The High-Tech Texan Blog

Friday, September 23, 2005

Highways of Hell - Fleeing Rita

Thursday, September 22nd, was an exercise in futility. While millions of Houston and Galveston area residents planned for a quick getaway from Hurricane Rita, the roadways in and around southeast Texas proved to be a bigger problem than the impending storm.

My personal plight began Wednesday afternoon as my family began prepping our Ft. Bend County (southwest Houston) home for the storm. After shoring up our backyard pool area and removing many fragile pieces of artwork and electronics from the ground floor to our upstairs rooms, we threw together important documents, photos, necessary clothes and provisions in case it took several days or weeks for us to return.

What we should have considered was provisions for the longest day of our lives on Thursday. We never expected to spend the next 18 hours sitting in traffic, watching the gas tank, conserving our food and holding back our frustrations.

Thursday 3:30am
Wake-up call. The weather is a normal, typical Houston morning of humidity and a sense of calm in the air. Waking up our three sons (ages 11, 8 and 5) was no easy task but they continued their sleep - in their pajamas - in our minivan. The dog hopped in and we prepared for a trip to my parents’ home in north Dallas that normally takes us about 4 hours. Departure time: 4:40am

Hello traffic. Apparently we weren't the only ones with the bright idea of leaving so early. Beltway 8 northbound looked like the parking lot at Reliant Stadium on game day. Time to navigate the feeder roads and back streets that I know in hopes of skirting around some of the backup.

We've moved 2 miles, maybe. The major issue with the Beltway traffic was cars trying to exit the two major freeways heading west (I-10) and northwest (US 290). At least 90% of the cars planned to exit onto these major thoroughfares but instead of getting into the right side exit lanes, all of the lanes were backed up to a chokepoint. Once we finally inched our way past these two exits the traffic flowed at normal speeds of at least 60 mph.

Kids are sleeping and I'm working one of the four cell phones I brought talking with friends who were in the same predicament. Many of them were either a few miles ahead or behind us with the same plans to head to Dallas hotels.

Beltway 8 was so packed up several drivers got out of their cars and milled around the freeway. They walked their dogs and even relieved themselves right on the road. Can't wait to smell the city at the end of the day.

As we finally approach the north side of the Beltway and exit onto I-45 North we realize that officials closed off the north exit ramp. A quick glance of my handheld GPS found a last-minute exit off the freeway which led to a maze of roads that led us to I-45. This move proved to save us no less than 2 hours.

While on these streets we found a gas station with a short wait and decided to top off our tank which was 3/4 full. I've never been so happy to pay $3.19 a gallon.

About the time we normally would have been unloading our car in Dallas we finally hit I-45 at FM 1960, just a few miles north of Beltway 8. This would be our home for the next 12 hours.

We had been monitoring the radio and TV with a portable TV. Not surprisingly the stories were rarely focusing on the impending Category 5 storm but rather the traffic we were a part of. Helicopters buzzed above and reports continued to trickle in with a glimmer of hope - city and state officials had reversed the southbound traffic flow to allow both sides of I-45 to travel northbound.

It was this point on the highway which proved to be our Mecca. As soon as we made it to Conroe, TX, this bottleneck would open up and everyone would be speeding on their way to Big D and points beyond. Or so we thought.

Have they opened these contraflow lanes? We hadn't moved more than a mile or two - sometimes sitting the in the same spot for 20 minutes. The kids popped in the first DVD and were being incredibly patient.

Surprisingly other drivers seemed to be taking this traffic in stride. I expected to see tempers flare but we realized no one was going anywhere fast so we all sucked it up. Our biggest fear was gas. We still had almost a full tank but all of this idling was going to drain our supply along with everyone else in front of us.

We started seeing cars being pushed to the side of the road as they ran out of fuel. Oh good! The radio and TV reports said the state was bringing in tanker trunks to provide gas for stranded evacuees. No sight of any truck yet.

We've moved 3 miles, maybe. Just got off the phone with a few of my radio stations proving listeners eyewitness reports of the situation. After several hours of debating whether to make a u-turn on the EMPTY southbound lanes of I-45 and head back home, we decided we were past the point of no return. This was no longer an evacuation. This was a quest! We were getting to Dallas if I had to push our van. I took some Tylenol to prep my muscles.

Emails poured in on my Blackberry with friends and relatives asking our whereabouts. The cell service was spotty due to the congestion but the Bberry seldom fails.

The biggest frustration was why the southbound lanes were totally empty and how officials hadn't opened the contraflow lanes at this point? Conroe was still 30 miles away and we could only imagine how speedy things would be once we got there.

While we planned to hydrate ourselves well with a case of bottled water in the van, we forgot to pack enough food other than snacks like pretzels, cookies, fruit chews and candy. So much for my Atkins diet.

We passed countless numbers of fast food places one the feeder roads. I planned to hop out of the car to get food while we sat on I-45. No doubt I would have had time to order a full meal, sit down in the place to eat it and still hop right back in the van while it was parked on the highway. But every single food joint was closed. How could a McDonald's close? This would have been a record day for sales.

We could have driven to Florida by now. Most of our friends on the road had reported they had given up and turned around to go home and wait it out. Fears of gas and not enough time before the storm proved stronger than the need to get to safer ground.

The kids were napping and the dog was unbelievably calm. We kept hopping out of the car to walk her but apparently she was too concerned about getting to our destination that she never did her business.

Radio reports kept saying that these gas trucks were on their way to help motorists. Where the hell are they? Still haven't seen one and cars continued to stall on the shoulders.

I almost got out of the car and strapped on my running shoes. Figured I could get some exercise and marathon training by running up and down the highway. Only thing stopping me was the 102 degree heat outside.

