Sunday, September 25


Because Houston was largely spared, as Rita's "wobbles" took her away from one of the country's largest population centers and up the Texas coastline to Port Arthur-Sabine Pass and, eventually, a direct hit on Cameron, Louisiana, the two issues that loom largest in the Bayou City this Sunday morning are not damage and flooding (as one might have expected), but finding gasoline and restoring power. For the evacuees to be able to return home, they need gasoline for their cars -- a precious commodity in short supply, not just in Houston, but throughout the state, and particularly along the designated evacuation arteries such as I-45. And, once home, conditions will not be liveable unless there's electrical power to run air-conditioning, refrigerators, and freezers. Indeed, Houston today will see temperatures in the high 90s.

In terms of scant gasoline supplies, the "Houston Chronicle" online edition (registration required) reports (excerpts follow):

Oil companies are rushing to replenish Houston's bone-dry gas pumps, hoping to avoid the kind of mad scrambles seen Saturday at the few gas stations lucky enough to have fuel.

Yet, even as thousands of evacuees pour back into this gas-thirsty region, refiners warned that Hurricane Rita inflicted significant enough damage to facilities in Port Arthur that gas supplies could be affected for weeks to come.

North of Houston, Conroe, Texas, straddles Interstate 45, which was among the principal northbound evacuation arteries, and Conroe became a choke point where the gridlock that was seen through the Woodlands, just to the south, intensified to a standstill. The Chronicle reports:

In Conroe, Sam's Club, Shell, H-E-B and Exxon were all scheduled to receive gas Saturday afternoon.

But Conroe police asked them not to open until 6 p.m., to give local authorities a chance to get in position.

"We had some fighting and incidents on the way out and we want this to flow as smooth as possible," police spokesman Bob Berry said. "We haven't told anybody they can't open, but we want to be available to help control it. We don't want people injured over the supply of gas."

Farther up I-45 in Huntsville, Texas, where shelters had been established early last week (opening at 4:00pm CDT on Tuesday) when fears of a direct hit on Galveston-Houston had Houston authorities scambling in an effort to find safe havens for what were first thousands and thousands of voluntary evacuees, the Chronicle reports:

In Huntsville, a major refueling point along Interstate 45, The Hitchin'post Express had reopened, but the store had no gasoline or diesel to sell.

When the station attendant was asked if she knew what time new fuel was expected to arrive, she said, "No ma'am, we have no idea. We've been waiting on it for two days already."

Absent major fuel replenishment, the exodus back into Harris and Galveston counties will parallel the horror that was the mass exodus out. One family, returning to Tiki Island yesterday afternoon, told a television news reporter that it had taken her family 36 hours to drive from the Galveston area coastline to Dallas! Part of that time was spent in long gas lines along the way.

The post-Rita electrical power situation exacerbates conditions for returning evacuees. Once the arduous journey home is complete, how do they survive intense heat and humidity without the power to drive air-conditioners, refrigerators, and freezers? The Chronicle reports:

Electrical service was slowly returning to Houston and much of southeast Texas today after Hurricane Rita's strong winds left nearly 1 million customers without power. But some customers in the hardest hit areas may not get power for weeks.

Temperatures were forecast to reach 90 degrees this afternoon, making the wait for those accustomed to air conditioning especially difficult.

As of early today, Houston-based CenterPoint Energy estimated 325,000 of the 700,000 who lost power during the storm were still without service. The utility counts 1.9 million customers in its service area. Those still waiting for electricity were scattered across Harris, Galveston, Chambers, Liberty and Montgomery counties.

CenterPoint spokeswoman Leticia Lowe said it will not take take weeks to restore service in the Houston area. But many who lost power in the areas were Rita hit head-on aren't CenterPoint customers.

Both companies have called on thousands of technicians from other states to speed the repairs. At its peak, more than 11,000 will be working to restore power in the area.

Officials blamed the widespread power loss on Rita's high winds and lightning. In the inland areas, the severe storm snapped tree branches and limbs, hurling them and other kinds of debris at power lines to interrupt service.

Though summer turned to fall last week, for those without power the wait means going without air conditioning in sweltering heat and facing food spoilage from the loss of refrigeration.

These are better issues to deal with than loss of life, major structural damage, and widespread flooding, so Houstonians are not complaining in that regard this morning, but rather counting their blessings; but, as a practical matter, the nation's 4th largest city cannot get back up on its feet until gasoline is found and power gets restored, and its people can get about their business of living again.