In September 2005, my father was in a real estate agents office in Houston. It was a breathtakingly humid and hot day, but he was down to the last few signatures to finalize the loan on a new house.
That was when the warnings started to blast over the radio broadcasts. As he reached the final page, he laid down the pen, politely smiled at the agent and told her that he would be back, if the house was still standing. He gathered what few items he had available: a 3-gallon water jug, a few candy bars and other snacks. Twenty minutes later, he had my stepmother and all three of our Labrador retrievers loaded between both cars, and they set out on the highway. However, it was already too late.
The States surrounding the Gulf were instantly in a panic. Hurricane Katrina was still fresh in their memories, and no one wanted to be anywhere near the coastline when Rita came ashore. The normally pleasant drive to my grandparents’ house just about an hour north of Houston spiraled into an 18-hour stint in bumper-to-bumper hell.
The stretch of U.S. 59 that rarely had more than a few cars anywhere within eyesight was littered with broken-down vehicles, and my stepmother’s car quickly became one of them. After several hours stalled in the now blistering heat, the old Buick’s radiator gave out. This forced my father and stepmother to pile everything they could from her car into my dad’s pickup. It was then that the real scares began — not from the hurricane, but from the confused and ill-prepared people who were stranded along the highway. While my father was moving items from the broken down car to his pickup, someone decided to break the back window of the Buick to steal a half-empty water bottle.
This was mere hours after the evacuation had been issued. Luckily, my father was able to siphon enough gas from the Buick to keep his F150 running just long enough to make it to Nana’s house. Unfortunately, the situation became even worse from there. The hurricane did not make landfall in Houston like it was predicted. Instead, it hit the coast and sheered quickly to the northeast, headed directly toward where my father had evacuated to: my grandparents’ home. Less than an hour after they arrived, my father had Nana and Papa in the storm cellar; he also ran to all of the neighboring homes and offered them shelter.
In all, 17 people were in a storm cellar that was built for 10. As the storm finally hit, my father made a final dash to his truck and he learned firsthand how powerful the storm was. As he reached the truck to grab the only portable radio that he had, and what would soon become the only means of outside communication for days, he was suddenly hit by a gust of wind that took him off of his feet and slammed him into the side of the house. He was able to shake it off and make it back to the storm cellar as the outer wall of the hurricane closed in on them.
Luckily, and due in no small part to the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, my father had the foresight to have a storm shelter installed in between property he owned and my Nana’s home. He had also had the shelter stocked with a pallet of MREs and about 300 gallons of water. However, he did not foresee that the hurricane would score a direct hit on the small town of Zavalla. There was no way for him to know that the town would be left to squander without power for seven days.
They went seven days without running water, air conditioning or heating. Luckily, it was only four days before cellphone signals were re-established. I had four days of no contact with my closest family.
I had my bags packed and stuffed in my car, ready to get to them, when I finally got a phone call from my cousin. The news wasn’t good.
She told me that coming down wouldn’t do much good. There was only one main road into town, and it was closed due to flooding and debris. She had tried to go down herself only to be turned back 14 miles from my grandmother’s house. We were stuck, waiting for the city to clear the roads.
Luckily for them, my dad was prepared at his final destination; he knew how important it was to make sure that our family would be safe, no matter what.
However, I can’t help but wonder how all of those folks that were not able to get off the highway in time were able to cope. Only hours into the confusion and with still hours to go before the storm hit, they had already began to steal and commit violent acts for something as small as a half-empty bottle of water.
My dad was lucky that time; but if there is one thing you can count on, it’s that luck will always run out eventually.
It was this experience that spurred me into action and made me create a plan and become aware of all possible exits and know when to be long gone before panic takes hold. And if being long gone weren’t an option, I would have everything I needed to hunker down, keep my head low and survive until things smoothed over. I would not be left on the side of the road; I would make sure that I got myself and my family out before the gridlock.
So if there is anything I could leave you with, it’s this: Don’t rely on luck.
Practice your skills; never do something the first time when you absolutely need it to save your life. Stay alert to what is going on around you. Above all else, keep calm. You will do more harm than good when acting on instinct over logic.
This was my catalyst, the reason I chose to become prepared. What is yours?