Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hurricane Ike, three years later

This week, while everyone else I knew was preoccupied with the 9/11 anniversary, I found myself thinking back to a different anniversary and a different pile of debris.

Three years ago last night, Hurricane Ike made landfall on the Texas coast- my end of the Texas coast. Home.

I rode out the storm's landfall on a sailboat on a lake on the north end of Houston with my best friend, surrogate big brother, EMS colleague, real-life hero, and partner-in-lunacy, David. We were crazy stupid kids, I guess; one of us mostly grew out of it, and the other died of it.

This week, I keep thinking of the crazy, scary, awesome stormy night I spent on a sailboat with an old friend, and the days afterward doing the most challenging and rewarding work I've ever done, with a group of people (and dogs) I will always be proud to know and to have worked alongside.

I think I'm going to post a series of hurricane-recovery stories here for as long as they last.

Here's a start, reposted from my old LiveJournal- the post I wrote on returning from the one-year anniversary memorial in Crystal Beach, where we spent a few days searching the debris for those still missing after the storm.

"Last Saturday, my SAR teammates and I had the privelege of attending the anniversary memorial service for hurricane victims at Crystal Beach.

We arrived by way of Winnie that afternoon, driving in from a fundraiser for the CHASER foundation in Conroe, to have dinner with a friend of my teammates before the memorial. On arriving, we found a pair of FEMA trailers parked next to a partially-reconstructed home surrounded by a dozen or so relatives and neighbors all working busily. The friend who had kindly invited us emerged from one of the trailers, where she had been cooking for the workers all day-- lunch, she told us, had been seafood enchiladas, and the kitchen table when we entered was piled high with freshly baked cookies. She was clearly tired, but bright and full of enthusiasm and energy, which seemed to be the general attitude.

Everyone was gathering around the table set up out back as we emerged from the trailer, and the friend cheerfully announced us as one of the teams that did SAR work here after the storm. We were greeted with applause and a couple comments along the lines, "Hey, we love you guys!" and all did our professional best not to get all teary-eyed. That had been an emotional enough bit of work for those of us who were there, and that day was in some ways the culmination of it.

We all joined hands for prayer-- a teammate on one side of me, a friendly stranger on the other-- and I snuck a peek or two around and thought to myself that this was the Texas Gulf Coast at its best, this was the spirit of those who survived the storm, and I realized anew how proud I was to have called this place home once and to have come back to serve these people. There was mud everywhere, still smelling as it did after the storm-- pungent and probably contaminated-- and debris still littered all the land in view, but here was determination and togetherness and laughter and a pile of delicious food. Here was life, and I found myself grinning a little at that before the prayer was over.

Dinner was beyond incredible-- softshell crab, boudin, shrimp, and gator-kabobs, the latter two of which had been swimming around that morning. Nothing like fresh-caught seafood to remind you that life is still worth living.

We listened to our friend talk of how high the water had gotten, the damage to homes in the area, the process of rebuilding. We were introduced to one of the neighbors, a smiling elderly lady whose home had been completely taken by the storm; our friend informed us that she'd found only a single fork. Yet there she was, bustling around making sure everyone had napkins, telling fishing stories from her younger days, smiling.

I lost track of who was related to whom and how, but one of the relatives, a man introduced to us as the provider of the gator, had found some bones washed ashore next to the channel and wondered if they might be human. Four people from Bolivar were still missing, and their fate lingers in the constant awareness of the residents and rebuilding crews. "I'm an anthropologist," I said, "Not the best, but I can take a look if you like." I left it to my teammates to volunteer the dogs, and we all piled back into the car-- three people and four dogs-- to follow the relatives down to the channel.

Said channel is really the ICW where it passes between Bolivar Peninsula and Goat Island north of Crystal Beach. Those of us who were there after Ike like to tell people that there are only two houses on Goat Island... and before the storm, there were none. Further Ike-deposited contents of the island included a refrigerator trailer full of something very rotten by the time we got there, dozens of dead cows (which we kept making poor Pete check, to his disgust), and literally tons of debris. It was a miserable day's slog across that place-- someday I'll write about it, there's a helicopter story, even-- and my team leader and I were only too glad to curse that godforsaken piece of real estate from across the water.

