Welcome to East Texas. Get off and we'll shoot you
East Texas hospitality: get off the
bus and we'll shoot you
The Beaumont Enterprise
EVACUATION "like a horror movie"
By: Robert Lopez, The Enterprise 09/28/2005
DALLAS - Alex LeBlanc left Beaumont on Thursday to begin a 50-hour bus trip across East Texas. What he experienced, he said, was "like a horror movie."
He couldn't get off the bus to buy food. The drivers were exhausted. And he couldn't go to the bathroom.
"Just had to wait," he said. "I tried to drink as little as I could, but I'm a diabetic. I need a lot of fluids."
LeBlanc was one of about 3,000 evacuees who fled Hurricane Rita aboard a convoy of about 50 Beaumont Independent School District school buses. The drivers originally were scheduled to pull into Lufkin, but were prevented from stopping there. That pattern continued until they reached Canton, about 250 miles from Beaumont, at about daybreak Saturday.
In Lufkin, 81-year-old Charlotte Ranger of Beaumont was struck by a vehicle and killed Friday afternoon after exiting a bus. Lufkin police were unsure whether the bus was part of the convoy. Several bus drivers from the convoy on Tuesday were staying in Reunion Arena, one of the three main Dallas shelters now housing about 1,700 people from Jefferson County.
As they sat outside on folding chairs, having a smoke, they described seeing people on their front lawns glaring at them with shotguns in hand, and pickup trucks with nooses hanging in back (most of the bus passengers were black).The drivers said whenever they tried to stop to rest or let their passengers use the restroom, town officials had court orders waiting for them to get out of town, an assertion those town officials later denied.
Driver Toni Soularie, 49, said she nearly had a violent confrontation when she pulled into a rest area.
"This officer said he was going to shoot me if I didn't get back on the bus," she said. "At that point I was prepared to let him shoot me. I had this invalid on the bus who was already embarrassed because she urinated all over herself. And I was not going to let her embarrass herself again. We just got off.
"But the officer stayed right there with me - made sure we were going to get back on."
Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety said she was unaware of anybody drawing guns.
"I have not heard about that," she said. "At one point several people got off. One refused to get back on, but we helped her get back on."
Drivers said they carried some food and water with them, but it was quickly exhausted, and for two days, they had almost no other way of getting provisions to their fellow evacuees. What help they did receive was meager.
"In Lufkin they actually gave us hot water," said Cori Williams, Soularie's son, who also is a driver for BISD. "And this is our home state. We shouldn't have to drive all over creation to find some place to sleep."
With nowhere to stay the night, desperate drivers were letting passengers (most of whom had no commercial driver's license) take a turn behind the wheel while they rested. Soularie said some were singing gospel music and praying over the radio to help each other stay awake. Eventually, BISD Transportation Director Clifton Guillory said, DPS drivers came on to offer some relief.
Guillory said he knew there were problems, but not to what extent.
"It was very hard to get communications out of East Texas," he said.
Soularie said that in Kilgore, they thought about stopping in an empty Wal-Mart parking lot, but again were turned away. The town, drivers said, was one of the roughest portions of their journey.
"When we tried to exit there, cars would actually back up on the ramps and force us to get back on the freeway," Cassandra Francis, a 46-year-old BISD driver, said.
Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said he didn't know much about the convoy, but echoed DPS's concerns about the need to press on.
"There were 10,000 people moving north at the same time," he said. "If they stopped, everybody might want to get off, and that would create even more delays."
By the time the vehicles got to Tyler, winds and rain were lashing them. The convoy arrived in Canton, the only place Mange said could take them in, about 6:30 a.m. Saturday. The buses themselves remain there and Soularie, Francis and Williams, as well as most of the other drivers who accompanied them on the trip, are stranded. They say they don't know when they're going back and haven't heard much news from home, other than the fact that Beaumont is a mess. When they do return, it'll probably be by a different route.
"I don't ever want to go back to some of those towns," Francis' 70-year-old father, Billy Bossette, said.
posted by Steve @ 8:12:00 PM