September 23, 2005

More Rita In Our Lives

This is my second post in reporting the travails of our student friend, Hitaji, who is trying to get back to her family in Houston.

She and I finally drove to the Burlington airport and went to the Continental Airlines desk to inquire about the confusion in our friend's flight connections. We NEVER received an adequate explanation about why her scheduled flights did not exist. It came down to the ticket agent offering her another set of flights back to Houston, but with no assurance that she would actually get there, or that once she got there, she would actually be able to get from the airport into Houston itself. (Hitaji's daughter, who had come to her graduation ceremony, had gone back to Houston the day before, and said that there were only two taxicabs outside the airport, an unheard of thing. She actually shared a cab with someone into Houston.)

The agent we talked with was defensive and nervous. His hands shook. His answers were automaton-like. All he would say was that his computer said the weather was clear in Houston. We asked him if he had any information about the news we heard that Houston was closed to incoming traffic. We asked him if he could reassure us that she would not spend days sleeping on a chair in the Houston airport. He simply repeated his silly weather report, and delivered an ultimatum that if she wanted to go, she had better decide now because there were other people waiting in line.

We decided to make some calls to Houston to get some up-to-date information.

We tried her daughter whose cell phone rang with no answer, no voice mail. We tried the radio station in Houston where she works. Only voice mail. We tried the cell phone of the station manager, no luck, only voice mail. We tried a police officer friend's cell phone. No luck. Busy, voice mail. We tried Yellow Cab in Houston, a service our friend uses alot (she has no car). It answered and she was put on hold. No one ever came back. She said this never happens. We finally hung up, worrying that the battery on my cell phone would weaken. We tried her son. No answer. We had not been able to reach him since trying the evening before. We then tried her daughter again who answered. Her daughter was at her mother's house, collecting her hard drive and other important items to take to her place. Her daughter said she and her other children did not want her to come back to Houston because tghey know she can't swim and that would worry them. She was safe in Vermont. She also reported that all the lanes of roads were filled with people trying to get out of Houston and that there would be no way for her to get from the airport into town. Our decision was made.

We decided to go back in to the Continental Airlines desk and tell them that they should tell any of their customers if they were going to Houston that, in all likelihood, they would be stuck at the airport. They looked at us, then at each other. They were definitely uncomfortable having us tell them this in front of a line of other passengers. They stared at us blankly. Behind them, several Homeland Security agents gave us suspicious looks. We gave up and left.

When we got back home, the first thing I did was check the Houston Chronicle website, and discovered that, indeed, Gov. Rick "Slick" Perry (don't you just live his shiny ties?) had closed incoming traffic on all major highways into Houton early that morning.

Hitaji was also able to reach one of her sons who told her that everyone was trying to get cash in Houston so they could buy food and water, but that the banks had run out of money. He said the check cashing services were closed also, so people who had paychecks could not get their checks cashed.

At this point, we don't know how hard Houston is going to be hit. I do know that there is a mother in Vermont worried sick about her three children there.

More later.

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