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Here’s What It Was Like To Evacuate Houston During Hurricane Rita

Kam Franklin tried to flee the city in 2005. This time, she stayed put.

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Traffic crawled along highway 59 northbound as residents tried to flee in front of Hurricane Rita on September 22, 2005 in Houston, Texas. Traffic was backed up for miles leaving the city for two days, causing many vehicles to break down and run out of gas.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Kam Franklin, who lives in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood, is the lead singer of The Suffers. This is her account of evacuating Houston ahead of Hurricane Rita. 

At the time Hurricane Rita hit in 2005, I was living in League City. This was shortly after Katrina had happened, so when they said to evacuate it was like, okay, let’s evacuate. I had a bunch of friends who were in college at the University of Texas at San Antonio, so I was going to crash with them. In my mind I’m thinking that this will be like any other drive from Houston to San Antonio, so I’ll be there in three or four hours. We got on 45 and it took three hours just to get from League City to Pasadena. In Pasadena traffic came to a complete stop. I thought, man, there must be an accident or something. And the next thing I know, twelve hours have passed by.

Fortunately we were next to a Walmart, so were were able to hop over the freeway barrier and go there to pee and get water. At some point we realized the reason we were stuck was that people were running out of gas on the highway. Some people were dying in their cars because it was so hot. We were told to get gas and head out of town, but nobody was expecting people to run out of gas on the highway and get stuck.

Finally we got to Houston, and it got really bad again where we had to exit I-45 onto I-10 West. At that point I could have gotten out and walked faster than we were going, but I didn’t want to turn around and go back to League City because they were saying it was going to take a direct hit from Rita.

We didn’t get to San Antonio until the next day. That’s when we found out Rita didn’t make a direct hit. I’m so grateful it didn’t turn out to be as bad as we feared, even though it was so frustrating to be stuck in traffic. But I was like, you know, the next time this happens I’m not evacuating. So during Ike, I didn’t evacuate. Our house got some damage, and we went without power for a few weeks, but we were fine.

I knew the decision not to evacuate for Harvey was 100 percent right. When the floods came, everyone could see how fast the water rose on the freeways. If there had been a mass evacuation, people would still have been on the roads. I’ve had all these people commenting on my Twitter feed, and I always look at where they live. There was some lady from Charleston, South Carolina comparing this to Hurricane Floyd and how they were able to evacuate for that. Charleston has I think 150,000 people? It’s like, I can’t listen to you, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.

I think Governor Abbott didn’t know what he was talking about either [when he recommended evacuating Houston]. Unless he’s lived in Houston during a hurricane and tried to evacuate, he doesn’t know. It’s very easy to say Houston should evacuate. I can’t listen to someone who doesn’t live here and hasn’t been through this. I feel like Mayor Turner made the right decision in telling people not to evacuate. If we had tried to evacuate I think we would have died on the damn freeway. There could have been so many more casualties than there were, and I’m glad I wasn’t one of them. I think the mayor saved thousands of lives, considering how fast that water rose. People would still have been on the road now when Harvey hit, even if we had started evacuating two days prior.

It’s very easy to judge people who are in a situation you’ve never been in. Right now isn’t the time to argue over who said what and when, because we’re still in the middle of this. Unless you’re here trying to help people, I don’t think you should be preaching about it. I’m know I’m going to try to help the best I can. — as told to Michael Hardy

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  • Marian Hossa

    Bless you. I’ve gotten so sick of people who’ve never set foot in the city of Houston criticizing the city for its leaders, its alleged voting habits, its infrastructure, everything. And when you explain it to them, they tell you you brought it upon yourself.

  • Zebtexas

    Harris County judge Ed Emmett (“hunker down”) deserves a lot of credit. He and Mayor Turner worked hand in hand to respond. I, too, am disappointed with people in the national media who are second-guessing these decisions and have no idea what they’re talking about nor any actual experience with the matter.

  • Michael Lang

    A Democrat defending a Democrat ….yawn.

    • Abunny

      I evacuated that year too. Back off on something you know nothing about. Your ignorance is at a level 10. Chill.

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    • DannyJane

      Get off your self-righteous horse. I evacuated in 2005. 12 hours using back roads from Houston to Magnolia. If you can’t help at least shut up.

