Bow Down Rita

Bow Down Rita

There I was, arriving in Houston just as all of Houston was fixin’ to get out of Dodge. Workers and residents of the city were heading for higher ground as Hurricane Rita, a Category 5 storm, came barreling out of The Gulf of Mexico straight for them. I have always considered myself a Category 5 woman, blowing into every situation with boisterous confidence, bold exuberance and self-generated hoopla. On this day, I was storming into the great state of Texas all the way from the small, but equally great state of New Joisy to see my baby, now a six-foot freshman at Rice University. Blessed with an ignorance of natural disasters and a faith bordering on hubris, I had no intention of running from Rita. A battle brewed and, while this fight appeared to be a tad mismatched (“Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner, weighing in at the size of Wyoming, Rita. And in this corner, at 120 pounds, Mama Marci”, one thought raced through my veins in a counterclockwise rotation: “Bring it on, Sister, bring… it… on!”   Rita may have been packing 150-mile-per hour winds, storm surges of 20 feet and the occasional tornado, but I was armed with a few days of hard-won vacation, a non-refundable airline ticket and the insatiable desire to squeeze the stuffing out of my boy, now 1400 miles from my grasp.

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21. I sit in traffic and long gas lines as the airport-shuttle driver smacks the steering wheel repeatedly, applying the age-old theory of “if I push the elevator button with staccato jabs it will sense my need for immediate rescue and appear with all due speed.” Lines of commuters, three deep, wait at bus stops. The radio advises us that Rita will be the worst storm to hit Houston since the Ice Age. I sit quietly and calmly as my fellow passengers make frantic phone calls to relatives and friends. “I don’t know when I’ll get there, y’all. We’re stuck in traffic and the van has one more stop before it can bring us home to you.” I am that last stop and am now hated far more than Rita is. Round one…Rita.

THURSDAY, SEPTMBER 22.   I’m happily ensconced at the Marriott Residence Inn. Rita gains strength overnight. After a slab of Texas beef and a good night’s sleep, so do I. Friends and family call and advise me to catch the next flight out of hell. As local TV news brings me pictures of people running out of gas in a Texas-sized traffic jam I sip rich, sweet restaurant coffee, munch on complimentary candy and agree to call the airline as soon as I hang up. I keep my promise, get a busy signal and nix the idea of leaving as soon as I hang up. A call to my son at noon wakes him. Through his fog, he lets me know that Rice Parents Weekend has been cancelled. He also lets me know, somewhat more subtly, that he is not as excited to see me as I am to see him. I’m stuck in Houston without a friend as Armageddon approaches. Round two…Rita.

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 23.   This is the day Rita really comes to town. The contingent of FEMA workers stationed at my hotel, right across from the evacuated Astrodome, is helpful and friendly, if not in total agreement. Buster tells me that our little home-away-from-home is a hurricane death trap. Don tells me I couldn’t be safer. Hotel management tells me to hide in the bathroom with a blanket during the brunt of the storm. A little uncomfortable with the idea of meeting my maker alone in a hotel room, far from home but right next to the toilet, I decide to ride it out at Rice, a sturdy concrete structure with plenty of back-up electricity and water. My first plan is to stay with my sweet, but temporarily pre-occupied, progeny. I’ll bunk in the dorm. I’ll spend quality time with my child and get to know his roommates. I tell the fruit of my womb this happy plan as we walk the breathtaking campus. He stops breathing. He struggles to speak, and finally blurts out an offer to drive me anywhere, anywhere at all, to get a late flight home. I am touched at his concern for my safety but I’m not going anywhere, anywhere at all. He enlists in the “if you can’t beat ’em join-’em” camp and formally invites me to his dorm’s “Bow Down Rita” party, all the cheap beer I can drink. As tempting as this is, I decide to crash in the Student Center, blanket, box of Keebler saltines and no Internet access included. Round three…Rita.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 24.   I wake to find that Rita shanked it, as they say in golf, and pulled way right. Eastern Texas and Louisiana are hit hard but Houston rests empty and relatively unscathed. My corner of the room, a PhD candidate/mother of a toddler, the children of a Rice employee and a miniature schnauzer named Cricket, hug me with relief and goodbye wishes. I find my son and see that he survived the hurricane party. We   lunch together in his cafeteria, the Servery. I hang with his roommates, friends and a few professors. The sun comes blasting through the windows and the enthusiasm of youth floods the room. Tomorrow I’ll head home, right after I hug the stuffing out of my baby, the man. I missed the Houston Zoo, the Galleria and the Dalai Lama, all scheduled for Parents Weekend. I saw a town, a people and a school community come together in crisis and it was a force of nature greater than any weather event.

Round four, and in a stunning last minute TKO, the match …Houston, Rice and me.