By Scott Gold
Times Staff Writer

September 24, 2005

BEAUMONT, Texas — Timothy Abbott would not describe his life as easy. Decent, maybe. He’ll go that far.

His family settled in this working-class town three generations ago, when his great-grandmother ran away from home at age 15. The Abbotts have found work where they could over the years. Timothy, 27, has a job at a car detailer, making $6.25 an hour.

He loves his girlfriend and her 2-year-old daughter, even when the kid gets pizza sauce all over her shirt like she did Friday. They live in a small apartment. People complain about the crime in Beaumont, but it’s not too bad, Abbott said. Two weeks ago, the couple had a baby of their own, a girl, Timania.

"Everything was all right," he said. "Until now."

On Friday afternoon, as the first bands of Hurricane Rita whistled past flagpoles and snapped limbs from trees, Abbott was part of a scene that has become all too familiar on the Gulf Coast, less than a month after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and other areas.

Once again, terrified families clutching diapers, pillows and teddy bears climbed the steps of buses to evacuate. At the Beaumont Civic Center, Abbott caught the last ride out of town. Once again, a Southern family was loaded onto a bus, a father cradling an infant and coaxing a toddler up the stairs — with no idea where they were headed, when they would be back or what they would find when they came home.

"I can’t even believe it," he said as he tossed a garbage bag full of provisions into the cargo hold. "What happened to those people in New Orleans can happen to you. It’s happening to us. It’s crazy, man. Crazy."

The parallels between Katrina and Rita are far from absolute. Many of the evacuations in New Orleans were carried out long after the storm hit, after the levees broke and the city flooded. This time, rescue crews worked feverishly to evacuate everyone willing to leave ahead of time.

But once again, the evacuations brought mayhem and anguish. The sounds — hissing buses, shouting soldiers — could have been recorded a month ago.

"Make a sweep!" shouted an Air Force officer at Southeast Texas Regional Airport outside nearby Port Arthur, where thousands of elderly residents and nursing home patients were loaded onto military cargo planes bound for Arkansas, Oklahoma and other states.

"We’re out of here!" the officer yelled. "Make sure there’s no patients stuck in a corner or anything."

At the Beaumont Civic Center, rescue workers urged evacuees to board buses as quickly as possible as the winds kicked up.

"Two more seats!" a firefighter yelled, standing at the door of one of the last buses to leave. "I need two!"

Once again, families were fractured.

"I’m the only one left," said Shilah Guidry, 27, of Port Arthur as she boarded a bus clutching only a blanket.

"I don’t even know where my kids are. They’re with my mother, but they got stuck in traffic."

Port Arthur Police Officer Robert Bridges worked through the night Thursday to get people out. At dawn Friday, on a whim, he decided to drop in on an old family friend, Wilbert Green, 76, to make sure that he was gone. He found Green on his knees in a small clapboard house.

"He was praying — praying that someone would come get him," Bridges said. "He doesn’t have a phone and he couldn’t find anybody. He said, ‘I’ve been asking for you.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s do it.’ "

Abbott had tried to persuade his mother to ride over to the civic center with him so he could get her on the bus. But she wanted to wait for his sisters, who were en route from a nearby town.

His mother’s van, however, was running too hot, and Abbott feared that it had broken down because she was nowhere to be found. He had no way to reach her. The bus was leaving. The wind was picking up by the minute. Rescue workers were screaming at him to get his belongings in the cargo hold and get his family on board.

"They should be here," he said, scanning the deserted streets as he climbed on the bus. "They’re just going to be stuck. Are they going to make it or not?"

The bus left minutes later. They were not on board.

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