By Maria L. La Ganga and Lianne Hart Times Staff Writers
HOUSTON - After being cooped up for four days with two bored
teenagers, Jan Odom walked into an Anthropologie store Sunday,
surveyed the racks of clothing and made an announcement: "I've got
"Golly, we've been holed up since Wednesday night," the 56-year-old
attorney said as she shopped in one of the few stores in the River
Oaks neighborhood open for business in the wake of Hurricane Rita.
"Most of our friends evacuated, got halfway and came back. We braced
for the worst and it didn't happen. I've about had it with 16-year-
olds. I needed just to get out. How many times can you nap?"
As the Houston area began to inch toward normal Sunday, the journey
home started in earnest for the million-plus residents who had left
town. The return has been less harrowing than their frantic exodus,
when the 230-mile drive to Dallas took as much as 24 hours. Still, the
region's traffic followed considerably as the day progressed and more
impatient evacuees headed back.
Some gas stations, restocked with precious fuel, saw long lines and
fraying tempers in the enervating heat.
Gasoline is the commodity of the hour here in America's Energy
Central. Dwindling supplies hampered the hurricane evacuation as
residents left their homes, got stuck on crowded freeways and found
themselves out of fuel on the side of the road. And it shaped the way
they came back.
Grocery stores able to staff up, restock and open their doors Sunday
faced jams and jockeying that rivaled that on any freeway. Others
planned to reopen in coming days as supplies and employees made their
way back. Airports resumed service, stranded hotel guests began to
check out, and restaurants prepared to reopen.
Many Houstonians who ventured out into their reawakening city had a
shopping list, a story to tell and an itch to talk. They told of
aborted evacuations and the futile search for gas, of stranded loved
ones and highway horrors and meltdowns in the grocery aisle as Rita
"When I went to the grocery store Wednesday, there was no water,"
Susan Bryan, 30, recalled as she happily shopped Sunday at Central
Market on Westheimer Road. "I put a few cans in my cart. I knew they
were things I wouldn't eat. I left the cart. I was overwhelmed. People
were pushing and shoving. I left the store. I thought I'd rather get
out of town than eat steak and cheese soup."
That was pretty much all that was left when Bryan tried to put up
supplies in advance of the hurricane. The lack of groceries was one
reason that the cancer research assistant and her husband, an accountant,
packed their dogs into the car and left for San Antonio at 3:40 a.m. Thursday.
They spent 11 hours on a traffic-choked back road, saw an aggressive
driver of an SUV hit a good Samaritan trying to help save a dog,
managed to drive only 18 miles, gave up and returned to their low-lying
home, empty refrigerator and approaching storm.
On Sunday, the Bryans filled their shopping cart with produce, meat,
beer, wine, milk -- the kinds of things that had been hard to find
since many stores shut down Wednesday night. "It felt nice to have
things on the shelf and be able to buy them," Bryan said. "I don't
think we bought one canned good."
Novelist Kathleen Cambor headed straight to the produce section
Sunday, when Central Market finally reopened. "We haven't had a green
salad in four days," she said. "This is what we really want -- fruit
Unlike those who hoarded necessities as the storm bore down, Cambor
said she found herself "buying too little." During Hurricane Alicia in
1983, she was without electricity for 10 days, and her food-filled
freezer became a disgusting swamp.
This time "I didn't want to contend with wasting a lot of stuff," she
said. "I didn't think we'd starve ... On Thursday, there were people
buying incredible things you can't imagine they'd ever eat -- like
five boxes of cookies."
David Fine, president of St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, was also
restocking his family's kitchen Sunday. Unlike most other Houstonians,
however, his mind has been on more than feeding just his family.
As Rita approached the region Wednesday, the hospital was able to
evacuate about 250 of its healthier patients. That left 400 to be fed
and cared for - along with staff and their families. But the
hospital's final deliveries of food, medicine and other essential
supplies never materialized. Fine was faced with a crisis when the
hospital's own contractors didn't show.
The hospital called another medical supply company, Owens & Minor,
which sent four-wheel-drive vehicles filled with warehoused goods. "We
had critically ill patients that, without these supplies, would have
been terribly compromised," Fine said.
