I am writing this column from a hotel near the Houston International Airport, brought here not by business or leisure but by the power loss caused by Hurricane Rita.
The hurricane hit the sparsely populated area northeast of Houston where I live at around midnight on Saturday, Sept. 24 -- that's when the power went off and the unusual noise of the wind woke me up. Around noon on Saturday, after spending the night listening to the roaring rage of the hurricane, the wind strength weakened some, and I ventured outside.
I walked around for just 10 minutes, having to climb often over fallen trees blocking the road, before the hurricane seemed to regain speed and forced me to run for cover.
That short time outside was enough to realize that the fury of the hurricane had snapped many tall oak trees as if they were breadsticks. Moreover, the sudden downpour of heavy rain brought by Rita after weeks of drought soaked the soil enough to uproot some of those gigantic trees that had not broken from the hours of relentless hurricane-force wind.
I was lucky: A fallen limb crushed my mailbox, and a couple of trees in my yard were cut in half, but I had no other property damage. In my neighborhood, only one or two dwellings and maybe a couple of vehicles had been hit by falling timber or were damaged by the gusts of wind.
Unfortunately, the electric system took a more severe beating. Fallen trees cut the power lines in 10 or more places; some tumbling trees had taken the power-line poles down as well.
If we project those samples taken from my immediate neighborhood across all the counties visited by Rita, it's easy to understand why, early on Monday, Oct. 3, thousands of areas -- including mine -- were still without power. For most people, that means facing the torrid South Texas climate with no water supply, no air-conditioning, and no refrigerator.
On Tuesday afternoon, I finally gave up and moved my family to a hotel.
What have I learned from this close encounter with a hurricane? First of all, I need to improve my communications. I had cell phone -- charged from my car -- and telephone service almost all the time, plus plenty of batteries for my two AM/FM radios, but during my ordeal I still missed critical information, such as where to find gasoline, food, or water or when the power would be restored in my area.
As it turned out, radio broadcasts from Houston or Lufkin were not much help because they didn't include specific information about my town and county. I reached the conclusion that unless you're in a rather large city during an emergency, no radio station will broadcast anything of immediate use to you.
With the radio news not helping, and being cut off from my usual sources (Internet and major TV news channels), I had to resort to word of mouth to get information on local relief efforts. Word of mouth, as many of you may know, is a system that can be incredibly accurate or absolutely off target -- not to mention slow and sporadic.
For example, a well-informed neighbor pointed me to a resourceful gas station owner who had rented a humongous generator to keep his pumps fueling. After waiting in a 30-minute line, I finally had enough gas to be comfortable heading for the Houston airport area in search of a hotel room.