Prompt: Sink or Swim
Tell us about a time when you were left on your own, to fend for yourself in an overwhelming situation — on the job, at home, at school. What was the outcome?
The most beautiful deep blue, cloudless sky I have ever seen occurred during one of the worst days of my life. It reminded me that terrible things happen in happy sunshine.
In this case, a monster of a hurricane was headed our way, and in the wake of Katrina only a few weeks before, people decided not to hang around for Rita. Don’t go east, the authorities told us, because people were still evacuating west out of Louisiana. Can you imagine?
We had a friend who lived near Dallas, so that was our destination. Very early, while it was still dark, we set out in the truck with a few belongings; most of the bags were full of food and supplies for our dog, who was comfortably ensconced in his crate. The streets of Houston were entirely empty, the morning clear, and even the entrance to the freeway was completely abandoned, and we felt pretty good about this adventure.
It wasn’t quite clear sailing to Dallas. By the time it was light, traffic was heavy. We drove by boarded up homes, and trucks passed us, rigged so the occupants could retreat with as many as their earthly belongings as possible: besides gas cans, there were chairs, mattresses, and all manner of furniture.
By the time the traffic came to a halt it was close to noon, and the temperature was close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This extreme hot weather was part of the storm system, we were told. It would get hotter.
People got out of their vehicles and walked around in the sunshine. Our dog got a nice walk. We moved north, inch by inch.
We talked to local friends and associates by cell phone while we were still in range. We were all keeping tabs on one another— which routes were taken by whom, and what progress was being made. If any.
Rita was relentlessly pushing through the Gulf of Mexico on her way to rip us apart and blow us away, and we were sitting on a paved prison, stuck with thousands of others, running low on water and gasoline. Like most people, we turned our air conditioner off to save fuel. It was 120 degrees out there by now. The route north is flat and treeless and there were no facilities until Spring, a mere 25 miles north of Houston, and still ten miles away, now a seemingly impossible distance.
People did run out of fuel, and we crawled by them. Some of them were crying. The kids were crying. Some of the cars were abandoned. Where did the occupants go? Most of the cars passing by were full to the brim with no room for extra passengers. Where could you walk to, in that heat, with no water?
There was nothing like a police presence, or any government presence. We were, all of us, completely on our own.
Finally, getting low on fuel, we reached Spring, Texas. We were able to pull in to the gas station, like a few others. It was busy. There was no fuel, not at that station or anywhere.
I went inside the little gas station mart to use the bathroom. There was a very long line. The air conditioner was on, which was a relief, but it wasn’t cool because of the constant stream of people in and out, in and out. A woman in front of me in the line was reeling as if she was drunk. She wasn’t drunk, but dehydrated, because she hadn’t been drinking water, because there was nowhere, until now, to pee. She fainted. A lot of people fainted.
After half an hour I got to the front of the line. The toilet was full and unflushable. There was shit and piss everywhere. I did my best, and as I left, warning those in line behind me, a saint appeared with a mop and bucket. It was the cashier, the only employee in the place. She apologized to me for the condition of the bathroom, then went in and, I presumed, cleaned up that horrendous mess so the people in line had a clean place to relieve themselves. She could have left us to it. There was no gain for her in making that one thing bearable for a bunch of strangers. A saint.
We had a decision to make. It had taken us eleven hours to travel the 25 miles to the Spring gas station. It was another 200 miles to Dallas. The day was still blazing hot, bright and sunny, but nightfall was coming. Did we want to get back in the traffic trying to escape north, and risk running out of fuel? Could we spend the night —or longer— at the side of the road? Would we be safe when the hurricane struck? Would we be safe at all?
One of the great ironies of that day was that of the four lanes of the highway to Dallas, two were gloriously clear. No one was driving south to Houston. The two lanes driving north, stinking of wasted fuel, were bumper to bumper.
We decided to go home and weather the storm. We had just enough gas. We got back to Houston, flying down the empty highway, in half an hour.
Waiting for Hurricane Rita, the monster storm, sister of Katrina, merciless and strong, was the nightmare There was not going to be a rescue. Water and gasoline would not suddenly appear, by intent or by magic. There would be no shelter from the storm, not on the highway.
That evening In Houston we “battened down the hatches” and planned to wait out the storm at home the following day. But our families had seen satellite pictures of Rita, and desperately urged us to evacuate. So the next morning we drove, easily, to San Antonio, where we stayed until the authorities alerted us that it was safe to return. Rita was more frightening, as it turned out, than she was destructive.