‘One of the Worst Days of My Life’ — Dave Morgan Remembers Hurricane Rita 10 Years Later
September 22, 2005, was probably one of the worst days of my life. September 8, 1971 was another, but we’ve already talked about that. September 22 was the day we were forced to run from Hurricane Rita.
Ginger ran to her office to get their disaster plan, while I thought I was going to the bank to cash my paycheck. Well, the bank was closed, but the ATM was being reloaded. Not having an ATM card, I knew I could get a cash advance on my credit card, and when I finally got to the machine, it approved the transaction -- but I never got any cash. So I drove back to the house where Ginger had stuff packed and we prepared to load up. We had nine cats at the time and Ginger’s mom lived with us, too. Ginger had a 2001 Ford Focus and I had a 1999 Olds Cutlass.
We crowded three cat carriers in her backseat, loaded stuff into the trunk, put the other six carriers in my car and loaded the rest of the back seat, front seat and trunk. We closed the garage, shut off the power, and locked the front door -- and off we went. Made good time, too, until we got to the Enterprise exit on I-210, then it was bumper-to-bumper and stop-and-go. (Mostly stop, though.)
After about three hours my car began to act up. The ABS light came on, then other warning lights appeared and I knew I was in serious trouble. It had happened before. The battery was dying, even though I had the alternator replaced once already.
We were just north of Joe Miller Road and I managed to get Ginger’s attention as I pulled into an auto repair place, ironically. But of course it was locked up tight. I called AAA since I was a member, but was told I was in a hurricane evacuation zone and they could not help me.
“Have a nice day”, she said, before hanging up.
Next call, Louisiana State Police, but that call kept going to the Alexandria post. They transferred me back to the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s office, who had pulled the Motorist Assistance Patrol off the road. A deputy showed up, and after I explained what had happened, I asked him if he could at least get me back to the civic center where I could catch a bus out of town. He told me he could not do that, but suggested that I call my wife back, dump the cats and leave. (I had sent my wife and her mom on their way with a litter box and cat food, etc. We had reservations at a motel in Texarkana, Ark., and I told her I’d catch up with them). When I told the deputy I couldn’t do that, he told me to “have a nice day” and left.
I had our church’s directory in my car and I knew we had a couple of members in the Moss Bluff area. The first one I called was not there. The second was. I explained my predicament, and was told they could help me. He had a boat with a battery with both top and side terminals. My car had side terminals. Great! He brought out the battery, but the terminal broke off. Rats! So he hooked it up to the top terminals and we went to his place to figure out our next move. After a few hours, he found a neighbor who had bought a battery for his vehicle, but as it turned out he just had a loose cable and did not need the battery and I was welcome to it. I was back on the road at about 8:30 p.m. that night.
I called Ginger and told her I was back on the road. She had just cleared DeRidder and traffic was moving a bit faster.
Ginger called a bit later and told me that once she got through Leesville there was no traffic. She had stopped at a place that was still open to get fuel and just get out of the car for a short time before completing the journey.
I hit the brakes and headed up the dark street, which narrowed further into tire tracks which made me feel rather leery, but the tracks led to a church that was indeed being used as a Red Cross shelter.
As I approached Leesville, that stupid ABS light came on again. I considered stopping for the night at a shelter in Pickering, but decided to press on. Ginger was right. Once through Leesville, there was no traffic on U.S. 171. It was nice to be cruising at about 55 mph, but it was late, the eyes were getting heavy, plus it was pitch dark. When I saw the sign that said Shreveport was 100 miles away, plus another 70 or 80 to Texarkana, I knew I wasn’t going to make it without stopping somewhere.
As I got to Hornbeck, there was a plywood sign up against a stop sign that said “Shelter” with an arrow pointing to the left. I hit the brakes and headed up the dark street, which narrowed further into tire tracks which made me feel rather leery, but the tracks led to a church that was indeed being used as a Red Cross shelter. There were lots of folks sleeping on top of their vehicles and several were also inside. I opened the windows for the cats and apologized for having to stop and went inside for a few hours. It was noisy at first, with TV sets and people playing music and talking, but it quieted down after a while and I managed to get some sleep. I figured if the car didn’t start in the morning I was probably close enough to a town get help from somebody. By the way, I called the motel and asked them to tell Ginger I was staying at a shelter for a while.
