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Houston Motel Patrons Share Fear, Levity, Shelter

Times Staff Writers

The rain began at 6:40 p.m. Black and gray clouds swirled across a sky that shifted from deep turquoise to mustard yellow. An hour later, the wind began to growl.

More than a dozen guests at the Fairfield Inn here raced into the communal breakfast room and clustered around the television set, transfixed. Each time the news showed Hurricane Rita getting closer, some flinched.

“Please, can we go home? Please?” begged 4-year-old Sabrina Borges, her dark hair pulled back in tight ringlets. She tugged her mother’s hand. “Mama, I want to go home.”

“Sorry, baby,” soothed Elizabeth Borges, 37. “We can’t go now. The water’s coming. We have to stay here.”

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Here is a small motel on the northern edge of sprawling Houston, salmon-colored stucco, three stories tall, tucked beside a freeway, a Hooters, hard by a gas station without any gas.

It is filled with strangers with a few things in common: They are far from home. They are terrified. And they hope their houses and this temporary haven will still be intact when Saturday dawns. But Saturday feels like a lifetime away.

Elizabeth, her husband, Frank, and their two children fled low-lying Clear Lake City, Texas, arriving at the hotel on Wednesday. The hourlong drive took 13 hours. The family had crammed into their car with a week’s worth of clothes and their two dogs. Stephanie, 11, placed her three goldfish carefully in a small cooler. One died en route.

“We couldn’t turn on the air conditioning,” she said, “because the car was overheating.”

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Hotel maintenance man Jeff Taylor spent most of the day scouring the town for an open store to buy plywood to cover the hotel windows. No luck. The lumberyards were empty and the Home Depots barricaded.

Finally, he returned to the Fairfield Inn, spied the wooden gate hiding the trash bin and pried the planks off. There was just enough wood to cover the two windows outside the staff break room on the first floor. The employees decided it would be the safe room.

“Where else am I going to get wood?” Taylor asked, as he nailed the last plank. “I had to do something.”

The rain began in earnest at 9:30 p.m. -- light tapping on the glass punctuated by a pounding, like fists on the windows. The mood grew tense inside the bright breakfast room with its half-dozen tables and parking-lot views.

The darker the mood, the lighter the stories, as the huddled guests tried to outdo each other with tales of arduous journeys and difficulties getting a room in a city already full of people who fled Hurricane Katrina.

One woman said her brother had scanned hotel rooms on the Internet, and the closest he could find was a Howard Johnson in Arkansas. She lucked into the Fairfield when she nabbed a last-minute cancellation.

Buddy Perry, an Alabama contractor in Houston on business, described how he drove three miles an hour for most of his trip earlier this week.

“When I finally broke away from the traffic and was driving 35 miles per hour, it felt like I was flying down the road,” Perry said with a grin. “It felt like I was going 70 miles an hour.”

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Elizabeth Borges leaned over the back of her chair and surveyed her fellow guests. She was convinced she could top them both. She was right.

“I poured a Coke filled with ice all over myself on the drive here,” she laughed. “It was horrible. But it was the only cold thing I had, and it was so hot that I couldn’t breathe.”

At the hotel’s indoor pool, Kirk Douthit, 39, perched on the edge of a chair, watching weather updates on his laptop computer, which was logged onto the hotel’s wireless system.

While many had traveled relatively far to reach better shelter than their low-lying homes, Douthit and his wife, Beth, live just down the road from the modest hotel. They booked a room for one night to give their sons -- Jamie, 9, and Josh, 6 -- something to do.

“They have an indoor pool, and I knew the boys would be going stir-crazy inside a boarded-up house,” Douthit said. “I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes, so I know what to expect.”

The family checked in about 5 p.m. Friday. Soon after, the boys slipped into swimsuits and jumped into the pool. At 8:30 p.m., they were still splashing and racing around the deck.

Douthit said he booked the room as soon as he heard a storm was coming, “before there was any talk about it being a hurricane. I called and said, ‘I want a south-facing room on the second floor.’

“You don’t want the first floor, because of floodwater. You don’t want the third floor, because the roof can come off.”

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The hotel management had made similar calculations. The day before, notes were slipped under the door of each overcrowded room, warning guests to expect unpleasant conditions.

“We have the high possibility of a loss of power for an undetermined amount of time,” the note read. The phones could be out, the ice machine might run dry and full-service housekeeping would be stopped “due to us running on a skeleton crew.”

The next note was more grim, arriving Friday just before the rain. All bathtubs and sinks must be filled immediately. Everyone should come to the first-floor hallway.

“THIS WILL BE MANDATORY,” the note read. “This area will be considered our shelter.... If you would like to, bring a blanket and a pillow, due to the fact that we may sustain hurricane winds for a long amount of time.”

It was going to be a long night.


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