With Rita closing in, the family of Albert Ruben Sr. drove here this morning to a high school basketball auditorium turned hurricane shelter of last resort -- after taking the most maddening journey of their lives.
In a caravan of 20 cars, the Ruben family and their neighbors in the coastal town of Texas City had tried to obey the state's mandatory hurricane evacuation order. With full gas tanks, food and water, they left on a designated evacuation highway on Wednesday at 11:30 p.m., hoping to beat the rush and avoid the heat.
Seventeen hours later, they had traveled just 60 miles and were stuck in traffic. They had driven most of that time -- in daytime temperatures of about 100 degrees -- without air conditioning to save fuel. All public services along the evacuation route -- for gasoline, food, water, bathrooms -- were closed.
Ruben, 50, a juvenile-detention officer in Galveston County, said he saw three ambulances carry away elderly people who had collapsed in the heat of their unmoving cars. His grandchildren, 4 and 7, had put on baby diapers to avoid soiling the car.
"It was like the end of the world," Ruben said. "You know what it makes you want to do? It makes you want to go home and die. The government done us wrong."
Ruben and most of his family gave up on the evacuation by Thursday afternoon and drove back home to Texas City for the night, having wasted most of their gas. Other family members, including his wife's mother, decided to soldier on in the traffic and head north. Ruben said he has not heard from them and does not know where they are.
On Friday morning, of course, Rita was still coming and the Ruben family had to do something.
Ten members of the family got back in their cars -- taking along the sandwiches they had not eaten on their earlier drive to nowhere -- and went to Milby High School in southeastern Houston. Ruben's daughter, Anitra Esther, a nurse, had been on the phone with the police and had been told that the high school would be a shelter.
They arrived around 8 a.m. Friday at the high school. Police standing out front told them it was full and suggested that they drive to a nearby high school basketball auditorium called Barnett Field House. (Police at Milby later told a reporter that the plan for a shelter at the school was canceled because the school has a tendency to flood in heavy rains.) When the Ruben family found the field house, which seats 3,200 for basketball game, it was just opening as a shelter. It offered bathrooms and water but no food, diapers or medicine.
Houston Mayor Bill White made it clear in repeated interviews this week that he did not want city residents to look to city shelters as a primary option for riding out the hurricane. The much-publicized chaos, violence and despair at the Superdome and the Convention Center in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina convinced Houston officials that they must find a better way, several police officials said.
"We are not encouraging the general public to go into the streets looking for shelter," White said Friday morning at a televised news conference. Later in the day, he emphasized that the Astrodome and the convention center here "are not shelters." The mayor also said that "most folks are better off in their homes."
The mayor even declined to name a shelter where people might go, saying that the police and emergency people will open shelters "without announcements to the general public."
But the general public quickly found Barnett Field House (it had been mentioned by a couple of radio and television stations on Wednesday). Indeed, they found it in such numbers that it was packed with evacuees by midday -- and police used loudspeakers in the auditorium to tell people to put their luggage, ice chests and bedding on the floor so more people could find seats.
Police said they were about to close the auditorium to new evacuees, but would not turn away people who arrived during the storm, which began to be felt here Friday evening.
"The purpose of opening this place was to give shelter to drivers who had tried to evacuate but got stuck in traffic," said Capt. Steve Jett of the Houston Police Department. "Most of the people pouring into the shelter on Friday morning, though, were from the neighborhood. They brought their pets, their radios, their pillows and their small children."
Sergio Romo, a maintenance man at the University of Houston, arrived with his wife, his 2-year-old son and 2-month-old daughter.
"It just feels safer in a commercial building than in my own house," said Romo, whose family occupied the first row of the auditorium, next to the basketball court.
Just how safe the auditorium would be -- in a storm expected to cause widespread flooding in Houston -- was unclear. Police in the building told a reporter that the floor had flooded during Hurricane Alicia in 1983. That information was not announced, though, to the several thousand people who had come to the building to escape Rita.
On his bleacher seat in the auditorium, Ruben, the juvenile-detention officer whose exodus from the Texas Gulf Coast had utterly failed, was finding it difficult to get over his anger. He was furious with the city, state and federal governments over their failure to organize an evacuation that would have allowed him and his family to actually evacuate.
"We are supposed to be the richest country in the world," he said. "But what I have seen from the government so far is just pitiful."