I grabbed a cup of coffee and began to head out the door just as people were bringing in stuff to cook breakfast; I wanted to get an early start in case of trouble. There were muffins in the car, and when I started it, there were no warning lights! Apparently, the high-speed driving had charged the battery! The rest of the trip to Texarkana was without incident. The ABS light did come back on after we returned from lunch, though, so the car sat until Monday when it was towed to a dealership to be repaired.
The remains of Rita hit Texarkana late Saturday afternoon; we had to go out and get supper since the motel restaurant only served breakfast. The wind and rain was pretty strong. Sunday was bright and sunny. My boss called and told me there was no damage to our house, for which we very thankful, but unfortunately my boss was wrong. The following Thursday we were notified by someone else that a tree had fallen into the house. When I got that confirmed, I headed back to Lake Charles to take care of it.
The day I returned there was a tree removal company from Lafayette working the neighborhood, and I agreed to let them remove that tree and another tree that had fallen between my house and the neighbor’s house. Missed the air conditioner by a foot. They would cut them up and move them to the street for pick-up. I watched as they arrived, but after watching a few minutes, I decided I didn’t really want to watch, so I headed back to the radio station, where I was going to spend the night.
The following day, Saturday, I went back to the house to try to get in and start the cleanup process. After clearing the debris away from the front door, I was able to get in, but I had to lift up on the door a bit to unlock it. All was quiet; I was carefully looking for critters but found none. The only part of the house really damaged was the half of the living room where the tree came in, a part of the spare bedroom, and part of the foyer. My vet and a friend stopped by, since they had seen my car in the driveway, and they offered assistance. In fact, they actually got the roof covered on Sunday. We used three sheets of plywood to cover the hole, and they covered that over with some tarps.
Monday, my real work began. There was debris to be removed from the inside of the house, and carpeting to be cut up and taken out, too. After I had taken one bag out to the street I sat thinking, “I sure could use some help”. Not five minutes later, there was a knock at the door and there were three teens offering me their assistance. They had been sent by one of my neighbors. I took them up on their offer, and we had the living room cleaned up that afternoon! I had the carpet cut up and taken out by Wednesday or Thursday. Friday, I headed back up to Texarkana to get Ginger, her mom, and the cats back home. Friday morning, there a couple of guys in hard hats carrying clipboards in the yard; they were with a power company, and they told me my power would be back on that afternoon but they needed someone to be there. I showed them that my broken wires had been capped, and the main breaker was off. They told me initially that when we came back to town we should find one their crews working in the area and they would come turn on the juice. They apparently changed their mind, though, because when we got back Saturday afternoon I turned the main breaker on, just to see, and voila, there was light. And air conditioning! We got everybody in and unloaded, and headed for the grocery store for food. Yeah, the fridge smelled a little funky, but that smell actually went away after a while.
I’ll also tell you that I never felt really afraid I wouldn’t get out of town, although at the time I had no idea how that would happen. Obviously God was and still is watching over us.
Monday, it was back to work for both of us and trying to find a contractor to permanently repair the damage to our house. Got on plenty of waiting lists, then a rep from a roofing company that had come from Oklahoma City stopped in at the Chamber of Commerce, where Ginger worked, and registered, asking if we knew anybody that needed a roof. Well, yeah we did, but we had structural damage to be repaired first. He said he could do that, and he did. He also had someone who could fix the inside damage -- ya know put the ceiling up, etc. -- and they did. The major damage was repaired by Christmas!
In January, we had new light fixtures installed in the living room, foyer, and spare bedroom. In March or April, we had a piece of ductwork replaced that had been crushed by the tree. Finally, in May we found the ceramic tile we wanted installed to replace the carpeting.
Our insurance company was great throughout the entire time. The house had been paid off earlier that year, so they paid us directly. Of course, it all went to the repairs that needed to be done. I’ll also tell you that I never felt really afraid I wouldn’t get out of town, although at the time I had no idea how that would happen. Obviously God was and still is watching over us. By the way, we both have small SUVs now and we’re down to six cats; and I still pray every hurricane season that we don’t have to do that again!