    • BadDreamsInHeaven

      In case you hadn’t noticed – this article had absolutely NOTHING to do with politics. Now scurry on back into the cockroach nest you crawled out of.

    • Jonathan Williamson

      Well then here is the Republican Sylvester Turner defeated saying the same thing.


  • Tommy Fred Thompson

    I know from having been in Lumberton, N.C. last year when that town received 11″ of rain, if you are able you should leave the area. You have no water, no power, no gas, no long-term food supply, the ventilation systems are potentially contaminated with dirty water, and you may confront looters, if you are able you should leave the area. I drove 50 miles from Lumberton before I was able to get gas for my car.

    So mistakes were made during the evacuation of hurricane Rita, I guess no lessons were learned. Perhaps stationing gas trucks and highway patrolmen and National Guard troops along the evacuation route would have improved and expedited the evacuation process.

    My decision to leave an area during flooding is this: if that area is going to receive more than 5″ of rain in a 24 hour period I am leaving, unless I know for a fact that the area will not flood.

    I think it was a huge mistake not to evacuate the area. The National Guard and U.S. military have thousands of vehicles that could be used during evacuation. I think it was criminal not to evacuate.

    Under what conditions would the mayor order an evacuation?

    • Abunny

      I’ve been. In a storm in Houston where streets start flooding with in 15 to 20 minutes… streets are impassible. It would make more sense if you lived here to understsnd. Not to mention the Houston and metro surround g areas is MASSIVE.

    • Victoria Baker

      I don’t think you appreciate the enormity of what you’re suggesting. Hurricane Harvey formed in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday and hit the coast of Texas on Friday. Normally storms come from the coast of Africa and are tracked over 2-3 or more weeks, with 7-10 days the typical decision-making window on whether people evacuate (personally and for the govt). If a mandatory evacuation had been called for the area, that would have placed 6-9 million people on the freeways on the same day, which would have resulted in absolute gridlock to a standstill. Then the storm would have hit with people sitting in their cars on the freeway, a much more dangerous situation. I recently lived in New Orleans for 8 years and tracked storms online all summer every summer. I’m all for calling incompetence when I see it, but the Mayor of Houston was correct that mandating an evacuation would have been more dangerous than what we have right now. People who have never been in a mandatory evacuation have NO IDEA what it’s like; I have, and I do know. With 300,000 people evacuating (mandatory) from New Orleans for Gustav, we encountered highway stop-and-go for 100 miles or more, and that was several days before the event with planned, phased evacuations.

      • Tommy Fred Thompson

        You are right about the brief period to respond, but that is why you have a plan upfront. I would like to see the emergency response plans for Houston. You may not have to drive 100 miles to find high ground. Complicated situations are not usually either or situations, or said differently all or nothing. My guess is that there are lots of people who wished they had left the area now. At a minimum, the lowest areas or areas prone to flooding should have been evacuated. Any city or town that is within 100 miles of an ocean should have a flooding plan. Let’s see Houston’s plan. One thing that could have been done is to use both sides of an interstate and the breakdown lanes to move traffic, as this provides 8 lanes on just one highway. Normally interstate highways do not flood. It would be interesting to know how much of the interstate is currently flooded. Again, you are right, one day is not a lot of time but not evacuating the most vulnerable still seems wrong me. There are thousands of vehicles available to move people: school buses, military vehicles etc… People can be moved quickly if it is planned for.

        • Victoria Baker

          You still don’t understand the enormity of the situation. If you are unaware that the interstates had been turned into rivers, just google some photos– it’s not the case that interstates don’t usually flood, as you propose. Yes, in an organized evacuation, both sides of the freeways can be used before they flood. However, it’s not possible to close all the freeways in that manner in such a short period of time. In addition, people would have needed both directions in order to go to where they had resources, e.g., a place to stay with relatives, which given Houston’s situation would mean people would need to leave in all directions. Mobilizing thousands of vehicles, with the labor to drive them with specialized licenses, is another very large logistical problem that simply cannot, physically, be done on the spur of the moment, no matter how well planned. Simply trying to move 6 million people onto the roads would always be impossible in the timeframe that was given, and as I explained, moving 300,000 people with several days’ notice and before any bad weather descended was in itself extremely hard on people and logistics, even though most of the planning in New Orleans was in place as policy. I’m sorry to say this, sir, but you’re operating purely out of an armchair with hindsight and not in possession of the facts. As such, it’s not helping.

