Coverage of Rita from Two Houston Apartments

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The End of the Season

It's been a few months now since hurricane Rita nearly hit Houston. It seems like everything has returned to normal, but that's clearly an overstatement. We're far from normal still:

The 2005 hurricane season has been the most active season ever recorded. It's January 3, 2006, and tropical storm Zeta, the 27th storm of the 2005 season, is still active. No season ever before had exhausted the alloted first names, no season before had to use Greek names, and the 2005 season needed six! Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta! Only Beta and Epsilon became hurricanes, and none of them did enough damage to be retired (if a storm does enough damage, its name won't be reused), but think about it: What does it even mean to retire a storm that's just a generic Greek letter?

In the aftermath of Katrina, hundreds of thousands of Louisiana residents fled to Houston. 25,000 were supposed to be housed in the Astrodome, about a mile from where I live. In the end, only about 11,000 were placed there, and they were evacuated when Rita approached Houston (how convenient - no one wanted them there, especially not me), but Greater Houston has grown by over 250,000 people - a quarter of a million! - due to Katrina.

While I'm fortunate that I can't say I've personally made an unpleasant experience, crime rates have spiked in Houston. I can't cite official sources yet, but the local news were full of incidents. It's sad, but it makes sense: The people that fled New Orleans and then decided to stay had nothing to go back to. They were poor in New Orleans already, and they still are poor. And while by all means not every poor person is a criminal, no one doubts that chronic, concentrated poverty breeds crime.

Rita missed Houston, and the 2005 hurricane season seems to be finally coming to an end now, early in 2006, but the damage done to Houston cannot even be estimated right now.

Thanks again for reading.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Some Post-Rita Links

I just found the blog of the Houston Chronicle. I guess it's a good idea to link it. It contains some interesting facts about the storm and the evacuation:

"Texas safely evacuated approximately 2.7 million people - equivalent of the population of Kansas - in harm's way in 36 hours," the governor's office said.

Rice's emergency website is also interesting to read. It states, for example:

The campus experienced no flooding - indeed, virtually no standing water -- and only 1.01" of rain as of noon, Saturday, September 24. The highest wind gust recorded on campus was 65 mph.

Ok, I think it's time for me to get ready for bed. This was another long day.

More Trees

I biked to the office tonight to turn some of the servers in my group back on. On the way, I encountered a few more downed trees, and branches were scattered everywhere. I have to commend the residents of Southside Place, the island city (not part of Houston!) to the South of Rice through which my bike commute takes me: A lot of them had already cleaned up their yards and the street in front of their homes and stacked neatly cut pieces of wood next to their trash bins.

Rice's heavily wooded campus was hit pretty hard too. Rita had turned the engineering quad next to Duncan Hall, the building housing the Computer Science department, into an obstacle course. Some parts of Duncan Hall were strangely dark; it seems like only the emergency lighting was on. The fridge in our lab had been switched off, probably to minimize the power surge when the electricity is restored after an outage, so that was an ugly mess I had to fix. Fortunately, at home I followed an optimistic strategy: I would have turned my appliances off only after an outage had actually occurred ;-)

Keeping all the trees in mind, I have to admit that Rita was probably stronger than I had expected, even here in Houston. I'm very relieved that nothing worse happened. This was a crazy week, and I'm looking forward to the day normality has returned. The world is incredibly small, though: One of my friends reported at dinner tonight that her neighbor's wife died in the bus accident near Dallas. I'm three degrees removed from a person who lost her life this weekend. It's a potent reminder that some things will never be as they were.

(Not Too Exciting) Pictures

Ok, as promised, I've uploaded the pictures I've taken before, during, and after hurricane Rita.

Here are a bunch of pictures from Friday afternoon:

This is a view down the stairs to my apartment. I anticipated a lot of debris around here.

My balcony and living room window (and the satellite dish the previous tenant forgot). The window is covered with cardboard on the inside.
The top window is my bedroom window. I covered this window with cardboard too.
This is a view down the path between the apartment buildings towards the parking lot. My apartment is the upstairs apartment to the right.
Here's the parking lot. Usually, there are a lot more cars parked here.

This is Kirby Drive, right around the time the afternoon rush hour usually happens.

Braes Bayou. Not too much water. I've seen the bayou overflow on several occasions. It might happen again.

Right around the time the eye of the storm hit, I took a walk. The pictures are dark and grainy, but what the heck.

I was right about the debris around my staircase.

There are branches sticking out from my balcony.

A pretty big branch is blocking my way to the parking lot.

I know it's hard to see, but there's a tree here that has fallen over.

