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Houston Rushes to Return to Normal

Times Staff Writers

After being cooped up for four days with two bored teenagers, Jan Odom walked into an Anthropologie store Sunday, surveyed the racks of clothing and made an announcement: “I’ve got cabin fever.”

“Golly, we’ve been holed up since Wednesday night,” the 56-year-old attorney said as she shopped in one of the few stores in the River Oaks neighborhood open for business in the wake of Hurricane Rita.

“Most of our friends evacuated, got halfway and came back. We braced for the worst and it didn’t happen.... I’ve about had it with 16-year-olds. I needed just to get out. How many times can you nap?”

As the Houston area began to inch toward normal Sunday, the journey home started in earnest for the million-plus residents who had left town. The return has been less harrowing than their frantic exodus, when the 230-mile drive to Dallas took as much as 24 hours. Still, the region’s traffic followed considerably as the day progressed and more impatient evacuees headed back.

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Some gas stations, restocked with precious fuel, saw long lines and fraying tempers in the enervating heat.

Gasoline is the commodity of the hour here in America’s Energy Central. Dwindling supplies hampered the hurricane evacuation as residents left their homes, got stuck on crowded freeways and found themselves out of fuel on the side of the road. And it shaped the way they came back.

Grocery stores able to staff up, restock and open their doors Sunday faced jams and jockeying that rivaled that on any freeway. Others planned to reopen in coming days as supplies and employees made their way back. Airports resumed service, stranded hotel guests began to check out, and restaurants prepared to reopen.

Many Houstonians who ventured out into their reawakening city had a shopping list, a story to tell and an itch to talk. They told of aborted evacuations and the futile search for gas, of stranded loved ones and highway horrors and meltdowns in the grocery aisle as Rita approached.

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“When I went to the grocery store Wednesday, there was no water,” Susan Bryan, 30, recalled as she happily shopped Sunday at Central Market on Westheimer Road. “I put a few cans in my cart. I knew they were things I wouldn’t eat. I left the cart. I was overwhelmed. People were pushing and shoving. I left the store. I thought I’d rather get out of town than eat steak and cheese soup.”

That was pretty much all that was left when Bryan tried to put up supplies in advance of the hurricane. The lack of groceries was one reason that the cancer research assistant and her husband, an accountant, packed their dogs into the car and left for San Antonio at 3:40 a.m. Thursday.

They spent 11 hours on a traffic-choked back road, saw an aggressive driver of an SUV hit a good Samaritan trying to help save a dog, managed to drive only 18 miles, gave up and returned to their low-lying home, empty refrigerator and approaching storm.

On Sunday, the Bryans filled their shopping cart with produce, meat, beer, wine, milk -- the kinds of things that had been hard to find since many stores shut down Wednesday night. “It felt nice to have things on the shelf and be able to buy them,” Bryan said. “I don’t think we bought one canned good.”

Novelist Kathleen Cambor headed straight to the produce section Sunday, when Central Market finally reopened. “We haven’t had a green salad in four days,” she said. “This is what we really want -- fruit and perishables.”

Unlike those who hoarded necessities as the storm bore down, Cambor said she found herself “buying too little.” During Hurricane Alicia in 1983, she was without electricity for 10 days, and her food-filled freezer became a disgusting swamp.

This time “I didn’t want to contend with wasting a lot of stuff,” she said. “I didn’t think we’d starve.... On Thursday, there were people buying incredible things you can’t imagine they’d ever eat -- like five boxes of cookies.”

David Fine, president of St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, was also restocking his family’s kitchen Sunday. Unlike most other Houstonians, however, his mind has been on more than feeding just his family.

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As Rita approached the region Wednesday, the hospital was able to evacuate about 250 of its healthier patients. That left 400 to be fed and cared for -- along with staff and their families. But the hospital’s final deliveries of food, medicine and other essential supplies never materialized. Fine was faced with a crisis when the hospital’s own contractors didn’t show.

The hospital called another medical supply company, Owens & Minor, which sent four-wheel-drive vehicles filled with warehoused goods. “We had critically ill patients that, without these supplies, would have been terribly compromised,” Fine said.