        • wessexmom

          You are BEYOND ignorant and uninformed, Mr. Thompson.

          Lumberton, NC has a population of 21,500; Greater Houston has a population of 6.5 million! ALL of the access roads and ALL of the Interstate highways in Houston were flooded at certain times in certain places during the storm, so flooded, in fact, that many drivers were forced to drive the WRONG WAY on those highways because they had no choice! They had all driven to the point of no return where the water was so high that they had to turn around and drive in the wrong direction as they frantically flashed their lights!

          I live in the center of Houston, just blocks from the city zoo, museums, Rice University and the Texas Medical Center, the largest in the world. We were hit with 12″ of rain the first night so there was a lot of street flooding in central Houston, most of which drained very quickly. A few neighborhoods in this area had several inches of water but the vast majority remained completely dry and never lost power. The Theater District downtown sustained more damage than most other areas in the city’s core because it is so close to Buffalo Bayou. For the most part it was the outlying suburbs where people’s lives were most in danger and those areas are still under threat due to rising water in streams, bayous and rivers. Many of those subdivisions were built on flood plains near reservoirs, bayous, etc. have been affected by

          You have no idea what you’re talking about, so stop talking.

        • Melissa Rowell

          Say genius, during Rita, they did use both sides of the interstate to evacuate. And guess what, that didnt work out too well when people started running out of gas they were gridlocked. Nobody could go anywhere. These people were there!! They were in the middle of it. They live in Houston. What possible reason could you have to think you know more th they do about the city they live in? Have you even been to Houston? Do you comprehend how many people 6.5 million actually is? Are you actually second-guessing 6.5 million people? You imagine you are more intelligent than every one of them? Maybe you should go work for FEMA or I tell yoy what, why dont you write up a flood plan for Houston? Send it to the mayor. Better yet just run for mayor. I’m sure they’d be glad to follow your plan and die needlessly because of your stupidity. Let me tell you something, it is no skin off your but whether they evacuated or not. You haven’t broke a sweat trying to save anybody. The roads in Texas were full of trucks with boats traveling to Houston to help those folks, and every one of them did it by choice. They weren’t paid, in fact it cost them money. They asked for nothing in return. They did it because thats just what you do! Its the right thing to do. Maybe where you live, you just let people drown. But we dont leave people behind here in Texas. We help each other and help those that can help themselves and that is an honor and a privilege where I come from. I wouldnt give two cents to live where you are. Good God Almighty!

        • Cindy Davis

          Tommy Fred Thompson, I am sure your suggestions are well intentioned, however, Lumberton NC , a town of maybe 23,000 people would be a piece of cake to evacuate compared to a city the size of Houston with over 6.5 million people. Many of the interstates and main traffic corridors were actually underwater and some still were up to 10 days after Harvey got out of here, and by the way, we DO have planned contraflow areas on the major interstates out of town. Flood prone areas are all over Houston so it would be a little difficult to cherry pick folks out of those areas and tell them to evacuate. Again, we would be back to having thousands upon thousands of people in cars trying to leave and would have likely gotten stuck in the flooded roadways and many more deaths than what we actually had would have occurred. Every year when Houston happens to get a large amount of rain, a few people end up in a flooded roadway and drown. Houston city officials have lived in this city for a long time and experienced many weather events, including floods and hurricanes and I would put my money on them any day before a non native to the Houston area. We take care of our own and Mayor Turner and Judge Ed Emmett made absolutely the right decision for Houston in the case of Hurricane Harvey!!!

    • I gave you the benefit of doubt and checked the population and area of Lumberton, NC. Then, compared it to Houston. You may not realize that Houston and it’s metro areas have 6.5 million people spread out over 20,000 sq. miles! Lumberton has only 21,000 people spread over less than 16 sq miles! I can cross the entire town of Lumberton in the same about of time it takes me to leave the Texas coast in Galveston Island and reach the outer edge of Houston city limits! You went 50 miles and was safe. You are just in the center of the worst floods if you went 50 miles to reach Houston. Note, it took me 9 hrs to reach 30 miles during Rita’s evacuation with only 1 million people on the roads. 6.5 million people would die on the freeways!