I didn't take any more pictures during the storm, there just wasn't more to show. Here are a few pictures taken after the storm:

I taped a layer of cardboard to my windows and covered it with trashbags. Not nearly as sturdy as plywood and also on the inside of my windows, but I'm confident it would have kept the rain out had a small object shattered a window.

Leaves and twigs outside my apartment door.

Here are daylight pictures of the tree that had fallen over.

There were more tree branches lying about. The first one probably could have damaged a car had one parked there.
And that's all, folks. Nothing more to show.

Saturday, September 24, 2005


I just came back from a 15-minute walk through the storm. After Justin told me he biked through it to get pizza, I decided I had to experience the storm first-hand too. It's not raining a lot, and there's almost no flooding. Maybe an inch of rain.

The wind is pretty strong. I know for a fact that I wouldn't want to be biking now. I'd be too scared that the gusts would push me over. For a walk by foot, the weather was very nice, though. It just felt very invigorating. Quite often I had to lean forward against the wind to walk, and the wires of the power lines were humming quite a bit. A tree had fallen over in the parking lot of my apartment complex, and there were a lot of bigger and smaller tree branches lying about.

I saw three cars during the entire time. One was a police car. I guess I misunderstood the curfew thing: It seems like it's just in the mandatory evacuation zones. The wind chimes were still there.


No, I just heard again that there is a curfew in place from dusk till dawn even where I live. So I guess both Justin and I have been curfew breakers. I'm glad the police car didn't stop, even though it's amusing to entertain the thought of getting arrested for walking around tonight ;-)

Power outage about to happen?

Ok, I just posted the last few lines of text because my light has been flickering here. I was afraid I might lose power after all. My router and WiFi are backed up by a UPS for about 40 minutes, and I'm typing this on a notebook, but I figured if power lines are being toppled over, phone lines probably aren't faring any better.

Where was I? Right, flying debris. When I strolled around the apartment complex this afternoon, I noticed that some of my idiot neighbors had left their wind chimes hanging out on their balconies. Great. Are they still gonna be as charming when they fly into someone's face? For a brief moment I thought about taking one. Hey, it's not my fault that the storm made them disappear from your place and reappear at my place, right?

Anyway, if they left wind chimes out, they probably also left other things out there, like flower pots, beer bottles, and ash trays, turning their balconies into neat missile sites during this hurricane. Thanks. I feel better now in a room without a window, even though it's a little bit cramped in here.

The storm is going to make landfall within the hour, it seems. Rita, you haven't hit us. Please be gentle whoever you are hitting.

Less than feared, more than necessary

I agree with Justin. So far, Rita hasn't been as bad as we all have feared here in Houston. Right now, it seems like most of my precautions will not be necessary. The power here at my place is still up, so is DSL. I'm confident that it will actually stay that way. While it's raining hard and the wind is howling, Houston appears to have gotten only about an inch of rain. There shouldn't be any flooding. Most likely, the stores should be open on Sunday, perhaps on Monday again. Houston's return to normality should be quick.

I have to admit, though, that I am a little freaked out nonetheless. This is a strong storm, probably the strongest I've experienced in my five years here in Texas. At least I'm pretty sure there hasn't been a storm like this in the year and a half since I've been in my apartment. I would have remembered. Several times during the last half hour, I've heard how flying objects have hit my walls or windows, so I've decided not to take the chance of still being hit by shards of glass, and I've moved into my hurricane shelter (a.k.a. my walk-in closet). I've taped cardboard and trashbags against my window, so if something broke my windows, the glass wouln't go flying everywhere anyway, but you never know.

Wow... Lots of power fluctuations right now. My ceiling light is going bright, dim, bright, dim, so I better push this out.

Friday, September 23, 2005


So far I've been unimpressed by Rita. Most of the clouds have not yet reached my location, so maybe I'm in for a surprise later tonight.

The black dot is me.

Definitely looks like friends are on the way to greet me. By friends I mean massive winds and thousands of droplets of water.

[Edit] Thanks to ImageShack for Free Image Hosting.

Here it comes

It's just started to rain here. It's not much of a rain, really, more of just a sprinkling. The wind has been increasing steadily all afternoon. Now it's strong enough that gusts affect the movement of my car. The street is scattered with plant debris -- it's a mess and the hurricane hasn't even really come yet.

I swam this afternoon, a measly 1,000 yards. The pool was already trashed. Insects, plastic bags, leaves, larger insects filled it. I gulped and decided to get in some exercise anyway. A good analogy, I thought, to mankind's dominance over nature. It exists absolutely when we're around, turning the pool in to a paradise oasis, but the moment we stop exerting our energy and effort to purify it and bend the landscape to our will, it collapses. With workers gone, the pool is now a mess.

