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. on Sept. 22 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 that repeatedly said evacuating was the right thing to do. 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 of Houston remained open in both directions. There was a lot of talk on the radio about opening the inbound lanes to outbound traffic but I never saw that happen. Sheriff’s patrol cars blocked the entry ramps, so that made our return to Houston more difficult.

What led us to turn back was the realization that if we continued on our course, we would either die of heat 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 worried that many of them would die when the storm hit, if they survived the sweltering heat. There was virtually no gas or water available in the Houston area as of Sept. 21.

The Houston Chronicle reported a handful of deaths during the evacuation, including a 17-year-old disabled child and a nursing home patient. I also heard reports of family pets who died during the ordeal.

Although the scary forecasts of doom motivated us to leave, when we returned home the television commentators were 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? 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 ( is a contributing writer from Houston.