Food was trickier and involved a bit of breaking and entering. There
is a McDonald's in the neighboring Texas Children's Hospital, but the
fast-food outlet had already closed for the hurricane. Grocer's
Supply, a nearby wholesaler, had also shut down.
"We contacted McDonald's and got permission to break into their
freezer," Fine said. Grocer's Supply gave "their permission to break
in and take all of the canned goods and dry goods we needed. Our
biggest issue now is that a lot of employees would come back but can't
get gas. So we're sending vans to rendezvous points to pick them up."
Scattered gas stations across Houston had been restocked with fuel by
Sunday morning, but widespread supplies won't arrive until the
independent contractors who truck gasoline from refineries coordinate
with gas station owners, City Councilman Michael Berry said.
"It's a Catch-22," Berry said, because the contractors won't deliver
gas unless the station owners open their stores, and station owners
won't open unless they know the gas will come. Berry planned to meet
with trade associations for both groups Sunday evening.
Drivers lined up early at a Shell station in Houston's swank Galleria
neighborhood, which had ample supplies on this day of deep scarcity.
By 9:30 a.m., cars were snaking out of the station up two busy
streets, as drivers conserved fuel in the blistering heat by turning
off their air conditioners.
The day before, police had been called to the station to keep order
after long lines snarled traffic and an unruly customer pulled a steel
bar to assault a driver who had tried to cut him off, said Khalid
Noutfji, Shell's area supervisor. To prove his point, he pulled out
his cellphone and scrolled through the pictures he'd snapped of
officers at the pumps.
Tracee Durst, 28, fanned herself with a piece of paper as she sat in
her Chevy Malibu with the windows down, her T-shirt rolled up to cool
a stomach beaded with sweat. The National Weather Service pegged
Sunday's heat index -- a combination of temperature and humidity -- at
more than 111 degrees here. It felt at least that in her car.
She yelled into her cellphone to her best friend: "Stacy, I just found
gas!" She had been searching for two hours, after a futile hunt the
day before. Her gas gauge was "on E," she said. "That's why the car
is off. I'm about to die. I may be pushing it in a little bit."
Durst was also low on groceries. "We cooked up everything [Friday]
night in case the electricity went off, baked a cake for Rita, a toast
to her: 'Please, just go around us.' "
Apparently it worked, because the storm delivered only a glancing blow
to Houston. The city still has extensive power outages, and telephone
service is sluggish at best, but the expected wind and flood damage
failed to occur as Rita went east instead.
Hard-hit East Texas is where Regina Hamilton's husband is
stranded. With him away, Hamilton had left her home in a flood zone to
stay with a daughter and six other relatives. Even though Rita had
come and gone, the extended family remained together to conserve their
Hamilton, whose battered Oldsmobile Ciera had nearly a full tank of
gas, and two grandsons were sitting in the heat at the Shell station
to top off, because "we don't know when we'll get any more."
She said her husband had no gas for his vehicle. "I need to get some
in these two cans in case I have to take it to him so he can get
To smooth the drive home for the millions who left the Gulf Coast
before the hurricane, the state cobbled together a plan to stagger
their reentry over several days. But officials acknowledge that there
is no way to enforce it. However, school districts are planning to
reopen throughout the week, taking pressure off families to get back.
"It looks to me like it's working," said Houston Mayor Bill White,
talking about the plan during a Sunday morning briefing. "Look, if
you're going to have millions of vehicles going on the highways, am I
going to predict no traffic jam in the next three days? Obviously
not. There will be a bunch of vehicles moving, and all it takes is one
stalled or wrecked vehicle to create a backup."
Traffic within the Houston city limits was relatively swift throughout
the day. The slower going was farther north, stretching from about the
Dallas area to around Huntsville, about 160 miles.
Luciano Barron, a 28-year-old landscaper, had left Houston on Thursday
for Denton, about 40 miles northwest of Dallas, in a seven-pickup
caravan with a score of family members. The drive took them 20
hours. Coming back, most of them made it in five hours.
What slowing there was had ebbed by Huntsville, Barron said as he
waited by the side of Interstate 45 with a flat tire just north of
"My son called and said he's already home. He said the road is clear"
in the final stretch, Barron said. "There's no problem."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times
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