Rita: One Family Tries to Leave

  • Share
  • Read Later
Correspondent Maggie Sieger has covered her share of natural disasters for TIME, from tornadoes in Oklahoma City to, most recently, Hurricane Katrina. This week the weather came closer to home, as much of her family lives near the Texas coast. She filed this report on their struggle to get out of the way of Hurricane Rita:

Most of my relatives, including parents, a sister, two brothers and a number of cousins, aunts and uncles and their families, live in Galveston County and Houston. Many of them have been stuck on various Houston-area arteries since early this morning, fleeing the threat of Hurricane Rita. In more than two hours at one point, they'd moved less than 2 miles. "We're not moving at all. People are getting out of their cars and walking around, walking their dogs," says my sister, Kerry, 37, who is driving mom's white Mazda Tribute. "Men are getting out of their cars and peeing on the side of the road." The women so far, Kerry says, are more reluctant, but desperate times may call for desperate measures.

All around them, says my mom, Mary, 62, are people who have run out of gas or overheated their engines. According to radio reports, even though officials called for an evacuation, they never anticipated this many people actually would leave. Katrina apparently spooked everyone. Fuel trucks that were supposed to be at rest stops along evacuation routes are stuck helplessly in traffic. "They're saying if you have an 1/8 tank of gas or less to get off the roads and let other people escape," mom says. Despite 100-degree heat, she turned off the car's air conditioner a couple hours ago. Instead, she's holding an umbrella out the window to block the sun.

Mobile phone service is patchy. It's hard for those in Houston to reach each other, or even call outside the storm area. My brother Matt, 34, has resorted to texting, which still seems to be working OK. All day, I've relayed messages to and from relatives in Houston. At first, they had no fixed idea of where to go. Flights out of the city's two airports had been cancelled by this morning, which meant they couldn't get here as planned. I spent the morning trying to find hotel rooms anywhere in the state for them, but couldn't find anything south of Amarillo or east of El Paso. Friends have been calling, offering my family a place to stay in places like Marion, Ohio. But by early afternoon, we had a concrete plan. Everyone is going to San Antonio.

Only my 77-year-old aunt and her 81-year-old husband are holding out. Despite repeated rounds of cajoling, hollering and begging, the pair refuses to leave their house in Montgomery County, just north of Houston, even though there's been a call for elderly people to evacuate. "I've talked to my neighbors and to security and everyone says it'll be windy and we'll get some rain, but that's all," insists Peggy Nordstrom. "We're going to be fine."

My parents, too, initially were stubborn. They agreed to leave their house on Galveston Bay, which is just 13 feet above sea level, but planned to ride out the storm at Kerry's house in Houston. Brothers Matt and Michael spent Wednesday at my parents' house, helping move furniture and valuables to the second floor, boarding up windows and clearing the deck of anything that could become a dangerous projectile in 175 mph winds. As a child, I remember hiding out in the bathroom during Hurricane Alicia in 1983. When the eye passed over, we ran outside to a spooky, greenish world with absolutely no sound. After the terrifying noise of the hurricane, it was distinctly odd. The lawn was covered with dead seagulls and tree branches. One of the giant live oak trees in our front yard had toppled, missing the house by inches. We knew the storm was starting again when we heard the wind. But Alicia was only a Category 3 storm. When Rita was upgraded to a Cat 5 this morning, everyone decided to abandon ship.