By Bill Spinks
Hurricanes create lots of waves — more than just literal ocean waves, which are limited to the coastline but can extend miles inland in a tremendous storm.
Ellis County, located about 245 miles from Galveston at its closest point, has experienced waves of evacuees fleeing north on Interstate 45 numerous times in the past. The landfall of Hurricane Laura early on Thursday was no exception.
"We’re consistently monitoring the radios for traffic control and emergencies," Ellis County emergency management coordinator Samantha Pickett said on Thursday. "We’re monitoring the weather (and) the highways to make sure that the traffic flow on I-45 is continuing to move forward."
The Knights of Columbus Council 1353 Hall at 850 South Interstate 45 in Ennis opened its doors to self-evacuees on Tuesday evening in advance of the storm, which barreled ashore during the wee hours of Thursday with high winds, heavy rain and storm surge.
"Traffic has been fairly steady and we saw a big influx yesterday afternoon," said Ashley Colunga, Ennis marketing and communications director, on Friday. "Prior to yesterday afternoon we had served about 700 families since the facility was set up on Tuesday. Yesterday afternoon, over 100 families arrived."
In coordination with the Texas Division of Emergency Management, Ellis County Office of Emergency Management, the cities of Ennis and Midlothian and the Knights of Columbus, this facility served as a reception center for those self-evacuating from Laura.
Evacuees who checked in were given money for gas and a voucher for a hotel stay. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, evacuee families were being housed in hotels rather than open shelters.
"Operations have run smoothly," Colunga said. "Upon arrival, families have their temperature taken and are required to wear masks. One family member is asked to sign in. At that point, the family can enjoy snacks, water, use the restroom.
"We have been working with the state to locate hotel rooms for the families. When they arrive, we provide them with the hotel that has availability. They sign in and receive a $20 gas card to help get them to the hotel."
Additionally, Pickett said a COVID-19 mobile testing site was also set up at First Baptist Church in Ennis.
Texans passing through the Ennis center were provided with information regarding FEMA, state, American Red Cross and Salvation Army resources. Additional information included pet sheltering, lodging accommodations, and guidance regarding nearby hurricane shelters in the DFW Metroplex.
A similar evacuation center opened in Mesquite, and hotels in Dallas and Tarrant counties were also providing lodging for evacuating families.
Laura largely spared the Texas side of the Sabine River, but caused devastation on the Louisiana side well inland, with hurricane-force winds enduring almost up to the Interstate 20 corridor. The death toll in the Pelican State stood at six as of midday Friday, to go along with 23 deaths in the Caribbean.
This week, more than a half-million people along the coast from Port Arthur to Galveston were ordered to leave their homes and businesses behind and move inland as Laura intensified offshore. Many thousands of others in the region chose to voluntarily evacuate.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced the opening of the Ennis reception center and others on Tuesday as he addressed the state’s response to Laura. The storm intensified rapidly from a tropical storm on Tuesday to a Category 4 monster — at 150 mph, just shy of Category 5 — over steamy Gulf waters by the time it made landfall.
The last time Ellis County emergency services were called to action for coastal tropical weather was three years ago, when Hurricane Harvey stalled over Southeast Texas and brought devastating rainfall.
Before that came waves of traffic up I-45 because of Hurricanes Rita and Ike.
During the Rita evacuation in 2005, Texas Department of Transportation officials put into motion a contraflow plan for I-45 where southbound lanes were opened for northbound traffic.
The chaotic result, where filling stations along the way ran out of fuel, broken-down cars blocked lanes and a bus fire killed 23 elderly evacuees just south of Dallas, led TxDOT to adjust traffic evacuation plans.
The Ike evacuation three years later was smoother but still created plenty of disruptions. Fortunately, the largest one locally was the cancellation of a Friday night high school football game between Ferris and Pilot Point because of the traffic on I-45.
TxDOT still maintains emergency plans for a contraflow on I-45 from near New Waverly to just south of the U.S. Highway 287 split near Ennis. However, no contraflow was instituted this week for the evacuation for Laura.