      You were comparing mega apples to tiny oranges! Can’t even compare. National Guards aren’t ninjas. They can’t mobilize that fast and cover all the roads. They would be coming from every state to safe guard 6.5 million people while blocking the roads for people trying to exit!

      I hope this helps. Please, visit Houston after we dry out and recover. You will get a better feel for the enormity of the nation’s 4th largest city!
      A picture is worth a thousand words! @Acordolino:disqus @disqus_v1MhFbjIff:disqus @kristinbagrier:disqus @marianhossa:disqus

    • BadDreamsInHeaven

      Thanks for that illuminating story about what you did in a city that no one has ever heard of which means its population is no doubt miniscule compared to the Houston metro area. I’m sure that I’m not the only person who sat here with mouth agape that you had the unmitigated gall to try to make a comparison between your Boondocks, USA evacuation and the (let you tell it) harrowing description of having to drive 50 WHOLE MILES before you could get gas.

      It was really informative (not really) and (un) helpful of you to share your own emergency evacuation plan derived from what vast knowledge and experience? Oh – none? Well, then perhaps you need to sit your ass down some place and kindly STFU.

      • Jonathan Williamson

        If you drive 50 miles here you haven’t left city limits.

    • Jonathan Williamson

      The whole state of North Carolina only has a population of 10.5 million. Houston is 6.7 million people. Most of whom would be dead if we followed your advice.

      And here is the next question. If, hypothetically, there were enough gas so everyone could make it somewhere else and if, miraculously, there weren’t car accidents or cars breaking down to impede progress and everyone was able to drive clear of the area in a timely manner, where would we all go? If 1/5th of us made it to Austin (one of the nearest major cities) the population of Austin just doubled. How does Austin handle that? How do they house a number of people equal to their current population? How do they feed them? Where do 6.7 million people go?

      It blows my mind people think this is even remotely plausible.

      And I wish this article would have mentioned that the death toll for the Rita evacuation (which began on Wednesday when the Hurricane was scheduled to hit Saturday morning) was 136. The current death toll for Harvey is a small fraction of that because Houston did learn. We learned that evacuation wasn’t plausible and we had to plan for the worst.

    • Melissa Rowell

      And where pray tell, would you send all these people? What is their destination? Have some place in mind? Gee I hope its big. How many gas trucks would you think 6-9 million people might need? How many days ahead of time would you have them start? How bout those people that died of heat exhaustion? Would you have people waving fans on the highway to keep them cool? Who’s gonna keep the fan wavers cool? How long do you think thats going to take? They’ll probably get pretty tired. Better have some ice water, too. And bathrooms. Maybe a drive-in movie to pass the time. Where are all those gas tanks going to be and hey do they take credit cards? You cannot evacuate that many people. Especially if people panic.

  • Roguewave1

    Rita evacuation was a nightmare of stalled traffic and fuel shortage. I was there. I remember as a few hundred thousand Houston area residents do as well.

  • Kristin Bagrier

    My sister evacuated Houston for Rita and it took her 13 hours to get to Austin (usually about a 2 1/2 hour drive). Many would’ve died being stuck on the freeways if Houston would’ve tried to evacuate before Harvey.

    • wessexmom

      And !3 hours was fast! It took that long for my Rice U neighbor to get to The Woodlands before she turned around and came back. We never even lost power.

      • Jonathan Williamson

        I was on the freeway for 13 hours before I gave up, exited and turned around. It took me less than 20 minutes to get home. No exaggeration. It had taken me 13 hours and I hadn’t even gotten past the Jersey Village area.

  • AMDG

    Well-articulated piece. Hopefully the death toll can be kept from rising higher than 6, even if nothing can stop the water from rising more, as more rain falls and the upstream floods empty into the already-flooded bayou. And hopefully the donations to good relief agencies will also rise to meet the need.

  • Julie Mckinley

    What are the names and ages of all the people who “died” in their cars due to heat? We’re waiting for a fake news check-up, Michael Hardy.

    • txcon1

      There were over 100 people who died on the roadways, including 24 evacuees from a nursing home who were killed when their bus caught on far. Evacuation is not risk free, and I would bet the Houston area Harvey death toll is still less than those who died in the Rita evacuation.

