Thursday, September 18, 2008

Chapter 1


I began rambling about the upcoming threat of Hurricane Ike on my blog – the Quilt Rambler  - and posted daily as long as I had power and internet access. There were also several personal emails to friends as well as comments posted to my blog and conversations concerning the storm with friends in online chat boards. It is my hope to recapture some of those correspondences to add to my collection of thoughts. This “chapter” version is a continuation of that rambling as I am now without internet access. The intention is to post these chapters once that service is restored. Not knowing if anyone will really want to read all this or not, I am doing this as my own therapy of “handling the aftermath of Ike” 

Chapter 1


The Return of the Refugees

The First 24 hours

Monday: 9/15/08


We left our comfortable evacuation home this morning, uncertain of the condition of our traveling route of 75 miles south and even more uncertain of the conditions we would find upon arrival. Our caravan of three encountered other evacuees/refugees/general public on the roadways, but it wasn’t an overcrowded condition, certainly much less than the normal Houston traffic on a Monday morning.

The majority of our route was interstate or beltways. Thankfully the city has continued to waive the toll fares making travel much easier. Very few homes were along this route, but those that were we found to be spotted with tarps on some roofs, trees in the yards, and businesses still boarded up.

Our first stop, since it was “on the way” (our effort to conserve much valued fuel by avoiding a return trip) was to stop at my husband’s parents in Dickinson. We found that we had to traverse several detours due to downed trees or power lines to arrive at our destination. We were pleased to find all was well with our family and then we accessed their damage. (Our thoughts throughout this ordeal have been people first, property second). Their dwelling was intact, and they had a whole-house backup generator allowing them to have power and more importantly air conditioning. His parents are in their mid 70’s and are housing two widow ladies who are in their 80’s. Air conditioning is of extreme importance in Hot Humid Houston. I might add here, our combined thankfulness for the cold front that had pushed through to our area – we had awaken to 60 degrees which is unseasonably cool to an area that boasts high nineties up until October and sometimes November. We knew the temperature would rise as the day wore on, probably in the high 80’s, but with the promises of no humidity – hence the blessing of the cold front. 

Once our hugs were complete we went to the backyard to photo their tree damage. Many of their trees were totally uprooted and laying across the yard like pick up sticks. Pappaw’s yard has been a haven for many a child with his beautifully structured playhouse and giant swing – the swing is no more having been capsized by a fallen tree.

 We learned that my husband’s youngest brother (who is still out of the country on business and eagerly awaiting the airports to reopen so he can rejoin his family) had sustained a tree through our nephew’s window causing roof damage. They live in the country in nearby Santa Fe (also Galveston County) and reported about 80% of their trees were down. We were also told of the wonderful “neighbor helping neighbor” event that had already taken place, less than 24 hours of Ike’s strike on Texas. Seems the neighbors knew my brother-in-law was out of town and that his wife and teenage sons were in need. Several of these said neighbors are construction workers, so they quickly accessed the damage, made a plan and promptly removed the tree and repaired the roof. What a blessing!

We learned that my husband’s middle brother had evacuated his family to the San Antonio area to my husband’s one and only cousin’s home. They had returned earlier in the day with a generator and were settling back in. Their home was not flooded, and to my knowledge sustained no other damage. Not sure about trees, but more than likely their yard held the same debris of limbs we were seeing across the region.

Once we determined that our extended families were all more than survivors we were eager to get back on the road for our final 10 mile journey to our home. Going back through the neighborhoods as we wound our way to the main roads was so unreal – so many downed trees, big old trees that had offered much shade. I couldn’t help but notice there was more daylight than usual.

Many of the traffic lights were not functioning; it was encouraging to see everyone being patient in “taking turns” to proceed through the intersections. Finally we were on the main street of our community. For the most part it seemed to be the same, yet upon closer inspection there were businesses with twisted roofs, trees down, boards still covering windows, etc. Then I saw it, the pharmacy had its outside sign with the scrolling messages working. That gave me hope that at least some of the area may have power!

As we turned onto our street I held my breath – would it be as it had been reported to us? No flooding? Would our big trees that so gracefully embraced each other to offer shade to our deck in the backyard still be standing or would we find them on the roof of our home like so many homes we had just passed? Would our car port have been blown away? These were the million questions going through my mind as I strained ahead to see our home.

Being in a caravan of three I was the last to turn the corner. I couldn’t believe my eyes, no trees on our roof and it appeared that everything was fine. My youngest had already unlocked the door and made the loud proud announcement that WE HAVE POWER! Totally unbelievable! I was praising God that we’d been spared the worst of it.