As predicted, there are still runners on the outer loop. They all look quite fast, leading me to suspect that only the die-hard runners are continuing their training under these conditions.


I'm 25 years old now, almost 26. I haven't had a curfew for nearly ten years. Guess what? Starting today, I can't be outside after dark: The city of Houston has instated a curfew from dusk till dawn. Law enforcement officers will be enforcing the curfew.

I also just heard that the Astrodome will be the staging area for the recovery effort. That's good! Whatever serious damage will be done to the area Justin and I live in and Rice University is located in, help should reach us quickly.

Took a Walk

I just took a 10-minute walk around my area of town. Justin is right, the winds are pretty strong already. Trees are swaying, and I've seen some dust twisters. I was wearing shorts, and the sand blowing along the ground was moving so fast, it was hurting my legs. It's not wind like we've never experienced it, it's probably going about 25 mph, but considering that the wind will probably get three, four times stronger, this is frightening.

The city is almost dead. I'm pretty sure that two thirds of the residents in my complex have left. The parking lot is nearly empty, the parking lots of the nearby stores are absolutely deserted. During my walk along Kirby, one of the major arteries in this part of Houston, I've probably seen ten cars. I snapped some pictures for comparison purposes. I don't know if I can upload them already, I need to find the drivers for my laptop, but I'll try.

The wind is there, the clouds look pretty threatening already, but what just makes the situation really eerie is the temperature: It's still pretty damn hot, 94 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). With that heat and so few people around, it feels more like a nuclear missile struck somewhere nearby. Not like I have any experience to base that comparison on.

Rice evacuating dorms

Rice University Housing department has decided that some dormitories are unsafe and has ordered a mandatory evacuation. For now, I know that all of Weiss and the new Brown wing (quads) have been deemed unfit to weather the storm due to the amount of glass that they have.

All of Weiss is being moved into the commons (South Servery) starting at around 7:00 tonight. Brown is being moved into Brown Tower, to stay inside along the hallways.

Even in those places, I am not sure how safe the students will be. The South Servery particularly is made of high, arched walls covered mostly with glass.

For now, I'm duct-taping my blinds to my windows in the vain attempt to contain the glass should the windows break.

Everything Packed Up

Right now I'm lounging in my bed. I've even considering going to sleep again for a little while. I didn't sleep very much during the night, there were just too many things going through my mind... need to pack the raingear... need to put the books and computers away... have to take my passport... should find out what my renter's insurance covers... I woke up every five minutes.

Now everything I can do is done. I have moved all my books into my closet and wrapped them in plastic bags. My computers are all in the closet, also in plastic bags. I've put a chair in. This is going to be my hurricane shelter. I'm pretty sure I'll be safe. Rita has weakened to a category 3 storm, and it's predicted to make landfall right along the Texas-Louisiana border.

I already feel incredibly relieved. I'm happy that most likely I'll get spared this time. I hope this isn't premature, and it still makes me wonder what would happen if a category 5 hit Houston dead-on. Not a pretty thought.

In a little while, I'll go outside to take a few "before" pictures. If the storm actually changes the landscape, they might be interesting later.


I went to Rice today for lunch because it's the only place I know of serving food. The wind is starting. On the drive there I saw a number of trees swaying, invisible hands carrying leaves around in circles. These are definitely hurricane winds.

At Rice, the kitchens are operating way above capacity. Many tens of people who don't usually are eating there today, from the Rice campus maintenance staff to old grandmothers apparently accompanying their children. in the Hanszen commons it is difficult to make out more than a few Hanszenites among the crowd.

I leave Rice and the wind is slightly worse. The trees sway just a bit more. Next to the medical center stand 3 massive cranes -- probably 20 stories or more. They're abandoned now, their long arms hanging uselessly over the city like eaves of a tree. I imagine one of those falling could do quite a bit of damage to the surrounding area. It's too bad I don't have a video camera.

Good Morning

I tried to sleep for a few hours, but wasn't really successful. Too often, I remembered things I still needed to do. What a pity, with all my windows boarded up, it was really dark in my apartment. Maybe I'll just leave them like this ;-)

On doppler radar, the first heavy clouds are rolling in. I still haven't decided where I'll go, but I'm shutting down most of my computers now. I'm sure I'll be able to post again, though.


Maybe I shouldn't say the things I'm about to say because the storm hasn't passed yet, and maybe I do end up getting hurt or killed, but I just don't expect that, so here I go:

I just don't understand all these people. Why are they fleeing even if they're not in a mandatory evacuation zone? The mayor of Houston finally told people who live outside of mandatory evacuation zones to stay at home and not leave. He should have done that all along. Now there are millions of people out clogging the roads who had no reason to leave except for their anxiety disorder.

