreciate that I wouldn’t let their dogs stay in the house.  My uncle, one of his grown sons, and their HUGE pit bull decided to stay for the duration.  I still don’t know how my cousins found a evacuee shelter willing to take them in with the two other dogs.

By now, all the city and its overflowing population was getting into hunker down mode because the effects of the storm were starting to be felt.  I was safe and snug at home, busy helping feed and care for people along with my more capable aunt, but I was concerned about all those people I had seen that morning standing around in road medians and camping in parking lots.  And my mom and dad were about to get hit with who-knows-what in the next few hours.  It was too late for them to leave even if they had wanted to at that point, and they still didn’t.

In short, the storm itself wasn’t that bad for my household.  We lost power for about 12 hours, during which time we played several rounds of cards and my uncles regaled us with tales of their time overseas.  When the winds weren’t too bad, we were out on the porch watching it all blow by.  There was a whole lot of wind, maybe gusts up to 70 mph, but not much rain.  It was strangely cool and damp for September.  It was kind of an exciting, enjoyable day spent with family.  When the power was out, we cooked by coleman stove and lantern.  The floor was damp and clammy and dirty from everybody going in and out to look at the weather.  My cousin was so sweet, she pretty much kept a broom in her hands that day and kept it from getting too bad.

But I was greatly concerned about my mom and dad.  I had lost contact and knew it would probably be a while before I heard from them again.

Funny thing was, my cousin’s pit bull, Boudreaux,  which appeared to be maybe a cross between pit bull and mastiff he was so huge, was a big ole baby.   I wouldn’t allow him in the house, so my cousin leashed him to the rear axle of his pickup truck which was parked in my lawn.  That poor dog spent the worst part of the storm trying to fit himself under the truck, and my cousin sat on my front porch the whole time, watching him and feeling sorry for him.  I felt bad too, but couldn’t risk it.  In the worst part of the storm, I relented and let him move the dog into the carport.

That night, while most of the ladies slept, I couldn’t.   The hubby and I and my uncles stayed up some and talked and kept a watch of sorts.  We took turns napping I think.  People who were not from our street were wandering around, maybe just having a walk, maybe not.  We kept somebody always visible on the front porch and nothing happened.  Good thing we had the numbers to keep somebody out there.

My front yard was small and a huge oak tree hung over the lawn, the parked cars, and the house.  It was an old tree, with signs of trunk rot, and I was worried about that, too.  The tree did fine, but the lawn was covered in debris.

It was mostly after the storm that things got unpleasant, and we were the lucky ones.  Since my house was near the center of town, power was back on pretty quick.  People farther out of town were without power for two weeks.  This was a town a hundred miles from the storm.  A direct hit really rips up the infrastructure itself.  In our parish, power line damage was mostly from tree damage, not directly from the wind itself.

Of course, we ran out of food with that many people in the house.  My aunt and I went shopping again the day after the storm and were dismayed at what we found.  Walmart, in addition to being a tense, uneasy place, had pretty much nothing but condiments left.  It was sobering to see such a huge store with so many empty shelves.   The people there were in a strange mental state and we left as soon as we saw there was nothing to be had.

Kroger wasn’t much better.  I think we found some odd specialty bread, jalapeno flavored or something.  Again, no milk, cereal, sandwich bread, pb&j, cheese, lunch meat, staples or ready made package food.  NoTV dinners, frozen stuff, either.

Getting a little desperate, we lastly went to a small local grocery chain store.  They only have about 5 stores in the region, but apparently they have their act together compared to the big guys.  I should have known from the parking lot that they had food.

It was not pretty inside.  Shelves were still empty, because the stockers only had time to unload the supply trucks and set the pallets in the middle of the widest aisles.  The  plastic wrap off the pallet was cut, and the grab was on!   It almost felt like a looting frenzy, everybody getting what they could and eyeing each other’s baskets on the way to checkout.  I hated that, I can’t tell you how much.  I’m by nature a socially timid person.  To have to get in there and have to scrap for food was crazy!  And then we had to wonder if we’d make it to the car with what we paid for.  Seems the police had thought of that, because they had a presence in the parking lot, thank God!

So, now we had the supplies to make a gumbo, along with the last of the meat my aunt had brought.  But we didn’t have a pot big enough, as “gumbo pot” hadn’t been on her emergency packing list.  We headed to Sears, which was strangely quiet.  They were open, with a skeleton crew, but open nonetheless.  I noted they were completely sold out of generators and other useful hurricane supplies, but we were only there for a pot.

