>Wednesday, September 21st.
Dalinda (a Red Cross volunteer and my traveling companion) and I finished up our work at the Greater Houston Area Chapter of the American Red Cross and went to the DR Headquarters to “outprocess.” While there, we learned that the Red Cross would be evacuating all DSHR members (Disaster Services Human Resources – the folks who put their lives on hold to provide relief to disaster victims through the American Red Cross)
Our flight wasn’t until tomorrow afternoon (Thursday). Dalinda said she thought she should leave now, get in a car and just drive home. I’m a somewhat seasoned DSHR member, but this was Dalinda’s first time out. I’ve escaped a DR (disaster relief) assignment between hurricanes before (somewhere between Charley, Francis, Ivan and Jeanne last year from Daytona Beach). I tried to convince Dalinda that we should just get a good night’s sleep at the hotel and get to the airport early the next day for our flight. Dalinda was firm that God was telling her to get out now. I tried to have two ARC (American Red Cross) disaster experts, Rick Schoffield and Patrick Knapp, dissuade her. Patrick told her that we would get out faster if we waited to fly out. Dalinda wouldn’t budge. I had gotten her into this assignment, and there was no way I was going to send her home alone. I believe in trusting your gut. Dalinda’s gut was telling her to go. We decided we would drive from Houston to Dallas and just pick up our connecting flight tomorrow from DFW to Fayetteville. Michael from our team tells me to buy a couple of gallons of water, in case our car overheats. I called my mom and told her our plans. She was glad we were getting out and told me to “call her when we get to Dallas.”
As chartered buses loaded DSHR members and headed off to places like San Antonio, Austin, College Station and Lufkin, Dalinda and I scheduled a rental car from Enterprise , bummed a ride back to the hotel to gather our belongings, hailed and cab and headed SOUTH for Houston Hobby to get our car. The ATM at the hotel was offline or out of cash. We have about $36 cash between us.
We arrive at Enterprise and have a relatively short wait to pick up our car. I am pleased to find out that it is a FORD Escape (my grandpa Gene was a life-long FORD owner. I knew that he was watching over us as we began our journey). We met a man named Troy Davis with Fluor who had been traveling all day from Chicago in a hurry to get home and board up his Galveston Home so he too could evacuate the storm. Troy had reserved a car with Dollar Rentals but they had given it away to another traveler. Needless to say, he was EXTREMELY frustrated. But kind to us and he wished us well. We too, wished him luck with his house and evacuation. Just before we left we met a young woman from New Orleans who had been in Houston since Katrina. Now she was evacuating again. She was getting her car, but waiting to get on the road until morning as she had lost her eyeglasses in Katrina and was afraid to drive at night without them. As we left Enterprise, I prayed for this young woman’s safety.
Leaving Enterprise, we were able to get on the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane. All HOV restrictions had been lifted for the evacuation. In Houston, the HOV has cement barriers on both sides. Once you are on it, you can’t get off until the designated area. And unless you know the city, you don’t know where to get on. We were lucky to find the HOV at our starting point.
We drove the first several miles at 30-45 mph in that lane, passing thousands of vehicles crawling in the other 7 lanes of Hwy 45 north. We also passed countless ambulances with lights flashing but no sirens. The ambulances were evacuating the elderly and the impaired from Galveston. I was exclaiming to Dalinda how fortunate we were to be on the HOV. She told me not to talk about it just yet, afraid I would jinx us. I told her that there was no such thing as “jinx” and that God was in control. He put us in that lane. Atleast for the time being….
My best estimate is that we saved 4-5 hours in traffic thanks to the HOV lane.
The HOV lane ends. We cannot find how to access it again. We get on HW 45 North with thousands of others.
Bumper to Bumper traffic, 7 lanes across and as far as the eye can see. We aren’t even out of Houston yet. We’ve used a 1/4 tank of gas already. Dalinda tells me that she had recently seen a piece on CNN about conserving gasoline. We decide to roll down all the windows and turn off the air conditioning. It was a decision that ultimately saved us from becoming one of thousands who were stranded without fuel.
