Thursday, September 22, 2005

Rita - Day Zero

This is usually not a "personal diary"-type blog, but there seems to be a demand for first-hand accounts from Houston, and the UK Guardian has been poking fun at me, so I'll oblige - to be followed by some broader observations on disaster planning at the end.

Got up early this morning to get groceries and gas because yesterday afternoon was the Fall of Saigon writ large. Multiple gas stations with no gas, but finally found one in my neighborhood that only had regular left. My car requires super, but what the heck - I want to go into this thing with a full tank, not a quarter tank. Dropped my wife off to buy groceries first. My theory? Wal-Mart has the best logistics in the world, so they should be restocked overnight and good to go. Big-time wrong. The local Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market (groceries only) was totally shut down, no plans to reopen until Sunday. Please take into account the weather today: sunny, no clouds at all, all-time highs of around 100 degrees. Rain doesn't start until tomorrow and no landfall until Sat morning. I was very disappointed in Wal-Mart. Bad Wal-Mart! I think they deserve flack like Delta got for canceling NOLA flights a day before everyone else. Luckily, we found a purely local grocery running flat out with well-stocked shelves and loaded up. I spent a half-hour or so in line for gas, filled-up, and met up perfectly with my wife as she checked out of the grocery store. Mission accomplished.

Spent the rest of the morning "de-projectiling" around our house. Anything that looks like high-speed winds could pick up and throw at our windows got put in the garage. Took down the basketball goal. Moved a lot of plants from precarious positions. Folded and stored the patio furniture. Sweaty but relatively painless process.

Decided to stay totally local today. The Houston freeways are gridlocked, which has been all over the news. Were all night long too, as far as I can tell. The traffic map is kinda funny now, looking deceptively clear/green. But look a little closer, and you see a few red sections (less than 20mph) and many grey sections on the outbound freeways. Grey seems innocuous ("no data"), but what it really means is that the traffic is going so slow they can't actually measure the speed. They read EZ-Tag toll transponders between two points to measure speed, and I think the system is designed to throw out the "starting point A" reads after a certain time elapses, because the assumption is that person exited the freeway between point A and B - so it would be a bad data point. But if the traffic is going insanely slow (less than 5 mph?), it ends up throwing out all data points and showing "no data".

Thought we might catch one last meal out for lunch, considering we'll be stuck at home the next few days. Again, theory fails the reality test. Called a dozen restaurants in the area using Google Earth to scan for places and numbers. Nobody's open. BLTs at home it is.

We have a family of three from Clear Lake staying with us. They live in the storm surge evacuation zone. They brought up a couple cars, and we have a couple cars. Our garage has so much junk it only holds one car, and there are gonna be branches down and water in the street. Decided to move the two smaller cars to the second floor of a local parking garage. We weren't the only ones - the garage was filling up quick, with nobody parking on the bottom or near the edges. If only New Orleans Mayor Nagin had thought of this trick with his bus fleet...

After the car drop, got some ATM cash and - get this - a liquor store run (not my idea). Again, a mom-and-pop store staying open when all the chains are sealed up tight. Bottled water is sold out all over town, but not at the liquor store, so we pick up some extra in addition to the gin. The whole trip is a little eery, because the roads are pretty deserted and many stores and houses are boarded up around Bellaire.

Learned a neat trick today. If you ever wonder how many people really care about you, go live in a city facing a disaster. They come out of the woodwork. Dozens of calls from all over the country over the last 24 hours. They're all curious and concerned. It's nice to feel loved. Thanks, everybody.

OK, so getting to some broader lessons that came out of watching the news today. Clearly, the recent Katrina experience caused politicians to lean towards caution on urging evacuation, which instantly caused total gridlock in a metro of 5 million. Local news was flashing some travel times today like 320+ mins (!) to go about 20 miles north on I45 from downtown to FM1960. Absolutely insane. Some of the coastal counties are very upset, feeling that Harris County and Houston should have tried harder to keep people in-place so their very threatened citizens could get out. I'm sure disaster plans and routes assume a certain percentage of people will stay in place, but that assumption is totally wrong in a jittery post-Katrina world.

As I'm writing, they're trying to get contra-flow freeways flowing outbound, and as the storm track has shifted east, Mayor White and Judge Eckels are now trying to encourage more people in not-as-threatened areas to stay at home - which translates as, "if you're hearing this on the radio while stuck in traffic, please give up, turn around, and go home so this jam is clear before the hurricane strikes."

Lesson learned: don't only urge evacuation, but encourage people in less threatened areas to stay at home until the urgent evacuation cases get through the city.

Another lesson learned is that that many people on the move consumes gas faster than trucks can resupply, esp. when there's gridlock on the freeways preventing the trucks from getting anywhere. There are a lot of cars running out of gas and getting stuck by the side of the road. In future hurricane warnings, they're going to need to pre-position full gas trucks to re-supply the stations as they rapidly drain.

So now we're settling in for a night of DVDs - probably "Real Genius" or "Zero Effect", two of my favorite comedies. As for other activities as we wait this thing out, I have to keep reminding myself: do computer and Internet stuff now while we have power, and save the newspapers and magazines for the highly-likely non-powered future. We're feeling pretty good because every updated track seems to move further east. We're now looking at only tropical storm force winds on the "less bad" western side of the hurricane in our area. The further east it moves the more our guests and others from around Galveston Bay can breathe easier. I don't wish ill on Beaumont/Port Arthur/Lake Charles, but, realistically, a lot fewer lives and property are at risk if it tracks that way rather than over Houston.

Well, that's more than enough for today. If power and Internet hold out, I may write again tomorrow. Take care.


At 6:52 PM, September 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, the Spec's in Katy is still open as of this writing (unlike every single grocery store in the area). I went there and it was busy as heck. They still had plenty of cheeses and deli meats too...but I decided to skip those in favor of some Stella Artois (what can I say).

At 8:41 PM, September 22, 2005, Blogger jpabad said...

I also had high hopes for Walmart logistics when I needed batteries but alas nothing.

Hitting the liquor stores though? Brilliant!
Wish I'd thought of it.

At 12:58 AM, September 23, 2005, Blogger Ring Zero said...

At 11:14 AM, September 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter if Wal-Mart stayed open or not since delivery trucks weren't making deliveries. Why keep the stores running if they're only going to have empty shelves?

At 11:16 AM, September 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, my local O'Reilly auto parts had all batteries except for D as of 9:45 this morning. They called around for me and found another store a few miles away that did have them, but by the time I got there they were all out.

At 1:02 PM, September 23, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think Wal-Mart had the trucks available to make deliveries and relatively full nearby distribution centers. I've read that they've deeply analyized disaster zones, know what will be in demand, and can quickly allocate the needed inventory to a region. They also could have pre-stocked the stores.


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