Rita: Path of Death

I live in Huntsville, Texas -” a small town of 35,000 on hour north of Houston. Huntsville had a unique experience because of Hurricane Rita. It was flooded with nearly 10,000 more people who stayed here through the storm and was the point where over 2 million Houston area & Galveston residents drove through on their Grand Exodus.

For several days before Rita hit, the Houston area, including Huntsville, was bombarded with 24 hour news coverage of the impending storm, or, as one TV Meteorologist on Houston’s Channel 2 NBC News called it “The Path of Death.”

Through exaggerated fear-mongering such as this, the media created a bigger disaster than Hurricane Rita could’ve done alone.

A dear friend of mine went down to Galveston the Wednesday before Rita to pick up his father who was directly in the path of the storm. It took him 36 hours to return to Austin. He, along with hundreds of other motorists, ran out of gas on the way, sitting in traffic. They waited for 6 hours for gas. When the military vehicles finally came, they had the wrong sized nozzle to dispense gas to the stranded evacuees.

Huntsville was a scene of chaos. Both northbound and southbound lanes of I-45 were carrying fleeing traffic north towards Dallas. Although the media first told everyone to evacuate to Huntsville, by Friday afternoon the Texas Department of Transportation had closed all the exits up to Buffalo (60 miles north of Huntsville). Every single gas station in from Galveston to Buffalo was out of gas. That’s 175 miles of freeway that was gridlocked.

Stranded & frightened motorists were camped out in parking lots from gas stations to motels to Wal-Mart. A few were able to stay in a motel room, but those sold out fast. These people were now facing “The Path of Death” from their cars instead of their homes. Much safer.

In the Wal-Mart parking lot at 10am Friday morning, we talked with several people who had come up from Houston. One woman said she was staying in her car through the storm because she believes that “the Lord had led her to this spot” so she was staying there. Another SUV family had no water and Wal-Mart was closing early due to looting. They were out of water anyways. I gave her three gallons of our water.

The Wal-Mart shelves were completely empty, all except for the Butterscotch Pudding. People are clearing the shelves of every store, fearing that they will not have enough food, but they leave all the Butterscotch Pudding behind. If that isn’t marketing research, I don’t know what is!

I spoke with a woman who was hit upside the head with a purse while trying to get gas in the middle of the night. “She thought I had cut in line,” the injured woman explained.

I overheard someone else talk of being held up at gunpoint while gas was siphoned out of their car.

After four days of continued 24-hr doom scenarios I was emotionally exhausted, and I wasn’t waiting in the heat-¦ in my car-¦ stuck on I-45 like hundreds of others. I at least had my home to return to with my family and my bed.

Finally the much anticipated storm came -” my husband and I awoke at 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning as the wind began to howl outside. We got all the dogs inside. We felt fairly safe as we had spent the previous evening preparing, and we now knew Rita had turned to the East. Still, with all the hype, I just knew a tree was going to fall on the house. We had already lost electricity, and I had a hard time falling back to sleep. Still sleep I finally did and no tree fell on our house. In fact, the wind wasn’t very strong at all and neither was the rain. In fact, I’ve experienced much more severe thunderstorms in a normal Texas season.

I thought, ‘This is it? This is the Path of Death? This is Lovely Rita?!’

My husband and I went out and danced in the light drizzle and later took a walk, just as the eye of the great storm was passing us by. We got out our propane camping stove and made some coffee and pancakes. We even hand baked a homemade pizza in our propane oven. Thanks to a small solar system my husband put together, we were able to have a little light and charge my cell phone and laptop.

Even though it wasn’t nearly as bas as expected, a tree across from us was brought down. The neighbor next to my parents in the heart of Huntsville had a tree fall on their house. Everywhere the streets and lawns were littered with small branches, leaves, and twigs.

After the storm, the chaos didn’t end. Now the 2.5 million people were trying to get back to their homes-¦ back through the sleepy East Texas, Execution Capital of Huntsville.

Now the gridlock was heading south.

A mild acquaintance called me desperately trying to find help for his sister. Since I could barely keep my cell phone charged I only heard his plea in (3) voicemails. He gave his sister (a complete stranger to me) directions to my house and told me in this voicemail that she and her four-year-old would be waiting for us when we got home. He didn’t bother to ask or to even find out if we were home! He just sent his sister and nephew to the home of a complete stranger 20 miles out in the middle of nowhere.

A friend in Houston asked me if there was any gas in Huntsville as her mother was on her way through. She explained to me how angry her mother was upon learning her house in Houston had power and was untouched, and the house she had fled to in Groveton was without power: all those long hours in the gridlocked heat for nothing. What a nightmare.

I can’t tell you how many stories like this I’ve heard.

The media caused this chaos with their continuous 24-hour ‘worse-case scenario’ reporting. How about mentioning the worse-case scenario, but truly reporting on what we can reasonably expect. How about ethics in reporting instead of trying to maximize ratings at all cost, even human life?

Because of this bungled evacuation, over 30 people are dead. 23 Senior Citizens from a bus explosion on I-45 and another 12, at least, who died in their cars either from the heat or the carbon monoxide. I think these figures are higher than the casualties of RITA herself. They certainly are higher than the casualty rate in the Houston/Galveston area; and it’s not because everyone left. It’s not even because Rita turned to the East. Even with a direct hit, the only ones who needed to evacuate were the coastal cities and the areas of Houston prone to flooding.

This mass exodus fueled by the fear mongering of the media caused dozens of deaths -¦ will they be held accountable for inciting hysteria? What about the looting at Wal-Mart and other local businesses because people were in a state of fear? Will the media who fed this fear be given the bill? What of the traumatized?

And where is the White House in all this chaos? Bush had declared Texas and Louisiana states of emergency last week. Here in Huntsville, we are still seeing military HumVees patrolling the streets. We are still out of electricity. Restaurants and grocery stores and gas stations are still closed.

Now Bush is asking everyone to conserve gasoline. That is truly laughable considering what Dubya spends on gasoline. As reported on Wolf Blitzer’s CNN Tuesday (9-27), Bush has spent nearly $50,000 on gasoline (at the special White House price of only $1.57/gallon) since Friday. That’s an average of $10,000 a day spent on gasoline, and that’s just for Air Force One alone (747 gets 5mpg). That is not taking into consideration his gas guzzling SUVs and luxury cars in his motorcade.

$50,000.00!! That’s more than the average American makes in an entire year. It’s more than I’ve ever made in a year — or even two years! And this is what the leader of your country, the man who will spend $250,000 on a photo op but will not spend a dime on relief for Katrina victims, the man who still spends billions in Iraq to continue an illegal occupation while asking our country’s citizens to ‘conserve’ -” although his track record shows conservation is not in his vocabulary.

When will the American public see the media for what they are? When will they see the Bush Administration for what it is?

I must wrap this up now as my laptop is loudly beeping at me -” low battery again and we’re still without power. The electric company’s phone line is continuously busy. We have received no time line as to when we’ll get electricity (read: AIR CONDITIONING) again. At least we have some backup power thanks to my husband’s dabbling in solar energy. Hmmm, kinda makes you think!