The bones-- according a committee consisting of an anthropologist, an animal science M.S., and three HRD dogs-- were not human. We all figured they had most likely been dragged ashore by the alligator the relatives told us hung out nearby. It seemed likely that they'd come from its underwater stash, since the relatives also reported seeing a hole dug out in the bottom at low tide. Personally I don't doubt that there might be some human bits in there somewhere-- if not from this storm, then from some of the hundreds they never found after 1900 or from other individual cases over the years-- but these were none of the above. As with our work there last fall, this was as much about putting people's minds at ease as it was about actually finding the victims, and in that sense we did good solid work.

That little adventure involved a short slog through the mud down to the water and back. I have Gulf Coast mud on my boots again, and somehow I feel better about life with that reminder of who I am and why I'm here.

We all made it to the memorial just in time to sneak in a few minutes late. The event was held, much to the surprise of my team leader and I, in the gym of the elementary school we'd stayed at the previous fall. The generator trucks and the small city of temporary showers and porta-johns was gone, and the handful of vehicles smashed up against the pilings in the parking area below the school had been cleared away. The debris that had covered the field across the street (I remember too well standing on the porch in the evenings, looking across at that wondering if it held the victims we had spent all day searching for) had been cleared away too.

The air conditioner was back up and running full blast as well, in the whole school instead of just the set of rooms we'd occupied a year ago, and as I shivered through the service I thought, "I remember this gym when it was almost too hot to move and we were in here playing kickball with the firefighters!" If one is willing to stretch the definition of kickball to include strining a volleyball net across the gym, pulling out every ball the school owned (at least a hundred) and trying to see how many we could keep in the air at one time. Bonus points for hitting each other.

The service itself was part reminsiscence, part memorial for those lost, and part celebration of survival and rebuilding. I found myself in awe yet again of the spirit and resilience and determination of these people. I'd seen the destruction and understood as well as any outsider could how much they had lost and endured, and their attitude in the face of that along with the progress they had made in a year were truly inspiring. No one here was asking for a handout. No one here was protesting because they hadn't received enough help. They were helping themselves, helping each other, and being thankful for the outside help they had received.

Very thankful, in fact-- we were all stunned speechless to receive a standing ovation when we were introduced as recovery volunteers. Again, we all did our professional best to not get all teary-eyed, with mixed success.

The memorial portion was beautifully done, and in the accepted tradition for those lost at sea, included a bell tolled once for each of the dead and missing as their names were read. I don't handle bells so well since Medic 9's funeral, but with the help of a cuddly border collie I managed to sit through it. Two of the residents had recovered the bell itself from the debris several months ago.

As my teammates and I rode the ferry back to Galveston after the service, we stood at the rail and watched the fireworks over Galveston. There had been no one lost from Galveston, either dead or missing, and their service must have taken on a slightly different tone. I thought about what we had just been given the honor of sharing with the people of Crystal Beach, and I saw the fireworks as a sign of hope.

There's a folk singer from Fort Worth named Brian Burns, and he wrote a song about the 1900 storm that I had stuck in my head for most of hurricane callout last year. As we drove home Saturday night, I caught myself humming it again:

"I came here to bury the lost souls who perished that day
When the ocean rose twenty miles onto the prairie
And washed it all into the Bay.

And nothing that stood could escape the concussion
Of an angry wave riding on a hurricane wind..." "

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Gravestone Project- First Attempt

I dragged my poor husband out to Sharp Cemetery after work on Wednesday to attempt my first set of data for The Gravestone Project.

I chose that location over Killeen City Cemetery because Sharp Cemetery is smaller and more remote, which means there were likely to be fewer people to be offended by and/or ask awkward questions about what those two crazy people were doing to the gravestones with all those weird instruments.

The "new" GPS (actually a fifteen-year-old Magellan GPS 2000 in suprisingly good condition, which is very basic but does what I need it to do) works pretty well if you give it a minute or to to pick up enough satellites. I knew this already because I spent Wednesday morning at work playing with it, and I now have a partial GPS plot of the funeral home to show for it. Locations were easy enough as a result.

Determining the direction the gravestones were facing was also pleasantly simple despite the fact that I forgot to bring a compass (no excuse since I own three or four) thanks to the fact that Sharp Cemetery is coveniently laid out on pretty close to exact east-west lines (who needs a compass when you have a beautiful sunset because you put off the trip until too late in the day?) so all of the graves are facing either due east or due west, and it's not hard to tell those two apart, especially in the late evening.

