In the last days of September 2005, the residents of Houston recall seeing weather reports that showed a big swirl cloud equivalent to the size of Brazil heading straight at Galveston. Hurricane Rita, a Category 5 monster was on its way toward the Texas Gulf Coast at a fear-provoking speed, immediately sparking evacuation orders for low-lying areas.
Close to one million residents hit the road, creating traffic jams that stretched for miles towards the north and west. The worst was yet to come on Thursday, September 22 as every imaginable evacuation route was clogged beyond capacity. For instance, Texas 146, which goes through the Liberty County, saw more than 500,000 people escape into a County that can host only 70,000 residents, notes Ronnie Alexander, a Sheriff in Liberty County.
We witnessed everything from chaos on the road to medical emergencies, Alexander said. The major freeways were not spared either and impatient drivers took matters into their own hands and drove on the wrong side of the road. It took the designation of contra-flow by the authorities to bring sanity on the road.
Thousands upon thousands ran out of gas, or their autos became overheated due to the inching along, forcing them to stop and even sleep on the way.
However, the most tragic event in the epic evacuation efforts was the death of 24 Bellaire nursing home residents. A bus that was hired to evacuate them caught fire and bursted into flames around 6:45 am on September 23, 2005. The explosion happened on the traffic-clogged Interstate 45 near Dallas.
The residents were being transported to a sister facility located in Dallas before Hurricane Rita took its toll. The Hurricane was listed a category 5 storm by the time the bus left for Dallas at around 3 pm on September 22.
By the time Rita was making the landfall about 2:40 am on September 2005, near Sabine Pass, it had been listed as a category 3 hurricane.
The irony of the whole incident is that the residents of New Orleans, who had pitched camp in Houston three weeks earlier on to escape from another disaster, Hurricane Katrina, headed back home only to be met by even more chaos. The worst impact of Hurricane Katrina was the power blackout that lasted for several hours and petrol stations running out of gas for days.
Hurricane Rita caused an additional approximate $12 billion in damages. Although Texas was primarily affected by Hurricane Rita, Louisiana and Florida were also heavily impacted by the storm.