WestJet helps race from Hurricane Rita
September 23, 2005
Efforts to evacuate millions of Texans from hurricane Rita's approach turned chaotic Thursday as gridlock jammed roads across the state, while some of the stranded looked to the skies -- via a Calgary-based airlift -- to escape the coming storm.
The island city of Galveston, one of the most vulnerable communities on the Gulf Coast, was a virtual ghost town after almost all of its 60,000 residents heeded a mandatory evacuation order.
But the trip inland for them and close to two million other evacuees quickly turned into a nightmare. The line of backed-up traffic stretched 160 kilometres north of Houston. The drive to cities such as San Antonio and Dallas, which usually takes between three and four hours, became 16-hour journeys. Frustrated drivers had to abandon their cars as they ran out of gasoline.
Calgary-based WestJet Airlines Ltd, meanwhile, flew a plane with two flight crews to Texas to aid in the evacuation efforts Thursday afternoon.
The local Boeing 737 was dispatched for five days following a request from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. The plane, which seats 136 people, will transport evacuees from Houston to areas chosen by American authorities.
"Overall, the evacuation will be a huge effort and the U.S. government wants to make sure they have the right response," said Sean Durfy, WestJet's executive vice-president of marketing and sales.
In Houston, Mayor Bill White pleaded for state and federal government help to airlift supplies of gasoline to freeway rest stops so desperate motorists could refuel.
He warned residents of his city -- the fourth-largest in the United States -- to ride out the storm at home unless they lived in low-lying and vulnerable areas in flood plains and near Galveston Bay.
"If the hurricane comes in a particular way or at a particular angle, being on the highway is a death trap," White said.
Chris Martin, a former Calgary resident now living in Houston, was heeding White's call. He said he has boarded up his home and is prepared to wait out the violent storm's wrath.
"I'm surrounded in plywood," said Martin. "We're living in Fort Knox right now."
With business ties running deep between oil-rich Alberta and Texas -- the heart of America's energy industry -- hundreds of people from Alberta have moved to work in the southern state. Some 30,000 Canadians are in Texas at any one time.
Joel Hughes, a 21-year-old former Calgarian, was convinced it was best to leave. But he sat for hours in traffic with his family as they traveled from their Houston home to a friend's farm near Austin.
"I wanted to stay in Houston and weather the storm and look right into the eye of it . . . but I succumbed to my mother," he said.
The traffic calamity came with hurricane Rita taking dead aim at the northern Texas coast, near the Louisiana border, as an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm. It had sustained winds Thursday of 230 kilometres per hour and was slightly weaker than when gusts peaked at 280 kilometres per hour earlier in the day.
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