"Just letting all who enquired know that we, our house, neighborhood and the city of Houston are all fine this Sunday afternoon.
We left Houston on Friday morning for Austin—3 hours drive time-- after most people had already evacuated or tried to and given up. You must have seen the horrendous grid locks on the highways out of Houston on Wednesday and Thursday when most people left. We returned on Saturday afternoon -- resulting in a 26 hour evacuation which in the end, was not at all necessary. We had originally planned on leaving Houston on Thursday morning and my car was packed with water and other necessary items for the purpose. But after we saw what was happening on the roads, we decided against leaving home.
By Thursday afternoon, I was against evacuating once I found out that most of my immediate neighbors were going to stay put and Rita was changing directions, going eastward. But Sudhir, who had not been paying attention to the storm because he had an NIH grant to submit, looked up from his computer late Thursday afternoon, assessed the danger--which actually was diminishing-- and decided early Friday morning that we must evacuate ! Miraculously, we even found a room for us and our cat Ali at the Marriott in Austin on Friday morning although on Thursday we had been told that not a single hotel room was available anywhere in Texas. They advised us to book hotels in New Mexico, Oklahoma or Colorado!
But Rita gave Houston a pass. At the Austin hotel where nearly 80% of the guests were Houstonians, we ended up exchanging evacuation stories rather than storm tales. Sudhir and I were the only ones who had left on Friday and avoided all traffic woes. Most had taken 12 - 13 hours to travel the 165 miles between the two cities. One family had left a coastal area just south of Houston on Wednesday and arrived in Austin 31 hours later !
Next morning when it was clear that Houston had dodged the bullet, the mayor and the governor asked people not to rush back and create the same nightmare that occurred on the way out. Knowing that people who had faced the horrible traffic on Wednesday and Thursday will be more cautious, Sudhir immediately threw our bags into the car, checked out and we took off from Austin before most people could make up their minds. As a result, we made our way back to Houston also without pain in a little over 4 hours. Essentially, what we got out of our non-essential evacuation was a Friday evening on the music filled streets of Austin and an excellent dinner on 6th Street.
Some of the lessons that Rita and Katrina have taught us are:
1. As of today, we have no good way in place to evacuate large, heavily populated areas without causing massive confusion and chaos.
2. People in storm prone areas should have a family evacuation plan very much in advance of the landfall.
3. Sometimes it is better to use your own judgement than to listen to the "experts".
4. The Americans' general hostility (especially in places like Texas) to public transportation proves to be a liability in times like these when large numbers of people need to move in a short time. The "my car - my family" mode of evacuation is not effective at all.
5. A storm from the sea comes in with some warning - fire, tornadoes, earthquakes and terrorist attacks don't. In the any of the latter events, a big city anywhere is quite helpless.
Thanks to all for your emails and phone calls. The Gulf of Mexico is warm enough to brew tea this year and the hurricane season is just over 50% over. Let's keep our fingers crossed.