Food was trickier and involved a bit of breaking and entering. There is a McDonald’s in the neighboring Texas Children’s Hospital, but the fast-food outlet had already closed for the hurricane. Grocer’s Supply, a nearby wholesaler, had also shut down.

“We contacted McDonald’s and got permission to break into their freezer,” Fine said. Grocer’s Supply gave “their permission to break in and take all of the canned goods and dry goods we needed.... Our biggest issue now is that a lot of employees would come back but can’t get gas. So we’re sending vans to rendezvous points to pick them up.”

Scattered gas stations across Houston had been restocked with fuel by Sunday morning, but widespread supplies won’t arrive until the independent contractors who truck gasoline from refineries coordinate with gas station owners, City Councilman Michael Berry said.

“It’s a Catch-22,” Berry said, because the contractors won’t deliver gas unless the station owners open their stores, and station owners won’t open unless they know the gas will come. Berry planned to meet with trade associations for both groups Sunday evening.

Drivers lined up early at a Shell station in Houston’s swank Galleria neighborhood, which had ample supplies on this day of deep scarcity. By 9:30 a.m., cars were snaking out of the station up two busy streets, as drivers conserved fuel in the blistering heat by turning off their air conditioners.

The day before, police had been called to the station to keep order after long lines snarled traffic and an unruly customer pulled a steel bar to assault a driver who had tried to cut him off, said Khalid Noutfji, Shell’s area supervisor. To prove his point, he pulled out his cellphone and scrolled through the pictures he’d snapped of officers at the pumps.

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Tracee Durst, 28, fanned herself with a piece of paper as she sat in her Chevy Malibu with the windows down, her T-shirt rolled up to cool a stomach beaded with sweat. The National Weather Service pegged Sunday’s heat index -- a combination of temperature and humidity -- at more than 111 degrees here. It felt at least that in her car.

She yelled into her cellphone to her best friend: “Stacy, I just found gas!” She had been searching for two hours, after a futile hunt the day before. Her gas gauge was “on E,” she said. “That’s why the car is off. I’m about to die. I may be pushing it in a little bit.”

Durst was also low on groceries. “We cooked up everything [Friday] night in case the electricity went off, baked a cake for Rita, a toast to her: ‘Please, just go around us.’ ”

Apparently it worked, because the storm delivered only a glancing blow to Houston. The city still has extensive power outages, but the expected wind and flood damage failed to occur as Rita went east instead.

Hard-hit East Texas is where Regina Hamilton’s husband is stranded. With him away, Hamilton had left her home in a flood zone to stay with a daughter and six other relatives. Even though Rita had come and gone, the extended family remained together to conserve their food.

Hamilton, whose battered Oldsmobile Ciera had nearly a full tank of gas, and two grandsons were sitting in the heat at the Shell station to top off, because “we don’t know when we’ll get any more.”

She said her husband had no gas for his vehicle. “I need to get some in these two cans in case I have to take it to him so he can get home.”

To smooth the drive home for the millions who left the Gulf Coast before the hurricane, the state cobbled together a plan to stagger their reentry over several days. But officials acknowledge that there is no way to enforce it. However, school districts are planning to reopen throughout the week, taking pressure off families to get back.

“It looks to me like it’s working,” said Houston Mayor Bill White, talking about the plan during a Sunday morning briefing. “Look, if you’re going to have millions of vehicles going on the highways, am I going to predict no traffic jam in the next three days? Obviously not. There will be a bunch of vehicles moving, and all it takes is one stalled or wrecked vehicle to create a backup.”

Traffic within the Houston city limits was relatively swift throughout the day. The slower going was farther north, stretching from about the Dallas area to around Huntsville, about 160 miles.

Luciano Barron, a 28-year-old landscaper, had left Houston on Thursday for Denton, about 40 miles northwest of Dallas, in a seven-pickup caravan with a score of family members. The drive took them 20 hours. Coming back, most of them made it in five hours.

What slowing there was had ebbed by Huntsville, Barron said as he waited by the side of Interstate 45 with a flat tire just north of Houston.

“My son called and said he’s already home. He said the road is clear” in the final stretch, Barron said. “There’s no problem.”


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