This is my last planned entry on Rita, then it's back to the parenting and faith issues.
From the time we heard Rita was possibly coming to Houston, to the time we returned home from evacuation, a full seven days passed. Obviously way too much has happened in our family for me to record here, so instead, this is a chronological listing of the memories that seem to be sticking in my head:
(Wed., 7am) -- My wife wakes me and says Rita is a category 4, and Houston is the most likely target according to computer models. We spend all day boarding windows and packing to leave.
(Thurs., 5am) -- We leave Houston, all packed with exhausted children. In two hours we move 1.5 miles. Exit the highway, take another route, but four hours later we're still in Houston. We turn around, and get home in 25 minutes. There is a powerfully emotional moment between my wife and I after we get home. She's rocking our son to sleep, and we look at each other and say that we did the right thing, and no matter what, we're glad we get to go through this together. I quickly kiss her forehead and leave to shop for supplies, before being overcome with emotion. This is the time I'm supposed to be strong, right?
(Thurs., 7pm) -- We eat what feels like the "last supper", food that didn't spoil while sitting in trash cans during our six-hour standstill, and food that wouldn't last through the likely power outage coming Friday night when Rita hits land. My wife has a nasty ear infection (ear canal is closed with pus and blood) and my daughter seems to have a kidney infection, but there are no doctors available in this deserted city. Rita is now a cat-5 storm, the 3rd most powerful on record. We're staying here to face this?
(Fri., 7am) -- We get news that the roads have cleared, and if we siphon enough gas from my car, both the family car and my father-in-law's truck could make it to a safer place. By 10am we've left, with both cars headed to East Texas to stay with family.
(Fri., 1pm) -- Major traffic jam just south of Corrigan, TX. We get lucky and are six cars behind a driver who makes his own contra-lane on the other side of the highway, which we follow. Able to skip four miles of two-lane parking lot, theh road is still impassable. We exit and arrive two hours later only 30 miles away... and right towards the latest projected area where Rita will strike.
(Fri., 3pm) -- Arrive at a church in Woodville, TX. They take us in, give us food, siphon some gas, and offer to let us weather the storm in their building. We put the gas in the family car, leave the truck (full of valuables), and try to get farther north. Wind and rain are already extremely strong; it's hard to imagine that the real storm is still almost 12 hours away. I know we're at the north end of Rita, and any more slowdowns or car trouble will leave us right in her path.
Note: we also have to leave our stock of pumped breastmilk behind, which is incredibly hard. Not just because of the hours of work it took my wife to store it, but because of the lifestyle it represented. Those little bags were our dates, our times together, our scant chances to be alone as a couple while babysitters used the stored milk to feed our son. We went on exactly one date before having to leave the milk in Woodville... enough milk for a dozen more dates. It may sound strange, but this was one of the hardest moments of the trip.
(Fri., 7pm) -- Arrive in Longview, TX! I claim I could do some "major damage" at a buffet since I've been rationing food. We eat at a Chinese buffet and I live up to my promise, lowering the restaurant's monthly profit with my mass consumption.
(Fri., 8pm) -- Arrive at family member's house, enjoy a short talk and a safe place to spend the night. Will leave Saturday morning to go to central AR, our final destination to stay with my grandparents.
(Sat., 4pm) -- Arrive at my grandparents' house!
(Sat., 7pm) -- Wife and father-in-law offer to walk to the store to get some items (they've had enough of the car). They're gone 15 seconds before my wife comes back, saying, "there's a weird noise outside". I ask if it's the freight train sound, but no. It's the tornado sirens. Seriously. We've traveled a day and a half, after one false start three days ago, and we beat the storm by three hours. Tornados strike the area and do some damage four miles away, but no casualties.
(Sun., 4pm) -- I sit with my daughter in "the swing" in my grandparents' backyard. I tell her the history of the swing, and how it's the place where I proposed to her mommy. Thinking it's impossible for a 2-year-old to understand, I end the story, smile, and savor the moment. She looks at me very seriously, then cracks a grin, and says, "Daddy, you marry ME now!"
(Sun., 7pm) -- My parents arrive from Kansas City! What a way to have a big family reunion.
(Tues., 6pm) -- My mom, while sitting with my son in "the swing" witnesses a burglary happening in the house next door. She leaves my son with my grandaparents (mom is always excellent in crises), and hops in the car with my dad to phone the police and follow the burglar, a 26-year-old pregnant meth addict. They spend the next couple of hours talking to a detective and answering questions, and the girl is caught the following morning. Hurricanes and tornados and burglars, oh my! Our life is an action movie, and I'm waiting eagerly for the mandatory love scene.
(Wed., 10am) -- My father-in-law and I leave in the family car, headed to Woodville, TX to get his truck. Wife and kids will fly back to Houston, saving them (and me) from facing another long drive with all of us packed in together. It also ensures their arrival in Houston, while ours is a little more tenuous due to the continued gas shortages is East Texas and Western Louisiana.
(Wed., 4pm) -- Arrive in Woodville. What a devastated city. National Guard everywhere, helicopters in the air, trees and power lines down, and we smell a major leak of natural gas. Somehow the truck is not damaged, and we gas it up with cans we brought, and head south.
(Wed., 8pm) -- Arrive home in Houston! The last 30 minutes of the drive pointed us directly at one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen. How to reconcile this beauty with the destruction I'd witnessed just hours earlier?
(Wed., 12pm) -- Laying in my own bed, I enjoy the peace and comfort, but still can't reconcile things in my head. Destruction and beauty, both in nature which was created by God? My family gets to safety, while others lose all their material possessions? The only thing I know to do is help those in need. Next time around, the ones in need might be us.
Final note: When I returned home, I noticed that our daily calendar with "inspirational sayings" was stuck on Wed., September 21, since we hadn't been home to flip it. The saying for the day was the following:
"Patience behind the wheel will make any travel more pleasant."
I didn't know whether to laugh or to burn the calendar while performing some kind of primal rite of condemnation.