STRANDED ON EMPTY
Posted: Saturday, September 24 at 05:50 pm CT by Bob Sullivan
LIVINGSTON, Texas -- Maybe you saw those pictures Wednesday of thousands of cars stuck in traffic fleeing Houston, trying to escape Hurricane Rita. Maybe you were wondering what happened to all those people we talked to on Route 59, whose cars were running out of gas and overheating.
VIDEO: Jenny Gregory talks with Bob Sullivan about her thwarted evacuation from Humble, Texas, to Oklahoma. She was panicky and claustrophobic. "I was thinking we need to get gas now. Where's water, where's food ... what are we going to do?" (Andrew Locke / MSNBC.com)
Well, we found them. About one hour's drive north of Houston, we found thousands of them, stranded. They had made it as far as Livingston, and there, many simply ran out of gas. Now, 2,100 people are calling Livingston Junior High their home. Several hundred more, including dozens of frail elderly, are staying at the elementary school nearby. The schools just spontaneously turned into shelters Thursday, when people's cars began to cut out. Some had simply resorted to walking, abandoning their cars on the side of the road, not wanting to be stuck on a highway when the storm hit.
"We were just walking along the highway," said Debbie Lege, of Winnie, Texas, "Our (auto) radiator blew up."
It's not clear which came first, the shelter or the people; we hear different stories. But at some point, with nowhere else to go, crowds started to form at the junior high, a big complex alongside Route 59. Word that a shelter had arisen only drew larger crowds, and eventually, more Red Cross volunteers.
The schools, and in fact the city, were totally unprepared for the influx of helpless, homeless evacuees. The sign on the elementary school still read, "Closed on Thursday and Friday."
The junior high had nothing but leftover school meals, a few cots, and locker room showers. The elementary school had no food at all until volunteers there discovered a cache of peanut butter that had been collected by students to help Katrina survivors, we're told.
When we wander around the shelter, every man, woman and child tells a story of the worst traffic jam they've ever seen -- 10, 15, even 20 hours long. At some point, the trip became fruitless -- the lucky ones heard about the junior high before the gas ran out and were able to drive their cars to the place on their own. The rest were shuttled there by buses or hitched rides. "It was about 50-50," says Clifton Henderson, a 27-year-old Red Cross trained volunteer. He happened to be in Livingston to take care of his mom. When he showed up at the junior high on Thursday, there were only three volunteers taking care of 700 people. Before the storm hit, the ranks of the needy had swelled to over 2,000, he said.
Jenny Gregory, a 19-year-old from Humble, Texas who was trying to get to Oklahoma, only made it about 50 miles in 12-hour trip. During the traffic jam she was panicky and claustrophobic.
"I was thinking we need to get gas now. Where's water, where's food...what are we going to do?" she said. "I was in a panic. It was scary." Now, she has no idea when she might be able leave.
As we walk around the school-turned-shelter, we see the same kinds of things Andrew saw at Katrina victim shelters. The din is nearly deafening at times, with toddlers stumbling around in diapers, and screaming. Kids play all over the school, adults seeking medical care for older family members wander around looking for someone to talk to. Families mark a corner on the gym floor with a blanket or claim space in a hallway by a locker. Stepping over them to see the place feels awful, like you're walking through 100 people's bedrooms. There isn't even a semblance of privacy.
The hard floors are hardest on the elderly. Rickey Redden, a school air conditioning maintenance worker, is now working miracles running the middle school shelter -- he's managed to beg and borrow a few cots.
Still, the evening was harrowing, we're told. At 4 p.m., a warning signal shot off as the storm peaked, and all 2,000 people at the middle school complex were shuttled into one large room away from windows.
FEMA ARRIVES -- WITHOUT GAS