Kindness of strangers eases the plight of Texas evacuees

Gulf Coast residents are stranded on interstates or abandon them to hunt for gasoline, supplies, shelter

September 24, 2005|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

GRAPELAND, TEXAS -- On the run from the fierce winds and rising waters of Hurricane Rita, thousands of Gulf Coast residents found themselves caught in a different kind of struggle yesterday, stranded, here and there, along rural highways across East Texas with no gas, no shelter and grim choices as they braced for the storm that would reach them within hours.

Places such as Grapeland, a town of 1,450 on a secondary highway about 100 miles north of Houston, were overrun with evacuees who had abandoned the jammed interstates in search of gas, food and refuge.

But there was no service station with gas for many miles, most grocery stores and other retailers were closed or out of stock, and the lucky were finding only hastily improvised shelter at local churches, high school auditoriums and fairgrounds.

Jonathan Reyes, 20, who had fled Beaumont - about 100 miles to the southeast near the Gulf of Mexico, directly in the storm's projected path - had found a bed yesterday afternoon at Grapeland's Light on a Hill church after running out of gas for the second time in a day.

As he sat drinking water after catching a little sleep, he worried about how the small church would withstand the 75 mph winds expected to arrive today.

"I'm not sure whether to stay or go west," Reyes said. "I'm worried it might be too dangerous here, but if I go, there may not be any gas or any place to stay."

Shunta Maxey of Galveston was stuck at a Grapeland Exxon/Mobil station, having run out of gas a third time. Sitting in her car sweating, her hair awry and throat sore from dryness, she said she was angry at Galveston officials who forced her to leave.

Maxey said she departed only because they threatened to turn off the electricity and water, but felt betrayed when she found out that after she and most other residents had left, officials retracted the threats and promised to keep the power on.

"They should have let us stay home," she said. "There were old people and little babies passed out along the road from heat exhaustion, and every time we'd ask a state trooper where we could find gas, he'd say, `Move along.'

"I'm just angry and panicked, and I don't know how we're going to get home. We're filthy, and none of us have had any sleep."

Maxey was traveling in a midsize SUV with her husband, three children, two small dogs and a bird.

Along major thoroughfares, emergency responders were treating people with heat exhaustion who couldn't turn on their air conditioning for fear of running out of gas. Men, women and children relieved themselves along roadsides as they waited for traffic jams to ease.

Motorists making their way south and west toward Corpus Christi were greeted yesterday by flashing highway signs that identified towns with supplies of gasoline and provided a phone number to call for information about available hotel rooms.

Both were provided by the Texas Department of Transportation. Frances Garza, a department spokeswoman, said officials began posting the information yesterday after employees patrolling the roadways to assist stranded and concerned motorists said they kept getting the same questions: Where can I find gas, and where can I stay?

The signs - similar to those that announce road construction - were a welcome sight to Veronica Rodriquez, 38, on her way from Houston to Corpus Christi with her 5-year-old daughter.

"I saw on the news all the people running out of gas and was worried that would happen to me," she said as she filled up in Odem. "I'm glad to find a place that's still open and that has gas."

By 3 p.m., scores of people had called the phone number in search of a place to stay, Garza said. The calls were answered by Transportation Department employees armed with lists of Corpus Christi hotels with available rooms, rates and information on whether pets were allowed.

"It's working out really well," Garza said. "People are glad because they're looking for hotel rooms and didn't know where to go."

In Huntsville, which was the fourth destination in Texas to receive Hurricane Katrina evacuees two weeks ago, residents drove out to Interstate 45 and picked up stranded families, taking them into town to get food and water. The Huntsville high school filled up with 500 travelers. Those who had pets were sent to the local fairgrounds site, which offered little in the way of services.

Huntsville sits about 70 miles north of Houston on the interstate, one of the principal escape routes from that city. Many Huntsville stores closed after running out of supplies, and dozens of people were lined up waiting to buy supplies at the local H-E-B, a Texas grocery store chain.

Certain items such as gasoline containers were unavailable as far away as Irving, Texas, just outside Dallas.

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