We then begin our closer inspections. Indeed there were some shingles missing off the roof, we’d need to check the attic for leakage. There was the siding from the edge of the roof easement all over the ground among debris from the downed trees with singles sprinkled on top of the brush and limbs like they were the candy sprinkles added to a cupcake. Clean up would be no piece of cake, that’s for sure. We noticed the way the tall grass in the vacant lot next to us was laid as if it were a well traveled path; we assume that was the way the water flowed parallel to our ditches. Indeed had we been here we might have observed a rushing mighty flow of water. One can only imagine.

As we walked to the porch to make our way into the house (first priority to turn on the air conditioning) we noticed one of our middle support beams from the porch laying on the ground as if it were carefully placed there, yet the roof it was supporting had held. Amazing! Again, upon further inspection we could see the debris of small leaves and such plastered on our siding leaving evidence that our porch must have been a wind tunnel, hence the downed support pole. Interesting enough, it appears by the direction the pole was laying that the wind had blown from the opposite direction from the flow of the water. I was thankful we had evacuated and didn’t have to hear the wind or see the rising water. I’ve heard tell “run from water, hide from wind” – I guess if you have both you’d just better get out of there, or as I’m hearing several say “we bugged out” J

Once inside the house we made a quick inspection, no apparent entries of water, except the backdoor rug was a bit damp. In our haste to evacuate we neglected to put a towel at the threshold. It didn’t appear to go much further than the door area, so that was wonderful and nullified our concern of the washer and dryer, freezer and water heater being damaged by water. We did notice however that the wooden door has swollen making it very difficult to open and close. That may need to be replaced, but for now we can still secure it. Next inspection – the backyard.

The news media kept using the description of “war zone” which I believe accurately described our backyard. I was shocked, both on the positive side and well as just the shear disbelief of what I was viewing. I had no idea our two beautiful shade trees could have that many limbs! The amazing part was nothing was damaged by their fall – no limbs had hit the house and although the deck and railing was totally covered it was not damaged. The roots and trunk of the tree held strong. Again, I noticed the amount of additional sunlight – but the trees survived the storm. We had our work cut out for us.

Somehow in the course of the next few hours we managed to unload our car, fix a bowl of hot soup for lunch and map out our game plan.

I don’t remember exactly how it came to be or in the exact order of events, but I do remember our youngest wanted to drive down to the bay and check on his friend’s house (the one who had given us the first report that things were okay). My husband and I asked if we could tag along. I wanted to see how the boat dock held up and if the little pier that I photographed only days before was still there, doubting its existence, yet wanting to see an area first hand that the media had not covered.

We made our way through the streets, having to detour a bit due to dangling power lines or downed trees. Everywhere we looked we saw destruction and despair. Many homes had taken a hard hit. Trees through the roofs, siding pealed back, mobile homes that look uninhabitable and everywhere you looked limbs and limbs and more limbs. Many of the neighbors were obviously without power as they were sitting outside to get some sort of breeze. Some were still working in their yards.  As we neared the bay the road was impassable. As we turned the corner to be on the frontage road leading to the boat ramp we saw there was no road.

We got out to walk, or more correctly, to pick our way among the rubble. Big boulders that had once been a part of our “cliff”, the very cliff that battled the storm surge, appeared to have been casually thrown across the roadway on the opposite side. What was once a two lane road was now a half a lane with the asphalt chopped up like it had been in a blender.

We weren’t the only ones that found our way to the bay. Others in the neighborhood were also picking their way through what was once a very popular road leading to not only the boat dock but two or our local restaurants. Families with young children were taking note of the damage of the still remaining pier, a pier that many of them had previously spent many a happy hour either fishing from or throwing rocks from. The people looked almost as shell-shocked as the scenery we were all viewing, or at least must have felt it. Ike hit a hard punch to this area – yet much less to us than our near neighbors just 5 miles north in Kemah. From our boat dock we could see the Kemah Bridge, but could not tell if the water had receded from the Boardwalk – images of which I had viewed from our evacuation home on the TV just the day before. Our neighbors to the south in San Leon were also devastated. Even though we didn’t have the flood waters to the majority of our neighborhood there were still damages and power outages and hurting people. Reports confirmed that those near the “cliff” did indeed have rising water in their homes.

When my husband and I had gotten out to walk we told our son not to wait on us, that we’d walk the ½ mile back home. Again, seeing the familiar route with the unfamiliar damage was numbing and humbling. We continue to be amazed that we were so blessed to be spared. We encountered a couple of different folks on our walk home – each with a story to share. The first question I asked each individual was “how’s your people?” upon a positive response with the added “thank God” they would began to share their war story. None of them pretty – one gentleman lost all but his garage. Another told of families that lost everything. The one thing we had in common  - the sense of community. We are all in this together, each with a different and unique story, all very thankful to be alive.

