Reporter's Notebook: Brutal Conditions

Adam Housley

Monday, Sept. 26 -- 4:56 p.m.

Lake Charles doesn't look good: trees down everywhere and major wind damage. Even now, several days after Hurricane Rita, rescue boats, flat-bottomed or air, caravan to the state's southern parishes.

After 36 hours in the Lake Charles/Sulphur area, we were on the road again, now approaching 600 miles. Hotel rooms are booked within a four-hour drive of southern Louisiana. In fact, when you call some places they don't even say hello, just "were booked." Then they hang up.

You forget how tough the South can be without air, water and electricity. I wonder how our ancestors made it through tough times like these. After four days our crew took refuge in my friend’s Lafayette home. Amy had air, water, and our first shower since early Thursday morning. She also had a couch and an extra bed. We were in absolute heaven, for five hours at least. She works for local Congressman Charles Boustany, who would later brief us live on FNC.

As the sun rose on Acadiana, we were at it again. This time headed south to Abbeville, yet another community hit hard by Rita. This storm may have spared the big cities, but it hammered hundreds of small towns. Hundreds of thousands of people who beat Hurricane Katrina have lost this bout. Parishes in an area that spreads 40 miles by nearly 100 got major wind damage and storm surges of 15 feet or more. Assessment of the damage has begun, but search and rescue continues; by some estimates 900 people may need to be evacuated.

Here in Abbeville, a town that looks like the movie set from "Back to the Future," some neighborhoods more closely resemble the movie "Waterworld" — an eerie reminder of what happened nearly a month ago in New Orleans.

Locals credit a man named Robert LeBlanc with organizing the evacuation and the quick response. He's the local head of emergency preparedness and also a man who once fought with General Patton in World War II. He's got a battle on his hands here in Vermillion Parish, but he's won ‘em before. In fact, he faced the last big hurricane here in 1957, and he says this one is too close a reminder. They rebuilt then, and they'll do the same this time.

Saturday, Sept. 25 -- 10 p.m.

We have now been at this for nearly 44 straight hours. The only downtime came a short while after the eye made landfall. We got about three hours to lie coldly on a concrete floor.

Our trip began in Corpus Christi, then onto Port Lavaca, Freeport and Clute, followed by our stay in Winnie, Texas for Rita's trip ashore. This morning we saw Port Arthur, Bridge City and Orange, ending up across the state line in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Right now the rain has finally ceased from drenching every one and everything in this area. The wind still howls and the only light comes from generators at the tug docks, which began their tedious trips on these waterways this afternoon.

In one instance, two tugs took four hours to pry away a loaded down barge that had broken from its dock and headed down the ship channel here in Lake Charles.

The skies are black, the curfew in effect until first light comes from Mother Nature tomorrow morning. We see oil refineries, their stacks flickering like candles in the night sky. Once again a portion of the Gulf Coast has become eerie, quiet and deluged with floodwaters.

Out and about we have seen neighborhoods flooded and trees knocked down like weeds with a weed whacker. They land many times onto homes, slicing people's dreams like a hot knife through soft butter. The extent of the damage here is still unknown, but we will soon know what Rita did to southwestern Louisiana.


Saturday, Sept. 25 -- 5:15 p.m.

Our night was short. Inside the small regional courtroom, 12 people slept on the desks, chairs and the hard cement floor. Pillows were wads of clothes and that's it. Outside the brick building the wind from Hurricane Rita howled, trees cracked and splintered like little twigs. Metal awnings, signs and carports became airborne weapons. The three sheriff's deputies and the constable from Chambers county came back in for four hours during the storms worst moments.

When we awoke and packed our cars, we found trees down everywhere, signs snapped in half, roofs peeled back like sardine cans and debris splattered all over.

As we left Winnie, Texas, the volunteer fire department offered us a hot makeshift meal. On a small griddle, using a generator, we got a couple silver dollar pancakes and a browned sausage, it couldn't have come at a better time.

We headed east on the 73 towards Port Arthur. All along the freeway mobile homes appeared to be fed through a shredder, massive street signs and trees were ripped into two. We saw flooding and streetlights down everywhere. A couple of neighborhoods in Port Arthur are under water.

In Bridge City and Orange, the wind damage was more severe as we dodged massive slabs of siding blowing through the air like falling leaves. Here too trees are down everywhere and roadways are blocked.

We are now in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a far way from our beginning Wednesday in a barren Corpus Christi. The heavy rain here still soaks us and the wind gusts still toss us around. Rita hasn't left here yet, the flooding and damage still being assessed, but it doesn't look good.

Saturday, Sept. 25 — 1:00 a.m.

We have taken refuge at a sheriff sub station/courtroom in Winnie, Texas. The winds and rain are getting harder by the minute and we have found a way to set up our video phone in a doorway so it will get some protection.....just a bit of protection from these ridiculous elements. Rita may be hitting just a tad to our east, but you wouldn't know it by stepping outside in Winnie right now.

My six square feet of space is at the foot of the court recorders desk. On a normal day the judge would also be just above me, never been to court this
way before. The floor is hard and I have a plastic bag of clothes that has become my makeshift pillow. Besides three deputies from Chambers county and a constable, we are now joined by a television crew from Chile who decided to get off the road and take refuge.


Friday, Sept. 24 — 9:43 p.m.

We left the Freeport Texas area as soon as we got the call. The winds were already starting to gust, a splattering of heavy rain has begun to fall, it hits the windshield as if someone squirted your car winshield for a second with a garden hose.

