Do you remember what you were doing 10 years ago today? Besides celebrating my half birthday, I mean. I remember it very vividly because it was the day before Hurricane Rita struck the Texas gulf coast.
Just a few weeks had passed since the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina had hit. Houston had opened its arms to hundreds of thousands of Katrina refugees, but it looked like they weren’t going to be any safer with a second hurricane coming right at us. Millions of people were evacuating the coast to places farther inland.
Traffic backups on the evacuation routes were turning three-hour trips into multi-day nightmares. People were running out of gas on the road and some were even dying of heat stroke. The situation at the airports wasn’t much better. The airports were overrun by people trying to get out and the facilities were understaffed because many of their own personnel were choosing to get the heck outta Dodge rather than report for work.
I was scheduled to depart that Friday morning (September 23, the day before Rita was due to hit) on a flight to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. Given the reports of gridlocked traffic, insane security lines, understaffed airports, etc., I wasn’t optimistic that I would make it out so my Plan B was to bunker down in my house and weather the storm.
Thursday night, while tracking the hurricane’s path on the news, I watched Downfall, a movie about Hitler’s final days in his bunker as the Allied forces closed in on him. The movie’s soundtrack featured the constant and crescendoing booms of bombs that were getting closer and closer, which very much echoed the feeling in Houston of slowly approaching, inevitable doom.
After a restless night, I arose very early Friday morning, prepared to make my attempt at the airport.
With a full tank of gas and many non-perishable provisions (in case I found myself stuck on the highway), I hit the road to IAH while the moon was still high in the sky.
Instead of car backups as far as the eye could see, though, I encountered . . . nothing. There wasn’t a soul on the road. Everyone who had decided to evacuate was apparently already gone and everyone else was bunkered down. It was eerie, like something out of a post-apocalyptic film . . . and it was the fastest/easiest drive I ever had to the airport.
When I arrived at IAH, once again I anticipated that I would be entering a chaotic free-for-all (as it had been the previous day, according to the news). Instead I discovered that I was one of the only passengers there and that the airport was fully staffed. I breezed through security and reached my gate hours before takeoff. With so much time to kill and with so much relief that things were going smoothly, I decided to have a drink. As cliche as it was, I had a hurricane.
My flight took off a little before noon and we were informed that we were the last flight to depart before they shut down the airport for the storm. When I arrived in Vegas and checked into the hotel, the attendant at the desk checked my ID. When he saw that I was from Houston his eyes got really big and he went back to discuss something with his manager.
The manager came out and informed me that our entire party would have our rooms upgraded and our meals comp’ed – his establishment was proud to welcome Hurricane Rita refugees! Knowing that there were real Rita refugees who were suffering a lot more than we were while we were getting room upgrades and comp’ed meals in Vegas didn’t feel great on the karma scale, but we couldn’t see how refusing would have helped anyone.
In hindsight, as charmed as that trip was, I should have gambled! However, I’m just glad that things turned out OK. Although Rita ultimately wasn’t as devastating as Katrina, it still exacted a huge toll, especially farther up the coast. 10 years after the fact, my hat is off to all of the emergency management personnel who helped get people to safety before/after Rita hit.