At some point I laid down in the back seat to sleep while Dalinda drove. I don’t know how long I rested. The overnight hours were frightening. The evacuees appeared calm. No one seemed to be “losing it,” but maybe they were just holding it all inside like I was. My legs never stopped shaking throughout the night.
We started the trip odometer. We estimated we had traveled 20 miles in the 4 hours since leaving Houston Hobby.
Thursday, September 22
sometime after midnight
Dalinda suggested that we pull over for an hour and let her rest. She was the only authorized driver for the rental. I told her I would drive. We needed to keep moving. Both of us needed to use the restroom, but nothing was open. All of the gas stations we had passed so far were out of gas. I thought there would be gas when we got north of Houston. We pulled behind a strip mall and borrowed kleenex from a lady who was helping herself to water out of a spigot behind the mall. We parked the car at a diagnonal to give ourselves as much privacy as possible and squatted and peed outdoors like animals. When we pulled out, I was behind the wheel.
1:00, 2:00, 3:00 a.m. ?
Dalinda rested while I drove on. At some point we were rear ended by a dark blue minivan. It was a hard hit. We didn’t stop to call police. What would be the point? We didn’t know where we were and it would take hours before they could get to us. We continue to pass gas station after gas station – all of them have plastic bags covering the nozzles. All of the fuel is GONE.
Along the median there are hundreds of vechicles pulled over. Hoods are up. People are laying, sleeping on blankets in the grass and on the roofs of their cars. I saw men laying on their backs in a parking lot resting their heads on the tire stops. So many vehicles are crammed with families and with their belongings. We see a truck with Gasoline tanks tied to the roof. I wish I had thought of that. I thank God that my kids aren’t with me in this scary place.
We can smell brake fluid and exhaust fumes all around us. Still, we keep our windows down. I pray that our vechicle keeps running. The temperature gauge sits right between Hot and Cold. I think that is a good sign. Our gas gauge shows just over 1/2 a tank. Turning off the air has worked to our advantage. I think about Mom. She will be expecting to hear from me soon. She expects that I’m close to Dallas when really I’ve hardly gotten out of Houston.
I call my folks. I apologize for waking them, apologize for scaring them, but I tell them that they need to know what is going on. They need to start praying. I ask them to pray for traffic to move. I ask them to pray for gasoline. Dad asks how much gas we have left. I tell them it is just over 1/2 a tank. My Grandpa always told me not to let my gas tank go below half. I remember his advice and hope that he is still looking out for me.
I tell my folks that we are only 20 miles outside of Houston. Dad asks if we should turn back to Houston and catch our flight out of Hobby. I tell him that we need to keep moving north. I ask them to call Mark and have Mark call his mom. I’ve always joked she has the direct line to God. I need her prayers NOW!
between 5:00 and 8:00 a.m.
Dalinda calls her brother. He is a principal in Dallas. He gets out his map and we are looking at our Enterprise Map, trying to find a way off of 45 over to Waco. He helps us plot out our trip. We’ll get off 45 in Conroe and take a farm road west. The sun is coming up. It doesn’t seem as frightening in the daylight.
My cell phone rings. It is Jon and Jen. Throughout the Katrina response efforts I’ve been doing phone interview with Jon on the radio. Jen has been my confidant and personal assistant – answering emails on my behalf and giving me a safe place to vent. Jon wants to put me on the air. I tell him no. I don’t want Gracie and Ethan to hear it on their way to school. I don’t want them to hear the fear in my voice that my mom and dad heard. I don’t want them to worry about me all day. Jon tells me to get on the air and tell them I’m going to be fine. He always encourages me to tell the story when I think I’m too emotional to do it. I get on air and tell the listeners what it is like. I don’t remember what I said except “Tell Gracie and Ethan and Genna and Mark that I love them. Mommy will be home tonight.” The first part was true, the second part…. not so much.
We listen to Houston Drive time radio. It’s nothing but Rita. How big she is. How the evacuation routes are jammed. People are stranded. It is not encouraging. Still, we listen to it… hoping for news of an alternate route. Hoping for news that they will turn both lanes north.
Dad calls. He wants to know where we are. We tell him we are heading west once we get to Conroe. Dad tells us that their is an ABF Trucking Terminal in Waco. There will be cots for us to sleep on.
