As Rita bears down, no way out

Published September 23, 2005

HOUSTON - Leroy Miller wanted to get out before Rita gets here.

He doesn't have a car, so on Thursday he took a bus and then a train to the downtown Greyhound station. He wanted a ticket to Chicago. Or anywhere, really.

"You have to have a plan," he said. "If you don't, failure will be your fate."

Miller, who is 33 and unemployed, was part of a mass exodus from America's fourth largest city.

"If this was a movie, I would probably go see it," he said.

Everyone seemed to want to get out of Houston. No one - even the people who don't live in flood zones - seemed to want to stay. Many were haunted by the images of New Orleans.

The result was gridlock of all sorts, especially on the city's main highways. Interstate 10 was backed up from Houston west to San Antonio, the equivalent of bumper-to-bumper traffic stretching along I-4 from St. Petersburg to Daytona Beach.

But people without cars, people like Miller, went to the only reliable place they knew: the bus station.

A Houston police officer greeted people at the door, allowing only those with reservations inside the terminal. About 50 people clustered outside in a patch of shade, while others splayed on the sidewalk amid empty beer cans and faded newspapers. They all were there to buy one-way tickets out.

These were America's nomads, many of them displaced in one way or another by Hurricane Katrina and now uprooted again. Some dragged dirty suitcases behind them, others stuffed water and a few shirts in plastic bags.

Nine-year-old Jasmona Gibson wore a backpack and hugged a 101 Dalmatians pillow. It's all she owns, said her father, Aaron Jackson.

The family - eight people in all - are from New Orleans. They have stayed in four or five places in 31/2 weeks, including the New Orleans convention center, the Houston Astrodome and a friend's floor. Jasmona was just getting settled into school in Houston (she liked her school in New Orleans better) when warnings for Rita came along.

They caught a ride to the bus station with a stranger and planned to go north.

"Right now, we're trying to get to Monroe (La.)," Jackson said. "But I'm willing to go anywhere."

The family ended up outside the terminal in the midday sun with about 100 other people. Jackson figured if they couldn't catch a Greyhound they would try to board a city bus bound for the Amtrak station, where trains rolled toward San Antonio. Garbage swirled around their feet as they weighed their next move.

"Nothing could devastate me right now," he said. "We got to keep our head up high and stick together."

Renelle Ceazer, also of New Orleans, was trying to be calm. She didn't want her 5-year-old daughter, Paige, to get upset. Not after the misery they experienced at the New Orleans convention center, not after watching water seep into their home.

Ceazer was hoping to buy tickets to Dallas.

The mother and daughter were two of the lucky ones who found a shady spot to stand in at the bus station. Paige leaned against the window, trying hard not to soil the new pink-and-white ribbon in her hair.

A Greyhound worker appeared on the other side of the glass from Paige. He taped up a note for everyone outside to read.

"We apologize for any possible delays. Due to the hurricane (Rita) Greyhound is closed for further notice. We apologize and hope you understand during this time of crisis. Thank you."

It was 12:30 p.m., a little more than a day before Rita was to hit. Neither Leroy Miller nor Jasmona Gibson nor Renelle Ceazer would get a bus ticket.

Ceazer and her daughter stayed at the station, hoping someone would take pity on them and allow them to board. She looked ready to weep.

Miller boarded a city train back to his mother's house, entertaining the possibility of riding it out. "It's like we're kind of stranded," he said, and sighed.

Jasmona put her pillow on the grubby sidewalk, near a sign outside the Greyhound terminal that said "No Stopping or Standing." Her father decided that the family would go back to their friend's home in Houston, at least for now, and Jasmona grabbed her pillow and shuffled down the street.