Everyone who lived in Southeast Texas in 2005 has their memories of Hurricane Rita. It was a chaotic time – just weeks after Hurricane Katrina forced thousands to flee New Orleans. I had experienced Hurricane Audrey, Carla and Alicia and tended to be blase.
My good friend Martha lived very close to the seawall in Galveston and I was concerned for her well being. Her little car would allow few possessions, other than he beloved Basset Hound and a suit case or two.
I called Martha on September 20th and asked what did she plan to do? She didn’t know for sure so my strong mothering instinct kicked in. My friend needed to be rescued.
I called my brother who agreed to drive down to Galveston in his van. There would be plenty of room for personal possessions. His eldest son accompanied us and so it was we found ourselves in Galveston, TX late at night. The weather was eerily still as the surf pounded the sea wall. Galveston was in an evacuation mode already – as images of New Orleans and Katrina in the minds of many.
We arrived at Martha’s apartment and began to fill the roomy van. My brother and nephew headed to the ferry and Martha and I followed in her car. I asked if she wanted to stop and look at the beach before we departed? It might not look the same in a few days?]-p[0 We stopped and peered out into the Gulf. A sense of sadness, of questions which only time would answer filled our minds. We headed to the ferry.
When we arrived at the ferry we noted none appeared to be loading vehicles. Four ferries sat silently. I approached the ferry and asked if they knew it was an emergency situation? An employee commented they were taking a break. Give me a break more like it. Before too long the ferries began to load passengers and we headed to Hardin Co. By the time we arrived in Kountze it was 4 AM. Martha went to friends and I headed home and to a warm bed.
The 21st September 2005 was a bright, sunny day. I stopped off to visit Martha. We stood beside the pool and discussed the storm which had turned and appeared to be headed to Kountze? I had already stated I would not evacuate as I would not leave my pets. The news grew worse as the day progressed. Hurricane Rita was going to pay Southeast Texas a visit.
September 22, 2005 began rather uneventful. My brother’s voice from outside the kitchen window awoke me. He asked if I heard anything? I listened and heard nothing which was unusual as traffic noise hard to miss. My brother smiled and said come to the hill and see.
I grabbed a cup of coffee and headed east and did see for myself. A line of cars which reminded me of a snake headed north. There was gridlock which called to mind the mass exodus during Hurricane Carla more than forty years before. Nobody seemed to know where or what they were to do? My brother and I handed out maps which provided viable detours. One thing for sure – traffic was hopeless – and moved three feet an hour. Some vehicles over heated. Other vehicles exited and frenzies occupants asked if they could use our bathrooms? It was a time of desperation and chaos.
All grocery stores closed which included pharmacies. My brother hopped on his four wheeler and lead a group of cars a back way to 326. He was a true Pied Piper that day and the image of him riding along the empty west side of Highway 69 will stay in my mind. The day ended with the reality of Hurricane Rita would be an unwelcomed visitor.
September 23, 2005 painted a different picture. Highways were clear of traffic but the town of Kountze had begun to close down. I checked on Martha who had gravitated to her aunt’s home. Martha begged me to leave with her but I did not want to desert my animals. She did give me $50 to go buy gas and encouraged me to fill up as there would be no electricity once the storm hit and therefore no way to purchase gas. I Thank God for her sage advice.
My brother and I drove through Kountze – filmed areas which may or may not be in existence in 48 hours? We drove to the only gas station in town which still had gas. The station closed but gas available via a credit card. I used my sister-in-law’s card and filled my tank. A steady stream of folks arrived to purchase gas. One family did not have a credit card but did have $20 in hand. I offered to use the credit card in exchange for $20. They gratefully obliged. Media was also on hand. They interviewed the Rita stragglers. The warm, sunny day was deceptive. By night fall the storm would blanket the area and life as we knew it would change.
Later in the day I joined a reporter from the Hardin County News. She took photos of the Kirby Hill House and other points of interest. She stated, ” it might not be here tomorrow and I want a record of this beautiful home.” I looked into the sky which was getting darker and darker and wondered if my old home would weather the gale force winds?
By night fall Kountze had become a ghost town. My home still had electricity. I watched the news from Beaumont – of power outages and heard the words, “if you still have power you are lucky.” A sudden explosion outside my home darkened my world and would do so for the next two weeks. I grabbed a flash light and lit a few candles. The storm was here and would only get worse.
My animals never flinched. I watched and waited as the winds got stronger and stronger. A large clock on the wall in the den let me know the day was now September 24, 2005. It was a Saturday and Rita had arrived. By 2 AM the winds were so strong I felt the house lift a time or two. I wrapped myself in a blanket and hid in the bathroom. I said a prayer every time the winds hit my home. I remember looking outside the window. But for a flash of lighting I could not see anything. I could certainly smell what seemed to be Pine Sol. It was of course pine trees breaking. The rain was parallel with the ground – like silver arrows.
When there was a break in the weather – I could walk outside if I dared to do so. One of my pets Red Boy needed to go outside to do his business. Poor guy – every time he tried to find a spot to relieve himself the winds began and blew him over.
I kept an eye on that old clock and looked forward to day break and a chance to see what had happened. From the frequent crashes which shook my home I hated to know. I didn’t want the ancient sweet gum tree to become a victim. That old tree had stood watch over our home for years. I had so many memories of using its mighty limbs for a swing. I waited and prayed.
At long last the storm began to subside and the first rays of sunlight filled the sky. I peered through the windows and noted limbs in the yard. A 60 foot pine tree had fallen and crashed perilously close to the sweet gum tree but Thank God the old tree had survived. The white picket fence was missing a section thanks to the fallen pine. My pets and I had survived.
My street was marooned as two large pines blocked the street – east and west. My only exit was via my brother’s property. He and his wife had fled to a friend’s north of Kountze who had a bunker. They stayed safe. My brother’s white Tempo had been parked in a field and was almost crushed by a tree but eluded destruction. I walked to town and viewed debris, fallen trees, a town which had been subjected to a Category two storm. Rita had headed north as had my friend Martha who got caught in gridlock. It took her hours to get to Lufkin and even longer to her aunt’s home near Center.
The days which followed provided an insight into a community and the resources available. The courthouse annex became a temporary home to military who had arrived to assist and provide food and water. Our emergency management rose to the occasion – rarely left the courthouse. I learned how dependent I was when it came to electricity. It was so eerily still at night and hot – I took frequent showers and covered myself with a wet towel. MRE or Meals Ready to Eat kept many of us going. Slowly but surely folks returned home. My home had survived and for that I Thanked God. I had a land line and not a cordless phone which allowed me to make phone calls. It was a blessing.
The Red Cross provided $250 cards for those of us who lived in the disaster zone. Centers were set up at a church in Silsbee. Long lines in front of the church a strong indication of the urgent need. Others received FEMA assistance. There was chaos at times and frustration long term.
I worked as a vendor and had stores to service. I drove to Beaumont and noted destruction everywhere. I arrived at my Kroger stores and realized the stores were not open. I did manger to get inside as the manager recognized me. She offered to allow me to purchase what I needed. It was a welcomed gesture as I had already waited in line at Brookshire’s grocery store for two hours. Hungry people can turn a well mannered population into a sense of desperation. Thankfully there was food and water available. As far as I know there was no loss of life. We had a lot to be thankful for.
So much has happened in 10 years. We faced another storm, Hurricane Ike three years later. The lessons we learned from Rita served us well. My brother is gone and my friend Martha has moved to her Aunt’s home just down the road from me. Loss is as much a part of life has gain or do I am told. I think of those days – of Rita and I realize another storm could be around the corner. It is good to know HE has it all in HIS HANDS!