Witness: Surviving a big hurricane in the big city
HOUSTON (Reuters) - The night before Hurricane Ike made landfall in Texas almost three years ago, four of us were packed into one hotel room in downtown Houston. Security knocked on the door requesting that we sign a waiver promising not to sue if we were killed in the storm.
As we worked through the night to cover the storm for Reuters, the winds really picked up. You could see and feel the thick glass in the hotel window move back and forth. Large pieces of twisted metal flew by the window. We had a front row seat to watch windows shatter and pop in nearby skyscrapers, including Enron's old headquarters. The hotel's rooftop skylight blew out, raining glass on floors below.
We had made a flurry of preparations to ensure our news bureau would continue to run. Bottled water was purchased, cars were gassed up and hotel reservations were made. We brought cots into the office.
A colleague and I went to the supermarket to buy food for everyone who would be working day and night in coming weeks. There, we encountered long lines and people pushing shopping carts brimming with bottles of wine and six packs of beer.
Days earlier, when forecasts had put the strong Category 2 storm on course for a direct hit in Galveston Island, only 50 miles from downtown Houston, my stomach started to hurt. It really hurt.
As Ike moved closer, I made a quick dash to my apartment where I moved all the furniture away from the windows and covered it with blankets. I moved all the plants off my balcony and made a nest at the back of the closet for my cat, Pete. I locked the door and hoped for the best.
By the time the winds died down, the cost for damage from Ike, the last hurricane to make landfall in the United States was $19 billion. The storm, which hit on September 13, 2008, killed more than 100 people, many of whom stayed home in coastal areas to ride out the storm.
The streets in Houston's downtown were impassable the morning after the hurricane, filled with broken window glass, fallen trees and other debris. A brick wall toppled at our office building. Once inside, the glass walkway to the parking garage was obliterated. Water was pooled everywhere but there was electricity so we could work in the air conditioning.
Power was out throughout much of the city for weeks. Roofs were gone, homes were battered and hundreds of the city's massive old live oak trees were felled. Two of us went for a drive in an SUV rented by the company. Stoplights were out and we had to drive the wrong way down streets to avoid debris. Some roads were blocked by deep pools of water.
People gathered around outlets at places like Target to charge their cell phones. Gas pumps did not work, a crippling blow for a city that relies heavily on transportation by car.
Some homes and businesses did not have electricity restored for weeks. My apartment building, which was largely spared wind and water damage, did not have power or water for two weeks. I had nowhere else to stay. Hotels were booked from Houston to Austin, 180 miles away.
To prepare, I had filled both my bathtubs with water, but only one stayed filled. After a week that water ran out, so I would take a bucket to the pool and fill it so I could flush the toilet. At night I would sit on the balcony reading until the sun went down.
Everything in my freezer melted, but it was days before I had time to clean it up. A box of Popsicles melted, leaving a sticky rainbow-colored mess. Chicken rotted and to this day, I think the freezer still smells funny.
Very hot weather returned to Houston days after the storm, pushing up the temperature in my apartment as high as 90 degrees (32 Celsius). To escape, I slept on the balcony on a quilt, wishing for a mosquito net. I showered at friends' houses who had water or in hotel rooms that visiting reporters were occupying.
Finally after two weeks, life returned mostly to normal. It took about a year for all the broken windows in the city's skyscrapers to be repaired. Some houses still are covered with the blue tarps meant to be a temporary fix for storm-damaged roofs. People are still fighting with the government and insurance companies over hurricane claims.
I was a hurricane novice who had good advice from colleagues who had weathered a number of storms and knew not to underestimate their power. If Irene blows through New York, I can only imagine what it will mean for a city that can be slowed by heavy rain.
And if you're wondering what became of Pete, the cat -- he was just fine.
(Reporting by Anna Driver in Houston; Editing by Claudia Parsons)
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