Tuesday, September 27, 2005

An American Refugee

Hello Institute patrons, please allow me to take this opportunity to thank all of you for your kind words, thoughts and prayers as the Institute had to be evacuated prior to Hurricane Rita. What follows is a harrowing and completely true tale of how I, Pile, lead my staff, family and pet to safety under incredibly adverse conditions.

A few weeks ago when the "evacuees" from Hurricane Katrina were being bussed into the Astrodome I saw one of them being interviewed by the local news, he made a comment that has stuck with me. He said, " refugees....., people are calling us refugees......, I ain't no refugee, I'm an American citizen". After having fled natures fury myself, I can't help but disagree with Mr. Evacuee. Being on the run from high winds and rising waters knows no citizenship, race or creed, it only knows the medium rare human instinct of survival, while being courteous to others who have been forced from their homes of course. It only knows that.

On the evening of Wednesday September 21st it became clear to me that I was going to have to make a decision about what to do regarding the approaching storm. It became clear because people kept asking me "Pile, what are you going to do? Evacuate?". I have to say, at that point I was not prepared to leave the Institute unguarded and vulnerable. Our world Headquarters is approximately 60 miles inland, so I thought we could ride the storm out. Besides, Academy Sports and Outdoors was having a sale on Remington Street Howitzers, and the prices looked pretty good. This combined with the fact that there was not a motel room available anywhere in the western United States led me to the decision to stay put.

During my customary Thursday morning sitrep briefing it became clear to me that the situation had changed almost overnight. Rita had been upgraded to a category five, with sustained winds that made it the fifth most powerful storm ever recorded. The Institutes computer modeling had the storm on a track that would push a storm surge right up our drive, past the valet parking and through the Institute gift shop. As many of you know this is a think tank that employs a wide variety of peoples, one of whom you might know as The Onlette, is only six months old. While I have been instructing The Onlette on free market economics and college football I have not yet taught her to swim. I felt the weight of the Institute, not to mention the world, riding on my shoulders.

Some Chairmen of think tank Institutes are born to be great leaders. Others, it would seem have a swirling storm of high winds and rain thrust their great leadership on their staff and family. And pet. I made an announcement over the intercom system that we would be evacuating. I instructed all personnel and pets to put their important papers in a fire and flood proof lock box, move all computers and electronics off the floor and onto a counter or high shelf and prepare to leave.

My wife, the lovely and immensely talented Mrs. On and I, loaded two coolers full of lunchmeat, Red Bull and beer, and put them in the family car along with clothes, toys, a fourteen month supply of diapers, a telephone answering machine, dog food, three gallons of filtered tap water, an emergency car tire pump, two loaves of bread and an umbrella. We were ready to leave the think tank Institute that we both had devoted our entire lives to.

Before all electronics were disconnected and moved to the relative safety of a higher counter or shelf, I had been watching the Institute's local media monitoring device. I was acutely aware of the stand still traffic on the major hurricane evacuation routes. Thrusting my leadership on my family and pet I made my first major decision, we would not be taking a freeway out of town. We would head west on any farm to market road we could find until we got to I 35, from there we would head north to Dallas, and then on to visit some friends in Oklahoma City.

This was a day that was taking a toll on my fellow Houstonians, and their pets. Due to the heat, the temperatures were approaching 100 degrees. Fahrenheit. Due to the sudden run on gasoline, most stations were now out of anything one might put in their cars for fuel. Many of my fellow refugees were forced to drive along without running the air conditioner to conserve on precious fuel. We were forced to sit in our car, unable to move around, and endure hour after hour the relentless blast of refrigerated air that pelted our skin like a Chinese water torture. That which does not kill us, makes us stronger I told my family and pet when they inquired if anything could be done about the chill wind blowing in the Mitsubishi. I had heard on the radio that a dog had died of heat frustration on I45 north of Houston. That was a chance, with which I could not take.

We saw many people waiting at gas stations for gas supplies that might not arrive in time. We finally reached I35 in Austin and turned north, but not before stopping at a completely deserted gas station to fill up. I could not help but wonder why I was the only person to get my fuel supplies at a station that had fuel supplies. It was a question I could not ponder long, as a refugee must keep moving.

It was a seventeen hour trip from Houston to Dallas. I was very proud of The Onlette, she handled the situation like you would hope a trainee analyst would. At some point during the trip she began to bogart the Mommy, forcing my Labrador retriever Enid into the map reading, navigator, co-pilot, riding shotgun position commonly referred to as the front passenger seat. Like many people who were faced with adversity in these trying times, she rose to the occasion, as I could not detect any perceptible decrease in the navigation assistance I was receiving. The front passenger seat is just a bit small for a full figured lab to curl up in, so like me she sat up and watched the road until we arrived in Dallas at 6 am Friday morning. Yes, I know it was harrowing for her, but when you are a refugee pet, being tired is a luxury you can not afford.

We grabbed a few hours of shuteye in Dallas, then it was on to Oklahoma City , three more hours to the North. There we slept for something like 37.4 hours straight. Keeping track of time is not a refugee's strong suit. Our friends, or as I like to refer to them, the people running our shelter, took us out for dinner when we finally did wake up. We went to what they call the Bricktown Riverwalk. Oklahoma City has revitalized their downtown in a manner similar to what San Antonio did so many years ago. They have not achieved all the charm of downtown San Antonio but it is very nice. We set out on a trek that must have been hundreds, if not thousands of meters. But refugees do not complain about having to walk to receive a ration of nourishment. Not even if they have to walk past a brand new bar and grill owned by Toby Keith. When a refugee thinks of fine dining, a refugee's mind often conjures up the image of Toby Keith frying up some grub.

We finally arrived at a little Italian eatery, where we were told they could not serve us. FOR FORTY FIVE MINUTES!!! I cursed Bush, and I cursed FEMA, how could they not have planned for this contingency? Then I remembered the immortal words of Tom Petty, "you don't [pause for dramatic effect] have [another even more dramatic pause] to live like a refugee, don't have to live like a refugee".

You damn straight I don't Mr. Petty. I gathered up my family and the people that were operating the shelter I was staying at and marched right down the riverwalk to a place called the Bourbon Street Cafe. They only had a twenty minute wait, not to mention a delightful India Pale Ale on tap. We ate a meal in solidarity with our fellow refugees from New Orleans. A little dish they call Etouffe. It is pronounced [ay-too-fay], I know this because it said so, right on the menu, AY-TOO-FAY.

It was good, I enjoyed it. It was served with dirty rice, which was also good, but it made the whole dish a bit too rich. It would have been much better to serve it with a scoop of plain steamed rice. Such are the trials of An American Refugee.