I found a nice big pot that could handle gumbo for 12 people, and my aunt insisted on paying for it, but I didn’t let her.  I needed a big pot anyway.

When we got home and told the guys how things had been, they felt guilty because they hadn’t realized what conditions would be like ‘out there’.  None of us had realized.  We had been fine at the house and hadn’t known the town was getting crazy.

While the gumbo cooked, I sat in on the conversation my uncle was having with the men.  Though our personal vehicles had plenty of fuel, theirs didn’t.  With ideas now that resources of all kinds may become scarce, my uncle sent my male cousin out to fuel up their car while they could.  My other male cousin followed him and did the same with their truck.

It was two hours until they returned.  They had gone to gas station after gas station, finding them closed due to power outages, or open but out of fuel, with angry prospective customers milling around arguing over the last package of beef jerky.

Finally, they had lucked up and seen a tanker truck just pulling into a gas station.  It had been tense, and they didn’t tell me much, but the looks on their faces said enough.

Gumbo was served, and after cleanup I finally got through to my mom and dad who rode out the storm in the Lake Charles area.  Never again, dad said.  The tale they told of the awful night they’d had was harrowing, with tornadoes all around and trees crashing around the house.  Our conversation was short because power was out and they had to conserve cell phone battery.  They said they had been trying to call, but couldn’t get through til then.   Their roof was damaged, and the chimney was lying in the yard.  The doors in their house weren’t closing properly, which meant  the frame of the house had shifted.  Mom was constantly mopping the floor because the concrete was sweating in the heat and it was a fall hazard for her because she has weak bones.  They would come to my house as soon as the roads were clear.

My family staying with me from down south were understandably worried about the condition of their homes.  After our forays to get groceries and fuel, they knew they needed to move on from my house because things were going to get bad with the food and fuel situation and all the evacuees in town.  They made plans for the older generation to travel on to another relative’s place north of Houston, and for my younger male cousins to somehow get back home and assess the damage, and get their generators running to save all the meat they had left in their freezers and to care for the livestock.

I don’t know how he did it in a strange town he was unfamiliar with, but my uncle handed his son a wad of cash and told him to go find fuel for the trip home and the generators.  Knowing what the fuel situation had been like a while ago, I was very impressed when he came back that evening with two 55 gallon drums full of gasoline laid down and strapped in his truck bed.

We knew from spotty communications that all roads into affected parishes were closed and state police and sheriffs deputies were letting no one in yet.  Roads weren’t clear, power wasn’t on, and there was no food, water or fuel available for residents to return.  There had been major flooding of coastal areas quite a ways inland, and trees and power lines were down all over.

Despite all this, my uncles and cousins devised a route through backwoods and off road paths, sometimes cutting across pasture, to get that fuel home to the generators.  I would love to hear how he made it through all that, but I guess “a country boy can survive” about covers it.  Maybe someday I’ll remember to ask him for details.

My mom and dad made it to my house two days later with some tales of their own.  Shortly after that, they moved up here so as not to have to ride out any more hurricanes.  Can’t say we’re immune to the secondary effects of storms 100 miles inland, but at least we only had the crowding and resource competition, not the structural devastation and flooding.

It was literally months before reasonable services were restored to the Lake Charles area.  Businesses stayed closed for ages because the workforce was still evacuated because so many people’s homes were uninhabitable.  The big difference between Katrina and Rita was that the government didn’t eventually come to the rescue.  It wasn’t declared a disaster, though it was absolutely a disaster.  It was all people helping each other, and local businesses, and I can’t tell you how awesome it was to see power line crews from Wisconsin working along side crews from Arizona to restore electrical service in Louisiana.

All that aside, the lessons that I learned before I was even officially a prepper, I got from this storm.

