Running on empty

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SAN AUGUSTINE, Texas -- Police closed the southbound lanes of the main roads around 10 p.m. Thursday, opening everything to a northward flow from Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur.

No sooner had evacuees reached Lufkin than lines stretched out of gas station lots and onto the berm of Route 69, with hundreds of starving cars, trucks and SUVs looking for a last fill-up.

"I only need enough to get to Oklahoma City," a young mother told me. Her two small boys rolled somersaults in the back of her Ford Expedition. Her husband was somewhere farther down the highway, bringing the rest of what they needed to flee Lake Charles, La., just across the state line and, like Port Arthur, in the path of Hurricane Rita.

Lufkin police arrived and a patrolman barked orders.

"Get out of line. We're not blocking traffic for gasoline." Dozens of cars were ordered away -- to where it was unclear. Without gasoline, they risk the fate of scores of evacuees from Houston who stalled on Interstates 10 and 45 when a 100-mile traffic jam froze the evacuation in place, and idling engines ran their tanks dry.

The line of headlights pointing north continued through Thursday night and into Friday morning, when the forward winds of the storm reached the Gulf Coast.

Thirty miles into our detour, we found an open store. Rodney and Andrea Crutcher were still open for business, and a small cluster of evacuees were pumping them dry. Port Arthur had begun to empty.

Rebecca Smalley packed her 5-year-old daughter, Wes, and her other important possessions into her white GMC Envoy and drove north from the winds.

"Photos," she said, beginning an inventory. "Photos and clothes. Memorabilia. Beer."

Her fiance, Rabon Ezell, was following in a black 4x4 pickup truck that was pulling his ATV.

"I have a home, and it's going to be destroyed," Smalley said. Wes poked her head up from the back seat.

"In the morning it's gonna be broken," she chirped.

Smalley works as a probation officer, and Ezell works at a rubber plant owned by Pittsburgh-based Lanxess. He's not sure what work will be waiting for him after the big blow. She figures Rita won't blow away crime, "especially with all the New Orleans people coming in now," so there will be something on which to rebuild, but she is firmly convinced that, come Sunday, whatever home she has will resemble Noah's Ark.

"They're saying the gulf is going to reach up to I-10 and I live on I-10," Smalley said.

"Watch me whistle," Wes said. Then she whistled.

A small panic broke out. The Crutchers' pumps stopped dispensing gasoline. Ezell had paid for $40 worth of regular and the pump clicked off at $4.38.

"OK, we're out of regular," Rodney Crutcher announced. Motorists out front switched to premium, which was selling for $2.68 a gallon.

I asked the Crutchers why they hadn't raised their prices to match demand.

"We have friends in this community," Andrea Crutcher said.

"You don't do that to people," Rodney chipped in.

They expected their supply to be gone by morning and hoped for one more delivery, though whether anyone can get it to them is a question. Tractor-trailers run on diesel, and nobody has been able to get that anywhere around here.

"It's all the buses they're running for evacuations," Andrea Crutcher explained.

Ten miles down the road, police had set up another blockade. Route 96 was now closed southbound and evacuees were being poured through San Augustine. The Crutchers' pumps would be dry before dawn.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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