Southeast of Disorder

Living and Dying in Three-Quarter Time
September 23, 2008, 9:11 pm
Filed under: Dog, Galveston, hurricane

There are going to be some good, hardworking people who’ll never recover from Ike. You can recognize them on the street: They’re the ones with the hollow eyes of war survivors.

I just spoke to one while I was walking my dog outside the Holiday Inn in Seguin, Texas. She’s a single woman, middle-aged, and an evacuee from Gilchrist, a small town on the Bolivar Penninsula between Galveston Island and Port Arthur. Gilchrist wasn’t one of the Texas Riviera’s trendy beach communities. It was a country town populated by salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar working folks and farmers. The sum total of Gilchrist’s commercial development comprised a True Value hardware store, a couple of country-and-western bars and a handful of mom-and-pop diners, feed stores and groceries. Ike took almost everything, leaving only a few building shells standing.

Angie, my new friend, lost everything except her dog to Ike. Her house. Her car. Her clothes and furniture. Her job. It’s not like she had a lot to begin with, but she worked hard for what she did have, even after an auto accident last year severed the lower portion of her right leg. Surgeons reattached the leg, but it will never be normal. Through it all, Sophia Loren, Angie’s sweet Rottweiler-Blue Heeler mix, has been her steadfast companion.

Angie and Sophie were separated briefly after they were bussed to a San Antonio shelter when their aging van was washed away by Ike’s rising water. After Katrina and Rita, Texas law was changed to allow people to take their pets with them during mandatory evacuations. Sadly, legislators didn’t deal with what would become of the pets once evacuees reached shelters. A San Antonio animal welfare organization collected all the sheltered evacuees’ pets so they could be cared for properly, but the form the evacuees were required to sign gave the organization the right to place the animals in new homes if the evacuees didn’t reclaim them within 10 days.

When Angie’s head quit spinning, she read the fine print. She left the shelter, got a rental car through her auto insurance company, and headed for a motel that accepted pets. The expense, she said, is about to kill her, but she’ll manage as long as she has Sophie.

FEMA still has not approved Angie for temporary housing assistance. They need her to fax them proof she actually rented the now-destroyed “cabin” (her term) she occupied before Ike vented his fury all over the upper Texas Gulf Coast. She didn’t think to take utility bills with her when she left, and now she’s sure they’re scattered all over a narrow strip of land that’s still soggy nearly two weeks after a 15-foot wall of water wiped most life from its surface.

Someone from Texas Governor Rick Perry’s office called Angie’s room this morning, she said. They wanted to know what they could do to help. “I didn’t even know what to tell them,” she told me, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “Where was I supposed to start? I told them about my dog. I’m not giving up my dog.”

Sophie jumped up and licked my face. I wouldn’t give her up, either.


“It Snuck Up On Us”
September 13, 2007, 7:43 am
Filed under: Galveston | Tags: , , , , ,

When you live on a sandbar in the Gulf of Mexico, there are five words you do not aspire to hear from professional weather watchers: “It snuck up on us.”

Hurricane Humberto did exactly that early Thursday morning, surging into a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour just before striking the Southeast Texas coast slightly northeast of Galveston at about 1 a.m.

Humberto was an indolent storm, lollygagging across the Gulf at about six miles an hour for most of Wednesday before engaging in some serious Galveston sightseeing late in the afternoon. Sustained winds were only in the 50-60 MPH range at 9 p.m. If Humberto had come ashore then as forecasters predicted instead of insolently gamboling about over the water for a few more hours, it would have remained a tropical storm. It might have whacked a few more trees on the island, possibly sent a few more inches of water under shop doors on The Strand, maybe slightly damaged a building here and there …

… but it would not have become the dreaded “H word,” which tends to send people here into a panic. You would think because we’re all very aware we live on a sandbar in the Gulf of Mexico (and we take perverse pride in thumbing our noses at Mother Nature), everyone might simply shrug and go on about their lives. Some people, however, allow hysteria to overcome them and they behave as if any hurricane’s arrival represents a monumental surprise. Given Galveston’s history, that’s just bizarre. After all, despite Katrina visiting her wrath upon New Orleans in 2005, Galveston remains indelibly inked in the anals of history as the site of the worst natural disaster ever to strike the U.S.: the 1900 Storm. (Crews stopped counting bodies at 6,000, and what once was called “the Wall Street of the Southwest” literally was swept from the face of the planet in one night of unimaginable terror. Erik Larson’s excellent books Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History and The Drowning of Galveston and the History Channel’s chilling Isaac’s Storm provide harrowing accounts of the disaster.)

Some of us, of course, consider hurricanes one of the unfortunate trades we must make in order to live in what passes for a tropical paradise roughly two miles off the coast of Texas. No matter how unpleasant it may be when she actually does slap us in the face, usually Mother Nature behaves herself quite politely around here. (After living in California’s San Fernando Valley and Glasgow, Mont., I can attest to the occasional hurricane being infinitely preferable to unpredictable earth shaking and predictable snow drifts higher than houses. I’ll take the hurricanes, thank you very much.)

What never ceases to amaze me is the broadcast media’s morbid fascination with violent weather. For the past two years, at the vaguest threat of bad weather, Galveston has found itself under siege by news vultures who insist upon standing on the seawall and yelling into microphones as video cameras capture them being doused and buffeted. Venerable Dan Rather started the trend during Hurricane Carla in 1961, and since then every talking head with any ambition has imitated his death-defying feat in hopes it would propel him or her to similar national prominence. It hasn’t, and those of us who live here think it’s a particularly silly thing to do. (“What are you, nuts?! Get down from there and go inside before someone has you committed! Sheesh…. Talk about not having enough sense to come in out of the rain.”)

Even more annoying is the implication people can’t wait for another Katrina-like disaster to liven up the daily news — as long as they don’t have to endure the unpleasantness personally. A man died in High Island (site of the storm’s official landfall northeast of Galveston ) during Humberto, and there was “significant damage” to property in that area from wind and water. High Island residents remain without power, and the roads are impassable due to downed trees and power lines.

As one local weatherman (excuse me: “meteorologist”) noted, “[Galveston] dodged a bullet this time,” but our sighs of relief are accompanied by someone else’s sobs of despair. Celebrating our good fortune would be terribly inappropriate.