  1. A disaster does not have to be something apocalyptic like a nuclear war, world economic collapse, or a huge meteor from outer space to cause considerable disruption and stress in your life.  Just disruption of the day-to-day services that we take for granted can require an entirely different set of skills to get through the day.
  2. A disaster does not have to be on your very doorstep to affect you in a big way.  The epicenter of this event was over a hundred miles away, and our little town was pretty much turned inside out trying to handle all the people fleeing from the event.
  3. If something is happening, leave as early as you can if you are going to leave.  A small difference in time made a HUGE difference in travel conditions.  A 2 hour trip became an 18 hour ordeal.  Some people had to ride out this storm, with their families, stranded on the side of the road.  Authorities were doing the best they could, but there were just too many people to accommodate.  And this is not a hugely populated area.  There were several evacuation routes and several different destinations for people to choose from.  Higher population density and fewer options would have made it exponentially worse.
  4. I am extremely blessed to have such great family.  They brought food and money with them, as well as a good attitude and a great skill set.  Choose your people well if you have a choice, or try to bring about an attitude change in your household if you don’t.   If you live with a bunch of fainting, lazy whiners during a disaster, things will be unpleasant to say the least.
  5. Always, always have at least a few weeks’ worth of food on hand, and fuel if you can manage it.  At least have the containers to hold water.  Keep it low profile, of course, but have it.  It may save you from mayhem and injury and  having to go out and compete with a mob of desperate people.
  6. Be cautious and aware that ‘people’ are different in stressful situations.  I may be comfortable walking my children through 60,000 jam-packed, happy vacationers at Disney World, but I’d never take them in a small town grocery store with 60 people in it after a hurricane.  That crowd can turn mean in an instant.
  7. Residents with a vested interest in a community can accomplish self-policing and clean up efforts better and faster than government agencies.  Lake Charles is nothing like New Orleans.  When a high percentage of the population owns guns, chain saws, tractors, etc…  by the time the govt’ clean up crews show up, the roads are already mostly clear, widow Smith down the street has already been cared for and made comfortable, and looters will be faced with people who spend a good deal of their spare time shooting food for a hobby.
  8. If other disasters are going on in the nation, don’t expect much help from the government, anyway.  It seems as time goes on, there are more and more things happening at once.   Imagine an epidemic type event happening at the same time as a Katrina type event, at the same time as huge wildfires out West.  Throw in a tense national political situation, maybe some high fuel and food prices, too.  Be ready to fend for yourself, whatever that may mean in a given situation.  Spend some time thinking about that.

It wasn’t until 2007 that I got the prepping bug and fully woke up to what is going on in the world, but I had already learned a lot from this experience.  And my Cajun family down south aren’t  ‘preppers’ at all and would scoff at the idea, but they’re already more well prepared and able than I probably ever will be.  Its been their lifestyle for generations to be self-sufficient, to garden, hunt, fish, can, and fix and make much of what they need.  Their family and community is already strong.   They may not share my sometimes doomer outlook, but they’re ready, anyway.

[disaster-author]TaffyJ in LA[/disaster-author]

Posted in: Hurricane

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5 Comments on "Hurricane Rita: Collateral Damage 100 Miles Away"

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  1. this why you should preppe

  2. 'Jesse Banke says:

    its true, ive never heard of hurricane rita

  3. jedi1111 says:

    What? no gumbo recipee?  A very interesting read.  I related to it because I have both a Walmart and a Shell gas station about 5 minutes from my house. Our Walmart doesn’t have a grocery store in it, but that parking lot is always full .  I can’t imagine it during an emergency event.  It’s a little scary to think that that many desperate people are so close to my house.  Just a short walk away really.we had a Hurricane and an early snow storm that devastated our state and I know that creepy feeling of driving down the road looking at dangling power lines, darkened businesses and traffic lights out.  The burger king had power and the line for the drive thru was out the parking lot and into the street. It’s both exciting and scary.

  4. Shai says:

    I live in the Austin area, and the evacuees from Rita took over our town.  My son was in Houston going to school and it took him over 12 hours to make it here and he beat most of the hoard coming north!  Its normally a 3 hour drive.  I was working a a video store next to the grocery store of the small town we live near and with my back to the parking lot, all I knew was masses of people coming in were opening new accounts and decimating the available rental selection.  When i finally tured around to look outside the parking lot was full, and plus some. People were double parking causing gridlock in the lot, the store was OUT of almost everything.  I was hearing stories for a couple of days of people that left and the same time and something as simple as getting stopped at an intersection was making HOURS of difference in their travel time…. When Rita finally made landfall, it moved to the east of here.  The entire eastern third of the sky was huge towering thunderheads and the temps were reaching 110+.  the western side of a hurricane is the side where the pressure goes up due to the atmosphere having to fall back to Earth from being slung up into the stratosphere, so with the pressure the air was basically heating up due to friction! Ugh.  This was actually what got me into keeping more and more “preps” around having lived thru that.  I may be 200 miles inland from the Gulf, but a big storm like Katrina or Rita, would still decimate us here even as the eyewall made land fall at Corpus Christi.  It took 10 days for my son to be able to return to Houston, the PTB had everyone return by zip code with the less damaged areas returning first. We deal with tropical weather here, wildfires (remember last Labor Day? And Bastrop wasnt the only one!), ice storms, tornadoes, and drought.  And the Katrina refugees were taking up all the available room at shelters everywhere.  Not gonna happen to me and mine!

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