9:00 or 9:30
We get off 45 in Conroe. It appears that the traffic is flowing on the farm road headed west. We are so relieved. We stop at a BEAUTIFUL Randall’s grocery store where there is also a bank and gas station. Unfortunately, there is no GAS at the station. But we are able to use the ATM. We both pull $200 cash off of the Red Cross Debit card which was issued to us. This makes me feel somewhat better. Gas has to be just around the corner. This is the first time we’ve been out of the car since we were rear ended. We inspect the damages. The car has a rubber bumper and there is not a scratch on it. We high-5 one another and laugh out loud. We have hope.
Inside Randalls we buy toothbrushes and toothpaste and use the restroom in a civilized manner. It is a beautiful morning….. but it is about to get HOT.
Dalinda and I get back in the car to head west on the Farm Road. Once again, it is bumper to bumper. But this time, we are on a two lane highway. There is no one helping to direct traffic to ease the congestion. Dalinda drives and I doze.
We change drivers again. I note the mileage. 32.4 miles since we cleared the odometer at 11:45 last night. We’ve gone only 32 miles in 10 hours. Dalinda rests while I drive. She sleeps for about an hour and a half. I tell her we’ve gone 2.4 miles when she awakes.
Driving on these farm roads, we go for hours without seeing any towns, businesses or gas stations. It is getting hotter and hotter. The bottled water that we brought with us is hot too. I take sips, trying to make it last. Not knowing how long I will still need it. I worry about running out of gas. If we get stranded, where will we go? Where will we stay? Will we be safe from Rita? She is still a strong cat 4 storm.
Mom was going to call me again at noon. I called her instead. I told her to call the prayer chain again. I tell her to ask for prayers for gasonline and the traffic to start moving. I text Derek (my brother and prayer warrior) to pray the same. The traffic starts moving, but just for a few minutes. I know that Jesus is listening. He is answering my prayers. He is showing me just a moment of hope and telling me “I’m working on it. Have faith”
I begin to wonder if our gas gauge is broken. It shows just below a half a tank. (Sorry, Grandpa) It has hardly moved since 4:40 a.m. I decide to think positive. I text message Derek again and a few others “There are 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread in our tank. Pray that they continue to multiply” Jen texts me back. She doesn’t get it. I text her that Jesus fed 5,000 with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. She texts me “I have GOT to go to Church.” I promise myself I will invite her when I get home.
Mom calls again, but doesn’t get through and has to leave a voice message. When I listen to the message later she is sobbing as she tells me that Lee (my boss) just told her that officials are finally turning all lanes north on Hwy. 45. It is too late for us, as we are off on the farm road. Hopefully it will bring relief to the thousands of others. She also tells me that FEMA is taking gas trucks out on the interstate to assist those who have run out of fuel. Again, it won’t help us…… but I’m sure it will save many others.
We are at a complete standstill. It must be close to 100 degrees outside. I have taken off my shirt and am wearing just my bra. I remember my friend LaDawn drove from South Dakota to Fayetteville once with no air conditioning and she wore just her bra. She said she got a lot of attention from truckers. No one really seems to notice that I am half naked.
We pull over at a roadside bar that proudly proclaims to be “The Horniest Bar in Texas.” I put my shirt back on and we go in. Inside, the ceiling is covered with antlers, thus the “horniest” proclamation. I ask the bartender if I can plug my cell phone into the wall outlet to charge for a few minutes. I go to the restroom where I am sick to my stomach from nerves. That’s all I need!
There are four locals watching a big screen tv with Hurricane Rita coverage. A young man at the bar tells us that his wife is telling him that their local gas station is closed, but she thinks there is gas a bit further up the road. He tells us that he and his wife and 8 month old daughter are planning to evacuate tomorrow morning. After the hellish night we have just been through, I tell him to go NOW. He sees the fear in my face and my physical condition and stares at me wide-eyed. I wonder if God brought us here to deliver a message to this young family? I believe He did. When we leave, he is on the phone with his wife, making plans to leave.
We arrive at the gas station the young man told us about and the lady tells us they ran out of gas “about 2 minutes ago.” She tells us to follow the cars exiting out the side exit of the gas station. We race behind them down miles of backwood, country roads. We are trusting that the vehicle in front knows where we are going. We think we are being lead to a gas station. It feels so good to be moving and to have a hot breeze blowing through our open windows. When we come out of the backwoods, there is no gas station, but we are at Hwy 105.
