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Hurricane Rita spares Houston, but effects widely felt in area

By P.J. WILLIAMS
Though the eye of the Hurricane Rita spared Houston the brunt of the storm, northeast Houston businesses, residents, and shelters still felt its effects.
Both I-45 and Highway 59 looked more like parking lots starting Wednesday night. On portions of the roadways, motorists moved only one mile in one hour. Gas stations and along both freeways were slammed by waves of evacuees long before Rita made landfall. At all open gas stations, cars lined down the feeder roads for a turn at the pumps.


The worst hit convenience stores were those located within easy walking distance of the freeway. Several evacuees heard untrue rumors that entrance ramps to the highways were closed. Rather than risk getting off the freeway, many motorists parked in the grass or shoulder and walked to stores that were in sight. Clerks could not keep the bathrooms clean and store lots were littered with trash.
Many motorists even walked to Jed’s ACE Hardware looking for a restroom. Jed’s remained open until 7pm Thursday. They sold out of batteries, flashlights, lamp oil and wicks. They did, however, receive a shipment of generators on Thursday morning. Jed’s reopened Sunday morning with 45 generators. By Wednesday, all the generators were sold, even those priced over $1,500.00.
The generators were needed by northeast residents who lost electricity late Friday night or early Saturday morning. CenterPoint Energy worked quickly and most residents had power back within 24 hours. But some in the northeast, including High Meadows North and some businesses along I-45 did not receive electricity until late Wednesday.
The Salvation Army on Aldine Westfield was one of the most popular places during the storm. As Rita approached, the center still housed over 50 Katrina survivors. The Salvation Army’s staff brought their family members to the shelter Thursday night so that they would be where they were needed, bringing another 40 people to the facility. Several motorists who made it as far as Tidwell and Highway 59 but were low on gas sought shelter at the Salvation Army as well as nearby residents who considered the block and brick building safer than their homes. On Thursday night, the center sheltered 200 people, and 378 on Friday night.
“You couldn’t walk two inches without running into somebody,” said staff member Forest Drexler. Evacuees were housed in all the facility’s rooms: the gym, teen room, library, classrooms, and offices. The shelter has only 130 air mattresses so many people slept on folded blankets.
The Salvation Army was full of excitement during the storm. At 3:00 am Friday, one of the women staying at the shelter went into labor. Drexler said the EMS arrived quickly and took the woman to LBJ Hospital where she had the baby at 4:40am. Later, during the height of the storm, thieves were caught on video breaking into cars in the shelter’s parking lot. Again, Drexler said the police arrived within minutes, however the thieves escaped. At 7 am Saturday, the Salvation Army lost electricity and most of those staying there returned home. Power returned to the center by 6am Sunday.
Before Rita, the Salvation Army had planned to cease functioning as a shelter on October 1 since most of the Katrina evacuees are now in apartments. The remaining Katrina survivors are to be placed in one centralized shelter. However, on Wednesday, area command named the Aldine Westfield Salvation Army as a shelter for Rita victims.
“We’re taking anybody that is having any kind of problems: lost power, water, damaged houses,” Drexler said.
Many groups and individuals have donated to the Salvation Army, but those supplies were exhausted by the 3,000 Katrina survivors helped by the charity. Thirty new Rita evacuees arrived at the Aldine Westfield shelter on Wednesday, the first day it was opened to Rita victims. Now the center needs more sheets, blankets, towels, toiletries, meat and milk. “We’ve got lots of little kids and meat is a major thing,” Drexler explained. In addition to donations of meat and milk, the center welcomes any group that would like to take charge of cooking dinner for a night using the center’s kitchen. “At first a lot of people were donating and helping. Now it has slacked off. I guess people are getting tired,” he said.
Volunteers of all sorts are also welcome. Drexler has been home only two nights in the last 27 days, and the rest of the center’s small staff is working equally hard. “The only way we get breaks is if people come in and donate their time,” he said. If you are interested in volunteering or donating items, please call in advance at 713-694-5688.