|What began as a media work assignment ended with my Mother living with my wife and me!
Mom's house and my hometown of Orange, Texas took a direct hit from Hurricane Rita as the strongest winds from the hurricane blew through Orange.
I spent nearly a week covering the storm and I lost nearly 10 pounds on the trip. We were largely on our own as we lost communication with the TV station and my wife back in Tulsa.
Here's how Hurricane Rita changed my life:
September 21, 2005 at 4:30am on a Wednesday Morning, KOKI-TV photographer John Gibson and I departed Tulsa, Oklahoma for the Texas coast. We didn't know how long we would be there.
Today's agenda was supposed to be boring: drive about 500 miles for a TV live shot. I planned to sleep during the long drive as I hadn't slept yet that night. My wife, Shyla, had helped me pack while we watched "Nick at Nite" during the overnight.
But I didn't sleep.
John and I drove in a Chevy Blazer, and those vehicles aren't the best in the world for week-long road trips. They become less comfortable each day as there's little leg room and the seats are low, uncomfortable, and they don't recline much. The ride sloshes your Mountain Dew everywhere.
So instead of sleeping I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. We bounced down the highway and plenty of wind and road noise roared through the cabin
And then the fun started.
About an hour into our pre-dawn journey we hit an awful stretch of road near McAlester. A loud "pow" opened my eyes as I heard a huge rock hit something.
We pulled off the highway for a quick look and I saw nothing wrong with the Blazer. It probably would have helped if I actually glanced toward the back rear tire!
After we sped off, a bad noise sooner roared from the back right tire and John had trouble steering...yep, we know what that noise was now...
A burning rubber smell filled the morning darkness. Our flashlight highlighted a shredded tire and a shiny exposed rim. Have you ever changed a flat before sunrise? How about on a busy, unlit section of 70mph highway?
We could manage changing the tire, but my bigger concern was someone crashing into us: the highway was one of Oklahoma's finest: 4 undivided lanes, no shoulders, no lights and sharp ditches.
Thinking morbidly I moved away from the vehicle and set up my video camera in case we literally became "breaking news" (or exploding news.) We turned on all lights and flashers for visibility. Traffic whizzed by just feet away.
While John and I worked on the flat tire, a Pittsburg county deputy pulled up behind us. For the first time in my life I didn't mind seeing flashing lights behind my vehicle. I told the deputy that the tire blew because John was driving over 100mph. I got little reaction...
After mounting the spare tire and thanking the deputy for his assistance, we loaded back up with my thousand pound suitcase breaking off the Blazer's interior plastic paneling. Great, hopefully the rest of the vehicle wouldn't disintegrate before we got back to Tulsa!
We resumed our journey toward Texas, later cheering when the highways smoothed out at the state line. The sun was now shining low in the eastern sky...still no sleep for me yet.
We encountered the northern suburbs of Houston near Noon, and folks were aready evacuating. Boats, jet skis and motor homes were among the first to go. We stopped at a Subway restaurant for lunch near Conroe-- this would prove our last regular meal for many days...I should have purchased more Subway cookies!
After lunch John and I continued south on I-45 toward Houston when our bosses redirected more toward Corpus Christi. We were to meet a news crew from a San Antonio TV station setting up near Matagorda Bay-- this added two more hours to our drive.
Finally by 4:30pm, exactly 12 hours and one blown tire after leaving Tulsa, we found and met the San Antonio news folks and their satellite truck. John and I had no time to shoot a news story for the 5pm news, so I did a basic live shot from the beach at Rockport, Texas. I showed our viewers the calm Gulf of Mexico behind me.
Hurricane Rita was 60 hours away, but there were no obvious signs of an approaching hurricane. The blue sky extended forever over the Gulf of Mexico until the water and sky blended blue in the distance. The subdued landscape seemed peaceful.
But the weather was really, really hot, with near record 100F degree readings, even at the beach. Meteorologically, hot weather before a hurricane is normal. A hurricane is associated with large rapid rising motions while subsiding air ahead of the storm lends to great heating.
After the 5pm news, we shot generic small town "boarding up" stories. John did most of the work as I was becoming less coherent...Zero sleep that day after a sleepless night.
No supper for me as Rockport was closing up. But I could skip a meal, I just wanted to sleep more than anything. I though I hadn't contributed much, but hoped to be more useful tomorrow.
We stayed the night at a Super 8 Motel in Port Aransas and I checked the Internet for hurricane data.
According to the National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Rita was now a Category 5 storm and strengthening rapidly between the Yucatan and Florida. Winds increased to 175mph and the pressure was really low, down to 26.49".
As far as the storm's track, we had plenty of time to position ourselves as landfall was more than 2 days away. But we likely needed to change our target more toward Galveston.
My mother might even need to evacuate Orange in far Southeast Texas. She never evacuated in her 40 years living there, but she might gotta go this time.
And we would get another early start the next morning as the Super 8 Motel was closing and kicking us out. Six hours of sleep.