??? on Hwy 105
We inch along on 105 for what seems like an eternity. I dig my Bible out of the luggage in the cargo area of the Ford Escape. Dalinda and I attended a church service at St. Agnes Baptist Church on Sunday where the Rev. Gene Moore taught us about prayer. He told us to figure out what we want, then find the scripture that promises it, and to meditate on that scripture day and night. I don’t know of anywhere in the Bible where it talks about traffic or gasoline, but we found plenty of scripture that promised us God would not desert us. (Psalm 31:1-5, Psalm 23, Luke 9:10-17, Romans 8:31-39)
My cell phone rings and it is George Knight. George is a Red Cross Board Member and the Chairman of Financial Development (the volunteer counterpart to my paid position). George is one of my favorite people on the planet and it is good to hear his voice. He knows absolutely EVERYONE and he is working to find someone in the Waco area who can bring us fuel. If not, he tells me he will load up gas cans in Fayetteville and head down to pick us up.
After several hours crawling along Hwy 105 Dalinda and I joined a handful of other cars and drove against the flow of traffic on the shoulder of the oncoming lane. This prompted some horn-honking and shouts from the other drivers still waiting impatiently in the right-hand lane. Now, I’m normally one to follow the rules and wait my turn, but we were in a desperate situation and it warranted desperate meaures. We didn’t get far before being flagged down by a police officer. Ironically, it was the first representative of law enforcement we had seen on our journey. The officer insisted that we pull over along with approximately 8-10 other vehicles. We weren’t sure if we would be warned or ticketed. Dalinda told me to hurry up and put my shirt back on. (I was stripped down to my bra again.) I was furious! How dare they delay our progress any further?!?! We were trying to save ourselves. We ended up at the front of the line of detained cars. When the police officer turned to walk to the back of the line of cars, we took our opportunity and sped off. Someone was kind enough to allow us to cut back into the line of cars on the right side of the road. I’ve never run from the cops before, and don’t plan to again, but I think we were justified this once.
Lee text messages me and tells me that he is working on getting two Red Cross volunteers to fly their personal aircraft in to pick us up. One way or another, we are going to get home!
3:30 or 4:00p.m.
We finally get on Hwy 6 which will take us the rest of the way into Waco. Traffic is better, moving slowly in two lanes. We see a cop up ahead and manage to inch along side a huge Winnebago, essentially blocking us from the policeman’s view… in case he is lookin for us renegades!
FINALLY, in Bryan, TX we find fuel! I pump, and pump, and pump and pump… getting every last drop in the tank that I can. (Grandpa must be smiling!) It is only $27. How we managed to only use 10 gallons of gasoline in 19 & 1/2 hours I’ll never know! We also use the restroom and I buy a COLD caffeinated beverage. It is the best Mountain Dew I have ever tasted!
I can’t get a cell phone call to go through, so I text someone (I can’t remember who) and tell that that we have a tank full of gas… and to pass it on. My whole outlook changed once we had fuel in the car. I’ll never let my car go below half again (I promise, Grandpa).
Syd Hart from KNWA calls my cell phone. She has been a tremendous example of Christian faith in the year or so that I have known her. I tell her that we are gassed up but my phone is going dead. I ask her to pray that we find a Wal-Mart. Just then, my phone went dead. And I kid you not… 2 minutes later….. there it is…Wal-Mart!
With my cell phone plugged in and our tank full of gas I am as happy as a clam. I call my dad and he tells me that instead of staying on cots in the ABF terminal, the supervisor will open his home to us. Hallelujiah! We can shower! Bill….. you are our angel!
We finally make it to Waco, TX. It took us 23 hours to travel about150 miles. Bill’s daughter left us a key under the mat at their front door. We let ourselves in and take the longest, hottest, most appreciated shower of our life! Tomorrow we will fly out of Waco, through DFW, and home to Northwest Arkansas. Our nightmare is over.
As for Dalinda and me….. we share a bond that will never be broken and could never be understood unless you were with us…Runnin’ from Rita.