Gary Borders: Remembering Hurricane Rita hunkered down in Lufkin

Sep 25, 2015

The two hurricanes struck three weeks apart a decade ago. Hurricane Katrina devastated a large swath of New Orleans and the surrounding area, of course, after making landfall Aug. 29, 2005. Thousands of people either fled or were evacuated. Many ended up in Lufkin, where I lived at the time and published the paper. 

The evacuees filled the civic center, local churches and other spaces. Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita made landfall near Sabine Pass and headed up the Texas-Louisiana border, the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane in history.

Tens of thousands of people left Houston and the Golden Triangle, fearing the storm would sweep through there. They headed north, choking Highways 59 and 69, both of which bisect Lufkin. By the time Rita swept through the area in the early morning hours of Saturday, Sept. 24, the town’s population of 35,000 had swelled to more than 100,000.

The city quickly began to resemble a post-apocalyptic world. Long lines formed as gas pumps, soon were sucked dry. The shelves of the local Walmart were plucked clean of water and other beverages. Traffic snarled the loop and the town’s main thoroughfare. People were setting up camp in city parks as the designated centers filled up.

As the winds picked up, and the oak trees in my backyard creaked ominously, I decided to ride out the storm down the street at the newspaper office, along with several coworkers. The building that houses the Lufkin Daily News is solid brick with narrow windows that afforded a view out without undue risk. In the darkness, we watched and waited.

The newspaper office is on the west side of the railroad tracks. As the wind picked up, the crossing arms started bouncing up and down, causing the signal lights and bells to flash and chime erratically. Utility poles swayed impossibly low without snapping. The power went off, of course. At one point, a few of us picked our way through the dark corridors to the mailroom, where a door opened out to the loading dock. We decided to go out on the dock and feel the storm’s fury.

This turned out to be a lousy idea. We struggled to keep from being blown off the dock and to get back into the building, lock the door. Riding out a hurricane sounds like a grand adventure until you actually do it. It is actually rather scary, even when one is safely ensconced in a sturdy building.

Rita left Lufkin after a few hours, headed north where it would finally play out as a rainy, windy mess on the Great Lakes. I headed home to see what was left of my house.

I was undeservedly lucky. A few wheelbarrow loads of tree limbs littered the lawn, but that was it. And, after several hours, somehow the power returned. My neighbors across the street were without juice for five days. Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of folks remained without electricity for days on end.

Later that day, as the sun reappeared and the temperatures reached into the 90s, the circulation manager and I took the company van out loaded with newspapers printed ahead of the storm. We drove down Highway 69, stopping in Huntington and then Zavalla. Everywhere, folks who had fled from Houston and points south were parked in church lots, at closed convenience stores and along the road. We gave away copies of the paper while I took photos of the damage.

Slowly Lufkin returned to “normal.” Tankers brought loads of gas to town. Eighteen-wheelers arrived with supplies to refill store shelves. Most of the evacuees, many from Houston, which escaped Rita’s wrath, headed home.

Local residents began to pick up the pieces, repair roofs and clear debris.