Our destination is Lake Charles, Louisianna, but it is likely we won't make it that far. As we head on a deserted freeway towards the vast Houston skyline, we see one other car for 30 miles. New high-end neighborhoods are deserted, so are cars, trucks and SUV's, left abandoned every quarter mile or so, a couple have even been looted.

As we get to the 610 freeway headed for I-10 east, the rain begins to come combined with the wind gusts. Again we see no one headed our way, but we do catch a glimpse of a big rig and a truck pulling a carnival food booth, both headed in the opposite direction, away from the storm.

Above us, digital freeway signs warn not to travel west and weather reports for the area are not looking good. The freeway quickly begins to accumulate standing water and as we reach 55 miles east of Houston, it is obvious our cars won't make it much further. As it is, our crew of four has abandoned our only SUV due to a nail in the tire.

Our choice is to risk the weather and try for Beaumont 22 miles to our east. Instead we opt for an offramp in Winnie Texas, it is our best option at this point. Like much of this gulf region, the town is empty and borded up. We meet a local who says he's heading to the country to ride out the storm with relatives, we consider joining him, but opt to look for a police or fire station.

At the end of town we find one, a sheriff sub station with four welcoming deputies. A crew from the Netherlands pulls in behind us and joins our camp inside a smal courtroom. Outside the wind howls, the rain comes and transformers blow like fireworks lighting the sky a magnificent blue hue.


Friday, Sept. 23 — 2:45 p.m.

We are in that eerie-feeling time. The sun has gone away, the people have left. The birds still chirp, but the song seems to be gone from their call. The winds are now starting to gust, and the ocean is one continuous whitewash. There seems to be no actual sets of waves; the tide here in the town of Surfside is just continuous.

Between live shots we drove about a mile south on this little sandbar island. There the water from the Intercoastal Waterway is already sneaking its way around the jetty. Homes that are built on 8-foot stilts already have more than a foot of flowing water around them. Cars left in their driveways will likely be lost.

The wind is really starting to gust now, and the sky has begun to turn into dark grey bands of clouds. Palms are bending, grasses are at a 45 degree angle from their sandy grounds.

We had a chance to get one more hot meal, a nice break from peanut butter and jelly. Here in Clute, Texas a greek immigrant who couldn't handle the traffic turned around, came home and opened his restaurant for emergency personnel and the media. The "Cajun Greek" has become quite a popular spot for the few dozen who remain. When I asked the owner John Carageorges what his plan was now that he decided to ride Rita out inside his low-lying restaurant he said, "I've got a few friends coming over here to join me. We're going to stay here together. My relatives in Greece called — they're worried about me too. If you guys get hungry come on back."

Somehow I think we'll see John a few times before this thing is over.


Friday, Sept. 23 — 10:15 a.m.

We arrived in the Freeport, Texas area about 10 p.m. All along our trip, from Corpus Christi through a stop in Port Lavaca and now here, just south of Galveston on the Gulf Coast, we passed through towns of lights but no people.

It felt so odd to pass homes, stores and gas stations, empty, as if someone left the lights on but went out back to take out the trash. We did see various roadblocks and a few fire stations open for business, but other than that, emptiness.

Our motel is the only place open for miles, it has seen better days, but we couldn't be happier than to see its rooms dry with air conditioning blowing. It is hot and humid with a warm wind as we await Rita.

After four hours of downtime, which included laundry and a gas fill-up from a tanker, we moved again. While we are so far keeping our motel in Clute, Texas, our [live shots] are now just across the bridge in Surfside Beach.

"It'll be eight feet deep here and we've only got one elderly gentleman staying," says Curtis Adams. He is the only police officer left on the island and he already has plans to pull back. About 1,000 live here along the Gulf in Surfside Beach football great Warren Moon has a couple of homes. All are vacant except that one elderly man, determined to test fate. Determined to face Rita alone.


Thursday, Sept. 22 — 8 p.m.

We began in Corpus Christi, where a city of more than 300,000 was borded, sandbagged and mostly deserted. As we left, a gas station and hotel re-opened, their owners confident they've dodged a giant.

As soon as we found gas, our caravan of three cars and a satellite truck headed northward on highway 35. Coming south was a steady stream of cars and people fleeing and looking for any place to stay. I am told there are no hotel rooms anywhere in Texas. One hotel manager said, "there might be a few in El Paso." That's hundreds of miles away.

Our trip north stoped in Port Lavaca. We set up next to the bridge along Lavaca Bay, where I met Brian Tanner. He and his family were sitting on a white, small, rock speckled beach, his two youngsters out in the shallow waters of the bay. "I plan to stick around a while and see what happens. I made it through Carla with only the shirt on my back; that was in the early '60s when I was just a teen. It was hell."

This area of the Gulf Coast is called the Coastal Bend. It encompasses 12 counties and about 600,000 people. The area is scattered with oil production facilities and petroleum sites. Everything is low-lying; there are bayou's, small rivers, inlets and shallow teal-blue bays. This country is not swampish like Louisianna, but marshy fields of green and pastures of short brush. Any storm surge or major rainfall will flood this country.

The mayor of Port Lavaca, who once rode out a hurricane in the Gulf on a tugboat, has told people staying to take a permanent marker and write there name, Social Security number and next of kin on their forearm or abdomen, so it will be easier to identify the dead. It's his way of trying to scare his constituents into evacuation.

After a few hours of [live shots] we are packed and on the road again. Like the storm, we are headed north and east.

Adam Housley joined FOX News Channel in 2001 as a Los Angeles-based correspondent. He provided extensive coverage of the Southeast Asia tsunami tragedy and the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Adam Housley joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Los Angeles-based senior correspondent.