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..." "

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