Recalling a Hurricane, a Decade Later

by admin | September 24, 2015 6:22 pm

The two hurricanes struck three weeks apart a decade ago. Hurricane Katrina devastated a large swath of New Orleans and the surrounding area, of course, after making landfall Aug. 29, 2005. Thousands of people either fled or were evacuated. Many ended up in Lufkin, where I lived at the time and published the paper. The evacuees filled the civic center, local churches and other spaces. Local folks did their best to make them welcome and meet their needs. Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita made landfall near Sabine Pass and headed up the Texas-Louisiana border, the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane in history.

Most predictions had Rita coming through Southeast Texas and into Lufkin, which is two hours north of Houston. Tens of thousands of people left Houston and the Golden Triangle, fearing the storm would sweep through there. They headed north, choking Highways 59 and 69, both of which bisect the city. By the time Rita swept through Lufkin in the early morning hours of Saturday, Sept. 24, the town’s population of 35,000 had swelled to more than 100,000.

Soon, the city began to resemble a post-apocalyptic world. Long lines formed as gas pumps, soon were sucked dry. We had stockpiled about 50 gallons of fuel in 10-gallon cans to help our employees get home, and for carriers. The shelves of the local Walmart were plucked clean of water and other beverages. Traffic snarled the loop and the town’s main thoroughfare. People were setting up camp in city parks as the designated centers filled up.

As the storm approached, we began trying to figure out how to get out a newspaper ahead of the storm. We ended up publishing a combined weekend edition early Friday evening so that carriers could choose to deliver the papers before the storm, or wait until it had passed. Most rural carriers wisely opted to wait, though as it turned out that meant many country roads became impassable because of felled trees.

When the winds picked up, and the oak trees in my backyard creaked ominously, I decided to ride out the storm down the street at the newspaper office, along with several coworkers. The building that houses the Lufkin Daily News is solid brick with narrow windows that afforded a view out without undue risk. In the darkness, we watched and waited.

The last time I rode out a hurricane was in 1960, when Hurricane Donna swept through. I was 5 and still remember the large tree in the front yard of our Allenstown, N.H. home bending toward the ground. Wind and rain lashed the windows. I don’t recall being particularly frightened, mainly fascinated by the storm’s fury. Forty-five years later, especially after the destruction Katrina wrought only weeks earlier, I was plenty worried.

The newspaper office is on the west side of the railroad tracks. As the wind picked up, the crossing arms started bouncing up and down, causing the signal lights and bells to flash and chime erratically. Utility poles swayed impossibly low without snapping. The power went off, of course. At one point, a few of us picked our way through the dark corridors to the mailroom, where a door opened out to the loading dock. We decided to go out on the dock and feel the storm’s power.

This turned out to be a lousy idea. We struggled to keep from being blown off the dock and to get back into the building, lock the door. Riding out a hurricane sounds like a grand adventure until you actually do it. It is actually rather scary, even when one is safely ensconced in a sturdy building.

Rita left Lufkin after a few hours, headed north where it would finally play out as a rainy, windy mess on the Great Lakes. I headed home to see what was left of my house.

I was undeservedly lucky. A few wheelbarrow loads of tree limbs littered the lawn, but that was it. And, after several hours, somehow the power returned. My neighbors across the street were without juice for five days. Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of folks remained without electricity for days on end.

Later that day, as the sun reappeared and the temperatures reached into the 90s, the circulation manager and I took the company van out loaded with newspapers. We headed down Highway 69, stopping in Huntington and then Zavalla. Everywhere, folks who had fled from Houston and points south were parked in church lots, at closed convenience stores and along the road. We gave away copies of the paper while I took photos of the damage, which was considerable the further south we went.

Slowly the town returned to “normal.” Tankers brought loads of gas to town. Eighteen-wheelers arrived with supplies to refill store shelves. Most of the evacuees, many from Houston, which escaped Rita’s wrath, headed home. Some Katrina evacuees stayed and became members of the community.

Residents began the process of picking up the pieces. For months blue tarps covered damaged rooftops. My neighbors got their power restored and quit glaring at me.



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