Still no traffic traveling on the southbound lanes and if I didn't care about our van I probably would have rammed the concrete barriers to make my own entrance on them. Apparently I wasn't the only one thinking about this. We started seeing hundreds of cars speeding northbound on the southbound lanes. Did they finally open this section up to contraflow?

Nope. They were bandits. Frustrated drivers snuck up the southbound entrance ramps and u-turned north. They were honking and cheering as they sped away on the clear lanes and our fears of potential head-on collisions were horrifying.

Alas this exercise didn't last long as hoards of police cars began chasing these bandits and shut down all southbound entrance ramps.

Still no gas trucks. Still rare movement north. Still many miles from the Conroe contraflow lanes. Still can't figure out how the kids and the dog were being so good. This was probably the biggest factor that kept this adventure from being unbearable.

Is there a hurricane coming? We totally forgot about that. All concerns were about traveling north.

Finally, Conroe. Contraflow. We made the soon-to-be-realized prophetic decision to move to the southbound lanes instead of continuing on the northbound side.

Welcome to more traffic. How could this be? Should we expect bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way to Dallas which still was 200 miles away?
Our gas was about halfway down and decisions had to be made about refueling and finding some real food.

As we snarled our way to Willis, TX, a few miles north of Conroe, we saw our first sign of semi-open road. Traffic opened up a bit and we saw speeds of up to 50 mph. I thought our van would go in shock from this super-high speed.

We continued monitoring our gas tank as we moved steadily through Huntsville. At this point even the prisons looked good. Wondered if they had a few extra cots for the night. A cell with bread and water looked good after 12 hours in the car.

Centerville, TX. Halfway point between Houston and Dallas. 14 1/2 hours. Tried to get the Guiness folks on the line but the cell service was still spotty.

My normal Houston-Dallas stopover at Woody's Truckstop and Smokehouse (incredible BBQ and jerky) would not be had on this trek as the line of cars exiting was a mile long. We contined north looking for a gas station with a relatively short line.

Need a quick break in case we can't find restrooms. The rest stops look like camp grounds as families spread out picnics and tossed frisbees as they reassessed their plans.

Stories were passed around and sympthetic feelings flowed to our fellow evacuees. Me being "Mr. Optimist" professed of the promised land a mere 150 miles up.

The contraflow lanes finally proved to be worth its wait as we sped northward around 60mph. But the word was that these ad-hoc lanes would merge back onto the northbound side would happen in Buffalo, TX.

We hit Buffalo and saw the same line of cars for gas and food. Our tank showed about 80 miles of gas left with over 100 miles to get to our destination. To our delight, the contraflow lanes continued as we hoped to ride these southbound lanes straight to my parents' house.

As we approached Fairfield I envisioned stopping at Sam's Truck stop for some of their fresh-baked bread and anything else. Sawdust, I didn't care at this point.

I decided to pull a little trick to get off the road and did a u-turn onto the normal exit ramp of the southbound lane. We pulled into a gas station and actually drove right up to a pump. A dozen or so cars were waiting which was the lightest traffic we had seen all day.

I was practically cheering as the gallons and dollars flowed into the tank. We stretched a bit and then went on a shopping spree at the Texaco. Spare no expense, kids. Grab all the chips, soda and crap you want. We were so ecstatic I almost bought everyone in the place a Coke.

But REAL food was just next door. A KFC/Taco Bell seemed like it had a glow from the heavens shining down on it. A Grilled Stuffed Chicken Burrito? Manna from heaven. $20 later and our guts were as filled as our gas tank.

8:45 pm
Back on the road. Traffic continued on the southbound lanes as we wondered when the convergence would happen. We hit a sea of red tail lights in Corsicana and figured we'd now be back t0 a crawl for the final 50 miles.

But the traffic was mostly from highway construction. While the northbound regular lanes were sitting in traffic, the southbound lanes we were on flowed quickly. Good choice.

As we neared Ennis at mile marker 425, we slowly shifted back onto the northbound side of the road. While we feared another major backup the traffic flow appeared to be as typical as a normal trip to Dallas. Maybe too many people gave up, ran out of gas or decided to park and sleep on the side of the road.

The most beautiful sight we have seen in a long time. The downtown Dallas skyline. That puke green-outlined skyscraper was a work of art. My parents' home - with showers, beds and food - were minutes away.

Our minds were numb as were our legs, arm and back. What were we going to do first? Eat, unload the car or just pass out on the driveway?

18 hours after we left our home in southwest Houston we made it to Dallas' Central Expressway. I grew up in Dallas and spent several of the best years of my life sitting on this stretch of I-75. How ironic that we were driving at top speed on this 8 lane road as we had just spent the longest day of our lives in the country’s biggest traffic jam 250 miles to the south.

Home. The place where I grew up. I always dreamed of leaving this house to have a career and raise my own family but I was never happier to see this place.

We told the kids they would always remember this day. How Daddy and Mommy fought traffic, frustration, hunger pains, near fuel shortage on a quest - an adventure - to get out of Hurricane Rita's potential path of destruction.

Hurricane? They didn't care. Grandma and Grandpa have an Xbox.


  • Great story Michael. Sounds like my daughter's family's story. They spent almost the same amount of time, beginning on Wed. evening. They finally got to the lake house near Corsicana @ 9PM yesterday.

    It looks like Houston may dodge the worst of the weather.

    Take care...

    By Anonymous HDTV Guru, at 3:08 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:45 AM  

  • Michael: Wonderfully detailed account. This should be submitted to the New York Times Sunday Magazine for their last page story, which is always a "slice of life" human interest story. Your experience demonstrated the biggest "lesson learned" for the State of Texas on how to better manage an evacuation in the future. But ultimately the evacuation was largely a success and lives were saved.

    Ray Garfield

    By Anonymous Ray Garfield, at 2:01 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:53 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:55 PM  

<< Home