Why did they leave? Probably because they felt uncomfortable here. Most likely because they didn't want to lose power or internet access for a few days, because they didn't want to sit in their homes without air conditioning. For that latter reason, many of them kept their cars running while they were sitting in the traffic jams. Interstate 45 towards Dallas was backed up for 100 miles today. Now, about 12 hours before we'll start to feel the effects of Rita, it is still backed up for 90 miles. According to some reports, it took some people 15 hours to move 20 miles. Thousands of motorists have run out of fuel now (yes, morons, an engine needs gas even if you have it in idle). I'm really worried that not everyone who's still on the road will be able to get to a safe shelter before Rita gets here. Unfortunately, I'm convinced that we're gonna get another lesson about how bad panic is.

The force of nature is awesome, but it takes people to really fuck themselves in the ass.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Election 2000

Somehow the Rita coverage on TV reminds me of election night in 2000. The meteorologist always says that "the eye wobbles too much", so he doesn't quite trust the projected path. In case you're not up to date, the path has moved past Houston and is supposed to miss the part of Houston where Justin and I live almost completely. We might not even get hurricane force winds.

Anyway, I just really hope the meteorologists know what they're doing, that Rita will actually pass Houston on the East. But in the end, all these predictions are so much less than certain: In 2000, Florida was supposed to go to Gore (yeah, I know... it really did), because all these Democratic votes were expected to come in, but they never did (good work, Katherine Harris!).

Greetings from another Houston apartment

Hi! This is my first post on this blog, so I guess I should introduce myself: My name is Mathias, I'm a graduate student in the Computer Science department of Rice University. I live in a one-bedroom apartment a little South of Rice's campus. I'm right next to Braes Bayou, so I expect some flooding for a couple of days, but since I'm on the 2nd floor, I'm not worried about that. There are cracks in my walls, and the windows and doors don't shut properly, so I am worried about wind damage. I can't really imagine that the storm tears my apartment's roof off. Does that really happen? My apartment complex has been described as "ghetto", but I really love it. It's my home.

I just saw that my neighbors covered their windows with clear packaging tape, not even duct tape. As if that's gonna do anything. I still feel like I should do something. I don't have plywood, unfortunately, but I have a lot of cardboard. I realize that's not going to do a whole lot, but maybe it keeps the windows from being blown away completely. If at all possible, I want to keep the rain out. Wet carpet, wet furniture, wet books, wet PCs... all not so good. But should I tape it to the inside or the outside? Right now I think to the inside. That way, the cardboard doesn't get soaked right away.

I'll also move my books and some of my furniture away from the windows. Justin has offered to help me move my computers out of my apartment. I'll probably take him up on that offer tomorrow. I haven't made up my mind if I'm going to leave my apartment. I'll definitely stay in Houston, though. I don't feel like my life is in danger, I don't feel like I'll get hurt, so I want to stay where I can protect my property and help my friends.

Today, Rice changed its message for graduate students. It used to say "stay in the graduate apartments; if you're off-campus, you're welcome in our on-campus shelter in McNair Hall". Now they told all students in the graduate apartments to move to McNair Hall. I'm puzzled by that. Does that mean the graduate apartments aren't safe? They're probably in much better shape than my apartment complex. In light of that, I have started to pack my trekking backpack with clothing, blanket, pillow, and medication, so I can leave if I feel like I need to leave my apartment behind and take shelter at Rice. Tropical storm force winds are expected to hit Houston around 3 PM on Friday, hurricane force winds around 7 PM, so I'll make the decision to move out so I can get to safety before 7 PM.

For the last 18 hours, the projected path has moved so far East towards Louisiana, though, that my part of Houston isn't even expected to have hurricane force winds. Rita also isn't category 5 anymore, as expected it died town to a healthy category 4. Of course, all of that isn't certain. Rita might still hit Houston hard. And even if we get lucky and it misses, this storm poses some important questions: What would have happened if a category 5 storm hits Houston? Shouldn't Houston prepare for this eventuality? Overland power lines and wood houses probably aren't adequate.

I'll post a few more times. Then there'll be silence. I expect that the power will be out for a few days... some people even say for up to two weeks. I know I'll be alive and well, and I'll do my best to let you know so you don't have to be worried. Thanks for reading.


Elspeth, I love you! I don't know how you found this so quickly, but thank you for caring so much.

I'm hungry :-( is a popular website that lists restaurants that deliver to various college campuses around the nation. As of now, every restaurant listed for Rice is closed.

