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Rita victims heading back to Texas

| October 12, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

A former Troy resident and his girlfriend drove 2,000 miles from their Texas home to seek refuge from Hurricane Rita in the Lincoln County town.

Justin Tallmadge, 23, and Athena Russell, 20, were among those forced to evacuate Nederland, Texas, and nearby cities in advance of the storm that made landfall during the last weekend of September — just 27 days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. The two spent a couple of weeks with Tallmadge's father, Jack, and step-mother.

A total of 2.5 million people fled the hurricane.

Electricity was restored to Nederland last week, and the Texans departed for home on Monday of this week. But not before recounting a harrowing drive north from the Gulf Coast in which bumper-to-bumper evacuees clogged the highway with numerous collisions.

"It was constantly stop-and-go, stop-and-go," Russell said. "People were crashing into each other all the time."

Tallmadge said it took 15 hours to go 120 miles, a trip normally made in 70 minutes.

Things stayed that way as the couple drove through the night, stopping only to sleep a couple of hours in their vehicles. There was no gasoline to buy, nor did stores have any food or water because it had all been purchased by panicking evacuees.

"It was an adventure," Russell said.

Rita had been predicted to be a 120-mile-an-hour Class 5 hurricane, although it hit with gentler impact. Nederland, which sits at higher elevation than towns to either side, was spared flooding although some wind damage occurred.

The home Tallmadge and Russell occupy, which is owned by his mother Sherry Washburn of Nederland, sustained only minor damage to a carport. However, Russell still had not been able to contact her mother in Beaumont as of last week.

She and Tallmadge are just glad they didn't get split up during evacuation, as happened to many families. He drove his truck to the safety of inland Texas, where he left it with his mother, while Russell drove her small car.

They carried a menagerie of their own three cats plus Tallmadge's mother's three ferrets, five dogs and two rabbits.

Tallmadge said they stayed in Gilmore, Texas, 80 miles from home for three days in the belief that they'd be able to return to Nederland. That didn't happen, and he said Texas authorities made it clear that there'd be no food or water brought in for anyone who disobeyed evacuation orders.

"They told us that straight up," Tallmadge said. "They had cops and National Guard members blocking the road up to 40 miles from Nederland."

He reported seeing signs in businesses that threatened, "Looters will be shot."

Only six looters were arrested in Nederland, he added.

Tallmadge said the evacuation, although stressful, was much more successful than the situation in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina.

"We had so much shorter (notice) than New Orleans, but we got out," he said, crediting local governments in Texas with better preparedness.

Some 6,000 people were flown out of Nederland and nearby Port Arthur on C-130 cargo planes, Tallmadge said.

Another thing that prompted people to leave their homes, Tallmadge said, was that government officials did not set up shelters in evacuation areas. That prevented situations such as occurred at the New Orleans SuperDome, he said.

The Texas couple acknowledged they were fortunate that their home wasn't hard hit. And Russell joked about her abrupt trip to Montana, which she had never visited before and where Tallmadge had not returned for seven years.

"It took a natural disaster for him to come back and visit his relatives," she said with a chuckle.