ďAll things work together for good.Ē
Around 5 a.m. I was completing the final house check. My irreplaceables and a few things I considered valuable filled my carís trunk. The cat, uncooperatively corralled in a vet-inspired sack made of sport jersey material, occupied the floorboard on one side of the back seat, his litter box on the other. I closed the garage door for what I hoped would not be the last time. We headed north.
The four-lane highway narrowed to two just outside of town. Before long, I saw the remains of yesterdayís agonizing mass exodus. Here and there a car or truck or van littered the highway shoulder. They were victims of summerís heat or a gas tank drained dry. The further I drove, the more of them I saw. Steel ghosts hunkered down under the heavy humidity of a deep south morning.
I hated leaving so late, maybe 12 hours ahead of the storm. But it couldnít be helped. At work, we were still dealing with Hurricane Katrina from only three weeks before. Some of my co-workers in New Orleans had been plucked by helicopter from the roof of a hotel adjacent to our corporate offices. Everybody scattered. Some came to work in my state, in my building. Now they fled a second time with many of us. This time we fled Hurricane Rita.
My parents left a couple of days before, following younger friends 60 miles north to their relativeís home. But the call soon came for them to flee further and they fortuitously escaped ahead of the masses and caravanned to yet another home just inside a neighboring state. My brother and his wife fled east, then backtracked. I wasnít sure where they were.
As the dawn unfurled, cars appeared from nowhere. A sense of frenzy took over. About 100 miles from home, traffic slowed to as little as five miles an hour. Two lanes of highway dedicated to the hordes crawling north became one agonizingly slow lane. Locals needed to drive, too. I started to get a migraine. It was bright and hot -- a heat that radiated into the car. I pulled over into a grassy area and joined a dozen others who turned a large tree into a restroom area. No other choice.
My desperation built. My newly married niece and her husband lived here with his parents. What was his fatherís name? I only met them once. Dear Lord, help me. The name popped clearly into my head. Information had the number. I called. Can I stop for just a little while? Come and stay, they said. Thank you, Lord, I whispered. I didnít tell them about the cat. But it was OK. They had one, too.
The next day I stood on the back porch at this impromptu family gathering of old and new loved ones and watched the storm move over the city. The strength of the wind stunned me. So many miles inland yet the tall southern pines bent to the ground and swayed as though shaken by a giant, invisible hand. What was happening at home?
One more night and I needed to leave. No one was allowed to re-enter down south, so I moved on to join my twice-evacuated parents at my sisterís house. Years had passed since I last drove my elderly parents there for a pleasant visit. Our family was small and spread thin Ė everybody had their own lives. We loved each other but moved in different circles.
It was a full day's drive before I walked into my sisterís home. Mother was so relieved she almost cried. Another frenzy began. Phone calls. Finding friends. Networking to learn about damages. Working through recoveryís red tape. FEMA, Red Cross, Salvation Army, insurance adjustors. And I was working my real job, too. Just at a distance.
More work to rebuild when we all got home. But the whole family did it together. Everyone.
Something changed forever....
Last weekend was my stepfatherís birthday. A cousin I met only once before happened to be visiting my parents. My sister came down with her daughter and son-in-law. My brother made a point to come by while we were all there, even though he was working long, hard nights at a local plant. It was an effort on everybodyís part to be in one place at one time.
And it was a joy. It was the legacy of Hurricane Rita.
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