On the road
An evacuation story
John Ribble is a former dean of the Medical School (1986-1994), and
interim president of the health science center (1987-1989), who now teaches
in Educational Programs at The University of Texas Medical School at
Houston. Here his wife, Anne, recounts what happened when the couple
left Houston to avoid Hurricane Rita on September 22.
Hurricane Katrina brought thousands to Houston
and many of us heard their stories as we served meals at the George
R. Brown Convention Center. When Rita threatened, we were ready for
her. We would get on the road, heed Mayor Bill White’s advice,
and head for higher ground.
Our plan was to get to Paris, Texas, my husband’s hometown. Usually,
it’s a six-hour trip, up I-45 to Buffalo and then into East Texas.
This time, we reasoned, we’d avoid that clogged evacuation route
and take Hwy. 59, veering west to Crockett and on up Hwy. 19 home.
At 6:30 a.m. Thursday we set out, heartened by the absence of traffic
to downtown Houston. We felt around the car for our map; it had been
left behind. Soon we encountered stop and go traffic. We were on our
own, so to speak, with hundreds of vehicles and 18-wheelers we came to
know personally as we inched north. The blazing sun melted into night
and then it was dawn. We had driven 24 hours, our gas dwindling. In six
more, we were at Corrigan. What to do? A couple whose driveway we entered,
hoping to find a B & B, advised checking the local high school, which
would be a shelter. With no gas, no map, no restroom access, and no cell
phone, that seemed like our best bet.
A few blocks more, ringed by angry motorists at a closed gas station,
we parked our car in the locked up drive-in Sonic and walked to the high
school. Outside, the custodian’s wife explained the building was
sheltering nursing home residents. She took us to the RN in charge, who
was orchestrating the placement of 127 people from three nursing facilities.
When we said John was a physician, a look of relief came over the nurse’s
face. They had no doctor with them, and thought they might need one to
consult with or write prescriptions. John showed his medical license
and soon we were part of the extended family.
We toured: the band hall, the junior high, the gym, and the main administration
building. Everywhere, nursing home residents in wheelchairs were pointed
toward the highway, looking at the traffic. Flanked by carts of medical
records, stacks of mattresses, a rolling medication cart, and attendants
calling their charges by name ( or “Baby” – even I
was Baby), the elderly had supplanted the teenagers who had won all those
athletic trophies in display cases. At supper the old folks would be
divided between those who could feed themselves and those who couldn’t.
“Think I’ll shower, shave, and make rounds,” John said cheerily.
We were issued mattresses and bedding and joined a young couple, their puppy
and caged cat in a classroom turned sleeping quarters. John consulted with
the nursing staff, who asked him to see some critically ill patients with diabetes
and respiratory problems as well as a terminal “hospice patient.” A
child and the custodian’s wife had angry insect bites…He admired
the capability of the nurses who demonstrated great sense and skill in caring
for their charges.
At 5 a.m. Saturday, the storm raged outside and the electricity failed:
No more running water or air conditioning, only generator-supplied power
for a few overhead lights. The TV sputtered silent, and a battery radio
did the job of tracking Rita’s coordinates. Still, with gas stoves
and a resilient staff working four hours on and four off, the seniors
were not neglected. The nursing homes had brought their regular attendants,
who knew each individual. They knew the difference between a person in
real need or distress and someone whose mantra was perhaps “I want
something to eat,” or “My back hurts.”
The school staff dealt with the housekeeping issues: Pallets of water
to flush toilets, laundry piling up, folding chairs and tables, ice to
keep medicines chilled. They shared in coffee making and meal prep and
made sure we met people who could help us, and who helped Corrigan-Camden
High School run.
What help did we need? A way to call out to relatives and a neighbor
who could see whether our house was still standing and had lights. A
map to get us away from the bottleneck we had driven into unawares.
Most of all, we needed gas. With thousands of desperate motorists (shootings
over gasoline were reported in Lufkin just north of us), fuel supplies
exhausted, and no electricity to activate gas pumps if there had been
gas, the situation looked dire.
The CEO of the nursing home organization materialized Sunday morning
and put another evacuation plan in place. The residents would be moved
to a home north of Houston that had power (“there’s no use
sending them from generator to generator,” she said); three critically
ill people would go by helicopter to Memorial Hermann Hospital. All this
would happen within hours, and the school would close. What would we
A school staffer gave us a Texas map, while another shared the access
code to the phone. We called AAA and learned they would reimburse us
for gas, but could not get us gas. The local police department sent a
policeman “to talk to us” at the picnic table in front of
the school. He’d ask his chief about getting us gas. We waited.
The buses began to load: The weakest on the first two, the more able
on the third. The helicopter landed at the football stadium, and the
three patients were placed on board. Corrigan’s assistant principal
was honchoing these moves. About 6 p.m., he turned to us and told John
the police had asked him to deal with our problem.
“Just follow me,” he said. We headed the Volvo over past the loading
helicopter to the school district’s bus yard. Two pumps, operated with
a small generator, sat near fuel reservoirs. We were given a full tank of gas
and told how the locals obviated the ban on driving 287 west. We were on our
way home – a six-hour trip skirting downed trees and power lines, the
crowd on I-45 [by using 75], and taking advantage of the free toll road.
It had been a weekend to remember: the valiant but exhausted nursing
crew, the patient residents waiting for signals of what came next, the
school staff putting coffee in our hands, the welcome that lasted until