I called Jason's Deli, a popular sandwich shop, in hopes that the website is wrong. No answer. I also called Shiva Indian Restaurant, probably my favorite restaurant in the city... straight to voicemail. Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant, the only restaurant I know of that's open until around 4:00 AM every night, also seems to be closed.

I guess I have to roam the city in search of food. I never planned to start cooking for myself this early out. It's still over a full day before the hurricane's landfall is expected.

[Edit: 8:20 PM] I've heard reports that the Kroeger on Montrose is open. Anyone needing food should probably head there and buy something frozen. Fat chance they'll still have anything left, though. Argh.

[Edit: 8:27 PM] I've also heard that the Rice serveries are going to continue to serve food like planned. Apparently they're also prepared to give out army-style "ready made meals" or whatever they're called if the storm gets bad enough.


A few streaks of daylight remain to show me that the sky is no longer an unlit blue, but rather a grayish murk. Clouds are starting to drift in and they change the heavens from what would be a twilight rainbow into cold steel.

As I drop my girlfriend off at Rice after an afternoon of television, I notice that the city is starting to show its desertion. The normal bustle of a Thursday night, twenty-somethings preparing for a pub crawl, relaxed middle-aged men driving away their midlife crises in convertibles, is replaced with an eerie sense of purpose. The number of cars on the road feels more appropriate for Sunday night at 3:00 AM than for Thursday. You know anyone out driving at 3:00 AM has somewhere they really want to go. It feels like that now.

I run traffic signals carelessly on the way back to my apartment because the streets are nearly empty. Nobody's going to stop me; no one is around to care. Even the parking lots are empty. Rice University doesn't have many parking lots for its students, and the ones near the dormitories are coveted -- now they are empty as well.

The single shred of normalcy that persists are the runners of the Outer Loop. The dirt trail around Rice University hosts hundreds of runners per day, rain or shine. Will they still be running when Rita arrives?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

It's getting worse

I have to wonder whether the frenzy caused by this hurricane will be worse than the damage itself. On the way home from dinner at a nice Indian restaurant named Shiva, gas station lines were pouring out into the street. The prices seem to be the same so far, but I'm sure that's going to change soon.

Rice University is suggesting that all off-campus students come to stay at the school. They allegedly have food for everyone for three days. The master of Brown college evacuated his family but stayed to oversee things there. He said his family was stuck in stop-and-go traffic for hours trying to get out of the city.

I heard from another friend that usual 5-hour drive between Texas and Dallas is taking people 17 hours. There is only one major freeway between those locations, but still...

My roommate is evacuating tonight to college station. He hopes that by leaving at 5 AM the roads will be clear.

All the major grocery stores are fully shutting down for this weekend. The Kroeger where I usually shop is closing tomorrow at 5:00 in preparation.

The apartment complex leasing office closed today, and proceeded to be boarded up with plywood by some anonymous contractors. When I spoke to them earlier today, they had no advice for us except to stay indoors. When pressed, the staff confessed that they were leaving Houston. They said they would be OK with any damages that come about from us attempting to defend our apartments (such as nails in the wall).

The hurricane's predicted path has now been adjusted to send the brunt of it within 40-50 miles of Houston. The wind speeds are reportedly over 170 miles per hour.

I've just gotten word that Rice University has cancelled classes this Thursday and Friday, and most campus events have been cancelled through Monday. Rice is advising that off-campus students (like me) come on campus and stay there. Presumably they'll have food and water and other things.

A friend asked me, what are we supposed to do until it hits? Just stay home tomorrow and freak out?

I, for one, plan to be barracading my windows the best I can. Unfortunately for the windows, my apartment is on the second floor which means covering them with plywood is going to be impossible. I guess we'll try to secure them with trash bags and tape the best we can.

I'm not too concerned about dying from this disaster, but I definitely think my apartment could be wrecked. Argh.

It must be really bad for the Katrina refugees, too. They just went through all hell to relocate to Houston, and now there's a hurricane coming here, too. Oh the irony.

3 days out

It's Wednesday and already the stores are running out of supplies. I managed to find a privately owned one near my apartment complex. They were sold out of water and the people inside seemed agitated. I decided to grab a good amount of Gatorade and other healthy-enough drinks to keep my apartment stocked in case the worst happened.

Down the street a Walgreens still had a decent amount of food inside. As I was there, at least three women entered the store asking for flashlights. Of course, they were sold out of those. I did manage to pick up a few gallons of water.

Classes were still in session today, so I parked nearby and went. Rice's President's house, that of Dr. Leebron, is right next to the street near Brown College.

A team of contractors was there, methodically boarding up every single window of the building.