by Mark Guarino
AUSTIN — They spend their day inching for hours along a highway, some temporarily stranded with cars that ran out of gas. They spend their night sleeping on a gymasium floor, lined with their belongings. They spent their morning unsure if they could return to their homes or if their way of life was forever lost.
Yet these hurricane Rita evacuees from greater Houston — thousands who found refuge in schools, recreation centers and hospitals throughout Austin — the word many use to describe the last 48 hours is “blessing.” They arrived here in retreat and what they encountered far exceeded their expectations.
“We had a great response from the community here,” said Lorena Izaguirre, 29, of Anahuac, Tex. “They donated air mats, pillows, toothpaste, shampoo, anything you can think of.”
Still, creature comforts are no remedy for the anxiety many feel here Saturday. Katrina swept through the lower Gulf Coast in the early morning hours, moving slightly east of Houston. Although the devastation was not as extreme in the city as predicted, electricity is down, there is extensive storm damage and the city is officially closed by the state.
The news did not deter many people to strike out on the highway Saturday and attempt a desperate return home, despite pleas to stay put.
“As soon as we said (Houston was stable), people got up and left,” said Aaron Murdoch, 19, a Red Cross volunteer at Lamar High School on Austin’s northwest side.
The remainder of people left at Lamar were families who did not want a repeat of their journey to Austin: crawling highway traffic, gas shortages and, what will be worse, the news that police are turning cars back once they arrive.
“All these people (who left) are going to be in the same situation,” said Izaguirre, a consultant for the concrete industry. She and her family plan to stay until they get an official word to return. It’s a decision born from experience — when driving to Austin, one family car ran out of gas due to drainage from the air conditioning, kept continually on to help soothe a child suffering from asthma. In the meantime, Izaguirre finds herself busy with a new job: translator to help Red Cross volunteers communicate with the mostly Spanish-speaking evacuees.
In the shelter, kids are treated to videos and play football outside with volunteers. Lamar was one of the few schools that continued to operate Friday.
“Everybody makes neighbors,” said Augustin Amaya, a 52-year-old pipe operator also from Anahuac, a small town east of Houston where most people live in trailers full-time and that is likely under water. Relatives from Dallas have already told him there is no electricity and many homes are destroyed. “It’s scary,” he said. “We have to wait.”
For Martin Manriques and Lidia Urbina, the evacuation was their first time they left their home in Houston. “We never thought we’d take a vacation,” joked Manruiques, speaking through an interpreter. “We are worried not knowing if we still have a home or not.”
Watching over all the evacuees is Pauline Clements, a nurse who lives outside Champaign, Ill. A Red Cross volunteer who in her real life works for the Illinois Dep. of Public Health checking nursing homes throughout the state, she arrived in Houston Wednesday and was later reassigned to Austin. Lamar is the second shelter she worked at and she expects to transfer back to Houston next week.
The only nurse here, Clements is administrating care, minor and major. She has taken care of a vomiting baby, helped a woman who was nine months pregnant and suffering from high blood pressure, plus is diligent about making every evacuee continually wash their hands. “I don’t want any bad infections going on,” she said.
Rita is her first taste of emergency work. “You get close to the people,” she said. “When I left the first shelter, I was crying. A little girl drew me a picture and gave me a hug. It’s been rewarding.”
Clements joins the evacuees in the waiting game. Life for all inches by, minute-by-minute. People here have no choice but to live life minute-by-minute. In a strange twist, knowing nothing is a relief and many feel happy they are alive and together.
“This is our home,” said Izaguirre. “For now.”