To the general US population, 2005’s Hurricane Rita doesn’t really stand out, since everyone remembers her sister from two weeks prior, Hurricane Katrina. My husband and I had moved to Houston in 2004, and that September, Hurricane Ivan sat in the mouth of the Gulf making radical waves which we played in when we went to Galveston. Hurricane season was unspectacular for Houston that year, other than the rain bands that arrived from the others in 2004.
Our daughter was born in February of 2005, making a small storm in our personal lives. 2005’s hurricane season started producing some of the biggest record breaking hurricanes on the books at the time, beginning with the two July hurricanes, Dennis and Emily. For me working at the Houston airport, these monsters merely caused diverted, delayed, and canceled flights, but for the most part, operations as usual. There were bags to be loaded, transferred, and downloaded. There was breast pumping to be done between flights so the husband could feed the baby the next day. Delightfully, I had a fellow ramper pumping for her baby too, so she and I always had a good time chatting about our growing kids during those breaks.
August started off with Tropical Storm Harvey (I would imagine that after this August, that name will be retired!) but the big one to form mid-August was Katrina. At work we watched the weather radar religiously and helplessly watched as Katrina slid over and destroyed New Orleans on August 29th. Many resident refugees were bused in from New Orleans and surrounding areas since Houston was the nearest big city that had set up large scale assistance. Two weeks later all Houstonians were watching as Hurricane Rita was tracking straight for Houston itself, and by September 20th we knew Rita was coming for us. At this point we were still watching the news of the scope of destruction of New Orleans, and many refugees from Louisiana were terrified to find themselves in a new city with another hurricane headed right for them, again. Houston begun one of the largest evacuations starting with Galveston on the Wednesday the 21st and working northward through the cities.
The aircraft leaving Houston Bush Intercontinental were packed to the gills of people who were leaving, taking some of their worldly goods with them. Katrina had been an eye opener. What really blew my mind was those aircraft coming INTO Houston were just as packed–by news crew equipment from all over the country. While millions were trying to get out, we were unloading media into the city. Camera cases, cord cases, cases of spare batteries, cases upon cases of bottled water, cases of food for the news crews, all of it large and extremely heavy. We took just as much off those planes as we put on them. Employees were told they could leave to seek shelter in other cities when they wanted, so no one was penalized for leaving a day or three early for northern cities. My husband’s youngest sister was visiting us in Houston at this time, spending time with the baby and riding out the storm with us. She was an awesome help, a very practical person in thinking through what we might need in the days ahead. The husband and I considered the offer of shelter given by friends in Austin, but when we did the math, the 90 mile eye of Rita was the size of the distance between Houston and Austin. We didn’t consider that ratio would offer us much protection, so we decided to ride Rita out in Houston.
We lived on the second floor of an apartment in Humble, which is on the northern edge of the city. Our car’s air conditioning had recently failed and Houston was experienceing a heat wave–it was distressingly hot and humid at almost 100 degrees–and to be honest, we were struggling to pay for gasoline every week since it was over $3 a gallon at that time. We watched the lines of traffic trying to leave Houston stack up from our apartment balcony. There is really only four ways to leave the city, and already those highways were at a crawl. The three of us with baby in tow stocked up on water, food, first aid, flashlights, batteries, and anything else that was decided was necessary from a mostly untouched HEB in Kingwood. We emptied the walk in closet and re-vamped it with bedding and supplies for humans and dogs. The baby was seven months old, still breast feeding and on bottled foods, so the safety of her food wasn’t at risk. We only lived a few miles from the airport, so my husband drove me back and forth to work, and I kept working in the rain until I finished my shift at 11pm on Thursday, September 22. Rita was scheduled to make landfall 24 hours later on Friday the 23rd. I remember the ride back home from the airport taking what back ways we could back to our apartment since the highway was at a slow shuffle. Rain smeared the car windows, making it difficult to get a breeze into the hot stuffy car without getting soaked. Had it not been for the baby, I would have stayed on as skeleton crew at the airport for The Company.
Rain was falling harder on the city on the 23rd and we double checked our hide-away and waited. I remember sitting on the apartment balcony watching traffic still lined up on 59 North trying to leave. I didn’t understand why these people, who sat in lines of traffic that I could outpace at a walk, try to find shelter where they were stuck and idling. And stuck was the right word too. Everyone had fled the city–including the people who ran gas stations and grocery stores. The news was already full of stories of cars abandoned at the side of the road, out of gas, already on the road for a day or more, and no open stations to refill them. It was a blessing that we’d stayed put. What drivers we could, we directed to the grocery store and an open gas station we knew of inside Kingwood. I remember standing at the side of the road, looking at the endless line of idling cars, and wondering if that was a new type of hell people would dream about in the future.
Night came, cars were still lined up on the road outside, and the rain came down. At the very last moment, Rita swung east, making landfall on the Louisana/Texas border, innundating the very people fleeing to escape the Hurricane. In our apartment the electric had gone out but water still flowed from the pipes, and we three adults tried to rest, being ready for the moment necessity (broken windows, flying debris, etc) would send us to that closet. The baby slept in oblivion, the dogs curled up with their favorite humans. I was laying in the living room and my sister-in-law was on the futon, and we were talking quietly.
“I’ve been feeling kinda funny lately,” I told her, “and the baby isn’t nursing like she use to.” She offered a couple of suggestions, mentioning maybe the stress/excitement of the last few weeks could have something to do with it. I shook my head. Finally, I said it out loud. “I think I’m pregnant again. There’s a left over test under the sink, I think I’m going to use it now.” “What?!?” I got up, did the deed, and came back to her, grabbing her hand in support. “It was positive, I’m going to have another baby. We were waiting another six months before trying. Your brother is going to kill me.”
The night Rita came and added misery to the Gulf Coast was the night I found out I was pregnant with my son. I will always remember Rita for that.
****** EPILOGUE: If you’ve read this far, you’ll have figured out my husband didn’t kill me. The next morning after the worst of Rita had passed, I told him, and he laughed instead.