Houstonians return to a near ghost town

By Mark Guarino

HOUSTON — Bayou Place is like any other mega entertainment complex in the downtowns of most major American cities. Like Navy Pier in Chicago, its many restaurants, movie theatres and live concert hall can accommodate hundreds of people.

Except on Monday afternoon, there were just four.

“Downtown is never like this,” said Chrystal Smith of Houston, walking with her husband and two children. “It’s kind of eerie.”

While the threats raised by hurricane Rita forced this city to evacuate starting Wednesday last week, it took until today for its residents to start slowly trickling back. They are greeted by a city that is familiar but different. Office towers are empty, movie theatres and restaurants are closed, only handfuls of people walk the streets and high-rise construction projects are quiet, drained of workers.

An afternoon drive through its downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, however, portray a city coming back to life: Near Rice University, plywood is being taken off those stores starting to open, although many are not. Bus service continues. And a Shell station, without gas since last Wednesday afternoon, is reporting that their pumps will be restocked starting Tuesday. “There’s no business,” said Domingo Medina, behind the counter. “There’s no making any money.”

Even though Houston was mostly spared of the major flooding and serious wind damage that struck their neighbors to the east, problems remain.

Rolling electrical blackouts persist here and many residents are having great difficulty getting back into town. A drive into Houston is slow, with Interstate 10 littered with dozens of abandoned cars, evidence of gas shortages and extreme desperation.

“This whole week has been hell for me,” said Jeremy Marsh, standing in the baking heat beside his car, dead due to a broken fuel pump. An apprentice plumber, he and his wife left town and camped in a tent in New Braunfels, Tex. until they ran out of money and were forced to get home.

“It’s hard. I’m out of gas, food, lodging. I wasn’t prepared for this,” he said, watching the interstate traffic. Besides getting his car running, he said his biggest worry is how he’ll afford to come up with $1,000 for next month’s rent, since that money was mostly spent on their flight.

“A tow truck would be great, but we have no money,” said his wife Wendy.

Last week’s traffic gridlock forced many Houston residents to stay put. “I just did not want to be stuck in traffic,” said Smith, a high school teacher who grew up partially in Naperville. Even though her family enjoyed the creature comforts of home, they were well aware it was not just another fall weekend.

“You wanted to get something to eat or see a movie and you couldn’t,” she said. “It was a ghost town.”

Those who chose to avoid interstate traffic tried farm roads that curved through small Texan towns. Exiting into the town of Glidden they were greeted by Angie Galvan, owner of Ms. Molly’s a small wood-paneled bar sitting beside the interstate. Since last Wednesday, she has served as a sort of beacon for travelers, giving out directions, water, liquor, advice and allowing many to sleep on her front lawn. One man, on his way to Mexico, left her the keys to his stalled trailer he abandoned on her lawn. He is wiring her money so a mechanic can get it running upon his return.

“I’m sure my water bill is going to be tremendous, but that’s okay,” she said. “Everyone asked if they could just come in and of course we welcomed them.”

Galvan said she counted 52 abandoned cars on the interstate this weekend. One driver, Maruti More, an investment manager from Houston who fled to Dallas, hopes he won’t be one of them. He returns to his car after Galvan gives him alternate directions. Still, he can’t help be shaken by what lies ahead. “No gas,” he said. “That’s the most important worry.”

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