Monday, March 14, 2011

Always check the shoes.

Reposted from One Day at a Time.

My friend Sarah posted a link to this MSNBC slideshow this morning. When I looked at it then, one of the first few pictures was an image of a little girl's white shoe sitting forlornly on the pavement, with piles of rubble and debris in the background (I've been through all four slideshows now, hoping to find the picture again to post it here, but it must have been moved).

Seeing that shoe brought back a lot of memories of the search for human remains on the Texas coast after Hurricane Ike back in 2008.

The debris piles contained a lot of small personal items; when you hear about "debris piles," you think of pieces of buildings, downed trees, but it's too easy to forget about all the small everyday things that make up our lives: books, toys, knickknacks, clothing. The psychological impact of seeing such mundane, fundamentally human items tossed about and abandoned that way was worse than seeing homes reduced to debris and even worse than the knowledge that the residents might still be under there somewhere. It was jarring, poignant, and sad.

I remember finding several picture frames and photo albums; always, we went through those albums page by page, hoping to find at least one picture to perhaps return to a family for some small measure of comfort, but every time the pictures had been either torn out by the water or disintegrated. Walking through the remains of homes on Bolivar, I had to fight the urge to pick up all the sad-looking children's toys among the debris and leave them somewhere sheltered but visible where a returning child might find them. We marvelled, though, at the sight of glass Christmas ornaments somehow intact, nestled among boards and nails and shingles, and my team leader told the story of the crystal clock he found, intact and upright, in a table in a flooded-out home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Most of our work took place in a county on the mainland, across Galveston Bay from the low-lying barriers of Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula which caught the brunt of Ike's landfall. Across the thirty-mile length of the bay and seven miles inland, we found pieces of homes from Bolivar and Galveston carried there by the storm surge. The majority of what made it across the bay and the prairie were lighter, more buoyant items- wooden housing components including a whole porch and section of wall, refrigerators and water heaters, lightbulbs and Christmas ornaments almost miraculously intact, whole flocks of carved wooden pelicans that the local sheriffs collected and tossed into the backs of ATVs swearing they were worth something, boats, foam kickboards and surfboards and life vests, buoys...

...and shoes.

Early on, while we were still working on Bolivar (I have looked and looked for Diamond Street every time I have been back there, and I don't know if it lost its street sign or was destroyed, but I've never found it again), my team leader told me to check the shoes to be certain they were empty. The human ankle joint, much like its counterpart in the wrist, does not articulate as securely as certain others, so hands and feet disarticulate and detach with relative ease. The added buoyancy of a shoe could easily have allowed a foot to be carried across the expanse of water by the storm surge. Police in Canada have seen ample evidence of this.

It became part of my job in the field, in addition to pulling smelly dogs out of even smellier water, carrying extra supplies, and watching for alligators, to flip over any shoes we found in the debris piles and check for feet. There is no tension quite like seeing a pair of children's shoes laying together, upside down, in a pile of debris, and no relief quite like turning them over to find them empty, with a plastic zip-tie with the store's tag attached still holding them together.

Part of a shoe store must have gotten washed up in that area, because all along that section of the debris pile, we found several more pairs of shoes still bound together, mostly upside-down, and it kept us on edge for a while even after we figured out what must have happened.

We never found a shoe that was not empty, nor in fact any actual human remains on that side of the bay, but the memory stays with me, so strongly that to this day, even in my own apartment, if I see a shoe lying upside down, I reflexively kick it over and look inside.