Measurements were slightly more problematic. I had acquired a nice set of digital calipers on Amazon.com, and except for one afternoon of enthusiastic fiddling with them, I hadn't really spent as much time practicing measurements as I should have before actually going to the cemetery. I quickly discovered that the digital calipers were technically easier to read than the analog ones I had used back in grad school, but slightly trickier; I must have measured the same spot on one particular marker five or six times, because I kept getting different readings on my calipers.

Determining ground level- which is important in the placement of the measurements, and which also has to be recorded if you're measuring a gravestone on a pedestal, which most of the marble ones at Sharp Cemetery seem to be- was also a little tricky thanks to uneven ground and thick tufts of dried grass. I had forgotten something vital about field work of any sort, in any discipline- it's never as cut-and-dried or neat as the plan says it should be.

By the time we had to leave, after less than an hour of working time- we were late to our planned dinner anyway- we only had one set of measurements which I didn't quite trust, and I was grumpy, frustrated, and disappointed. My remarkably patient husband chalked it up to a learning experience and made a few helpful suggestions, mostly centered on practice, instruction-reading, and a few more items of equipment, like a small level.

With that in mind, I'm hoping to make another attempt this weekend, hopefully with better and more useful results.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Brief moment on the soapbox

I dislike bringing politics into anything at all, though I grudgingly recognize its necessity from time to time.

This will probably cost me what few readers I have, but I feel compelled to respond to the American Anthropological Association's recent decision to boycott Arizona and Georgia as potential conference locations because of their legislative action to combat illegal entry into the United States. I realize that the AAA doesn't care what I have to say, because professionally and academically I am essentially nobody, but the benefit of having my own blog is that I'm going to say it anyway and maybe someone, somewhere, will at least notice for a moment.

Absolutely nothing in an anthropologically-informed worldview compels denial of a nation's right to enforce its own laws or to define and subsequently protect its own borders. Rather, the historical perspective that should accompany a background in anthropology (remembering that the holistic perspective is temporal as well) should reinforce the validity of those rights. As an anthropologist, I find it frustrating that so many of my colleagues overlook this.

There is also nothing in an anthropologically-informed worldview that should compel and individual to feel that access to social services in a country one has entered illegally, from a government to whom one contributes no taxes, are a basic human right. The social contract works in two directions- government's end of the deal involves maintaining order, peace, and essential security; the people's end of the deal involves abiding by the laws passed by their representatives, working within the system to change them as needed, and paying for certain services by way of taxation. If the social contract has been breached by one party- someone who chooses to disregard this country's laws and enter it illegally, continue to reside here illegally, and pay no taxes- then there is no obligation on the part of the government at any level to uphold its end of the contract for that individual, up to an including permitting them to remain in the country.

I object to one anthropologist's (whose work I respect greatly but who I disagree with on this matter) characterization of Arizona's laws as "draconian." As a lifelong border-state resident, I have had ample opportunity to observe the worsening effects of the rise in illegal immigration, in the form of increased crime rates, drastic overburdening of social services, and increased competition for already-scarce employment; having seen and experienced the realities of the situation, I applaud Arizona for acting in its citizens' interest. How many of the AAA's board members have descended from the ivory tower recently to conduct some honest, open-minded participant observation, especially in the border states, to gain a more informed understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political realities on the ground before passing their resolutions? If the answer is less than "all of us," then the AAA board acted very irresponsibly and not at all like thoughtful, serious anthropologists.

By the way, any and all members of the AAA have an open invitation to visit my husband and I once we complete our PCS move to El Paso (where, by the way, many members of my husband's unit are not taking their spouses and children because they consider the crime rate and risks of Mexico's overflowing drug war too great) to conduct such observation.

Neither Georgia nor Arizona nor the overwhelming majority of those speaking out against ILLEGAL immigration is seeking to close this country's borders entirely to LEGAL entry, ban or repress Hispanic culture, etc. The issue here isn't one of racism or cultural sensitivity; it's a simple matter of not permitting, rewarding, and encouraging violation of this country's laws, and of not tolerating people who want to reap the benefits of a system they aren't willing to contribute to and whose rules they aren't willing to abide by (where I grew up we called that freeloading). Anthropologists, and any other enlightened and decent people, have an ethical and moral obligation to oppose cultural oppression, racial discrimination or subjugation, and other social injustices- but treating people who break our country's law like people who have broken a law instead of like honored guests is none of those things.