    • Abunny
    • Abunny

      Do you hear yourself right now? These are actual people who lost their lives for no reason. This is a perfect example of how desensitized and ignorant people can get.

    • Victoria Baker

      People have gotten to where actual facts are scoffed at, and lies and deceit are believed without question. How low the mighty have fallen.

    • Melissa Rowell

      Omg, what in the world is wrong with you?? Are you for real?? Lady, you need to sit down and take a long look at yourself in the mirror. Because this inhuman post has me completely stunned. Your total lack of common decency has me stunned. Why would anyone lie about something so horrible. It is well documented. It was on the news, I heard it again on the news just today and I remember it from 2005. Do a little research, how bout it? You take the cake. I dont know what cosmic cataclysm bred a person, such as yourself, but God help us all if there are any more like you. I hope you never find yourself in the middle of a disaster. Because, lady, you’d be on your own. You have a nice day.

    • Melissa Rowell
  • Jim Riviera

    I read Mayor Turner’s explanation and the lame responses from the media and others critics, who have no clue about Houston and its people. The mayor made the right call. As he stated, how in the world are you going to place 6.5 million people on the roads to evacuate in that short of time? It would be a nightmare and as stated correctly by Ms. Franklin, the death toll would have been larger. Good article and well stated. Stop the finger pointing and dont worry about Texas. We can take care of our own.

  • Charlayne Denney

    YES, a thousand times YES! We bugged out during Rita from Friendswood. We saw 45’s parking lot and decided to take our little convoy through Lake Jackson (yes, TOWARD the gulf for a bit), through Richmond, Sealy, Brenham, and then back through farm roads to 36 and Killeen where we had friends to take us in. Time from us to Killeen normally–5 hours. The bug-out? 17 HOURS to get there. Friends living across the highway, heading to the same friends in Killeen, took I-45 and took 34 HOURS to get there and had to have a rescue by the friends in Killeen with gas, water, and food near Conroe to get there.

    We got air boats in our yard yesterday in Friendswood. Our neighbors were mostly gone. A couple of blocks away, neighbors lost everything. I met a young man that told me his parents living near Clear Creek lost their pets and almost died themselves before they could get out.

    But we couldn’t evacuate, because it came in as a 4 instead of a 1, it didn’t hit and go through like Katrina, Rita, Ike, and every other hurricane ever seen, it hit and STAYED for days, putting water on top of water. We had 12 hours warning of the Cat 4 status, if people would have left, that mess would have been on the highway and death would have been certain.

    Cheering on the mayor of Houston and the governor, who didn’t countermand the decision to not order what would have been a death-trap.

  • Melissa Rowell

    CAN YOU JUST IMAGINE THE HORROR of sitting on the interstate in a deluge, bumper to bumper, and the water beginning to rise? Think about it. Nowhere to go, other to get out and walk and who wants to do that?! Yes, I believe thousands would’ve died, and it would have hindered search and rescuers. I dont know why some people have the need to blame victims. I think that is a really bad character flaw. Maybe its too frightening to them to admit that sometimes there is nothing you can do. That you can try to do all the right things and bad things can still happen to you. Hurricane Harvey survivors are not at fault for not evacuating. But I’ll tell you something more important than that. It doesnt matter. It wouldnt matter if they were told to evacuate, if they all could’ve gotten out safely and they still chose to stay. It wouldnt change anything. The people that stayed would not be any less deserving of rescue or help, and we all would feel the same amount of compassion and sympathy. And we still would be thankful they survived, and more than glad to go out in a fishing boat to fetch them. We all do dumb stuff, make bad decisions, we’ve all been careless, taken risks, and been wrong. That makes no ones life less important. Aside from the sheer number of people, it takes alot of money to evacuate and not everyone has that kinda cash. Some people may have more pets than they can evacuate with, so rather than leave them, they stayed to ride the storm out with them. But my point is they dont need to justify themselves to anyone. Here in Texas, we do what needs to be done. We help those that need help. Blaming solves nothing. It helps no one. If you need to blame someone just alleviate your conscience for not helping. Dont worry about it. You dont have to. You are under no obligation. But please dont lay blame where there is none deserved. They have been through enough.

  • Melissa Rowell