HOUSTON — My family and I decided to follow the evacuation recommendations issued by city officials for Houstonians, which was, “Move to higher ground.” We left at 5:30 a.m. Thursday in an effort to go to family in Arkansas. This was 36 hours before the projected time of arrival of Hurricane Rita. After traveling nine hours without air conditioning in 100-degree heat, we decided to turn back. We had only traveled 15 miles in that period of time. We were listening to a radio broadcast which repeatedly said that it was the right thing to evacuate. They said the city was surprised, but proud of the early response that citizens made to the disaster.

Our fellow travelers were for the most part working-class people of wide ethnic diversity, including many Latinos and African Americans. On the major highway going to Dallas, I noticed a number of 18-wheeler trucks carrying a lot of valuable goods. I also saw trailers carrying valuable cars.

I observed a number of families traveling together. The sad part was that they were in convoy, trying to get all the family vehicles out of town. They were smaller versions of the 18-wheelers, acting out the American Dream by trying to get as much of their material possessions as they could out before the storm.

I did not see a single bus carrying evacuees.

Highways leading out north of Houston remained open for both northbound and southbound lanes. There was a lot of talk on the radio about opening the southbound lanes to northbound traffic but it never happened that I observed. Sheriff’s patrol cars blocked the southbound entry ramps, so that made our return to Houston more difficult, but they allowed no northbound traffic to enter.

What led us to turn back was the realization that if we continued on our course, we would either die of heat stroke on the road or run out of gas and be stranded somewhere when the storm hit, making our continued existence questionable. When we returned and turned on the news, the mayor of Houston, Bill White, was on the air talking about how these cars were “death traps.” We saw innumerable vehicles that had run out of gas and were stopped on the highway. The occupants just grabbed as much of their belongings as they could and started walking. I would guess that many of them will die when the storm hits, if they survive the incredible heat. There was virtually no gas or water available in the Houston area as of Wednesday.

Although the scary forecasts of doom motivated us to leave, when we returned home the television commentators were now saying that it would be better for people to stay at home. One woman also pointed out that the evacuation plan was “every man for himself.” When President Bush appeared on TV and said he would keep an eye on this storm, I felt sick to my stomach.

I am really angry about our governmental agencies’ criminal neglect of people’s realistic needs in the face of impending disaster. In contrast, Cuba and Mexico face worse storms with few or no casualties because of their preparedness for hurricanes. Why is it that this country cannot match the record of Cuba and Mexico in disaster readiness? Why is it that no one is putting the label of terrorism on this criminally neglectful response to disaster? When will the citizens of this country recognize that self-centeredness cannot replace a community approach and massive planning and organization to effectively and safely meet disaster?

Paul Hill (phill2 @ houston.rr.com) is a contributing writer from Houston.

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