When we came upon our home we saw our youngest son working in the back yard – he had almost totally cleared the larger limbs from our deck. With our arrival the focus was then shifted to tarping the roof over the damaged shingles in the event of any more rain. The fellows continued to work in the yard while I went inside to clear out the refrig. Even though we had power upon arrival we knew we had lost power sometime during the course of our departure – the tell-tale signs were the refrozen sorbets that had melted and left a colorful trail before refreezing. In our haste to evacuate we took only non-perishables, not knowing how long our journey would be due to northbound traffic we didn’t consider taking the refrigerated items. Our original plans were to “ride out the storm” and since we have a Coleman stove we were going to use the refrigerated items first before having to use our non-perishable items.. Our decision changed  the morning of 9/12 as news concerning the possible storm serge continued to worsen. Even if Ike continued to be “only” a Category Two hurricane, the storm surge was expected to mimic a Category Four, with waves expected to be in excess of 15-20 feet. That meant we needed to get out of town!

It was difficult to throw away so much food. We all are raised not to be wasteful, that there are starving children all over the world yada yada yada, and here I found it my duty to dispose of what appeared to be perfectly good food, but food that had reached room temperature and then been re-cooled…chances we couldn’t afford to take with our health and safety overrode the strong desire of ‘waste not want not”.

We learned that the local Kroger’s was open both for fuel and groceries. We decided we’d best take advantage of some restocking. We were good on fuel as our oldest had stood in line for over 2 hours to fill up a 5 gallon gas can for us as he filled other cans for his buddy (the one who helped us put up the boards on the windows on 9/11). This same friend was already at work repairing parts of downtown Houston, he’s with a company who specializes in this sort of thing – having worked in the aftermath of several hurricanes in Florida as well as Katrina. The extra gas cans were to keep him running and able to get to his assigned job site. With the additional fuel from my oldest we could avoid the long fuel lines at Kroger’s and concentrate on groceries.

The parking lot was crowded, as you might well imagine, but calm, what appeared to be “business as usual”. As we approached the door we noticed the sign “NO ICE” and “purchase of non-perishable items only” “Close at 5 PM” it was now 4:50 PM.  Providentially we had made it before closing.

People were very calm inside, many had large purchases and the lines were rather long, however, they appeared to be moving quickly. We didn’t need a lot and not wanting to hoard or take away from someone in need we made selected purchases of cereal (there was milk available!), crackers, Gatorade, a watermelon, and a few other items that would give variety to our pantry. Precisely at 5 PM someone came over the loud speakers and said to make our way to the registers; the front doors were locked to prevent anyone else from entering hoping to shop. As I was heading up one more isle to pick up a luxury bottle of Pepsi a uniformed officer was coming down the isle toward me. With an apologetic Texas draw he simply said “you need to head to the register m’am”  I thanked him and promptly turned towards the registers – then it dawned on me – since we were in the mandatory evacuation zones there was a curfew in effect, I remembered that from our TV views the day before. It became clear to me that they were doing their best to clear the store to comply with the curfew which was dusk to dawn, thus allowing them time to restock and still manage to get their employees home in time.  We thanked each of the workers we came in contact with for being there and allowing us an opportunity to purchase.

As mentioned, we were blessed to come home to power and therefore we enjoyed a home cooked meal composed of  one of those chicken-meal-in-a-box quick fix dinners, blueberry muffins made from a powder mix that just needed added milk, and a glass of my husband’s famous sweet tea! Certainly not the meal we expected as a returning refugee. Indeed, we continued to be thankful and praise God for our many blessings.

As we ate our meal we formulated our plans for the remainder of the evening as well as our plans for Tuesday, the following day.  By the way, my oldest son after bringing us the fuel went to his own apartment. He had power and would be reporting to work the next morning. The “we” in my narrations consists of three, not our immediate family of four. So the plans for the following day included my youngest son going to help his grandparents with their trees, my husband working in our yard, and I would be going to the community center to help serve a hot meal – a notice had been placed on the courthouse door that they would have a hot meal at 11 AM at the community center next door, so I knew that was where I would be needed. Since we had been spared I wanted to be available to assist our neighbors who weren’t.  Besides, I’m not much good at yard work and worst yet, I’m not known for my cooking (grin). But I figured I could lend a helping hand in serving.

With those plans settled in our minds we discussed our evening plans which consisted of a shower and a DVD movie complete with microwave popcorn then an early bedtime. A small escape from our new normal, recognizing we had it so much better than most and that we needed to look beyond our own needs and our comfort to help others as much as we were able.

So ended our first day home. It felt wonderful to snuggle in our own beds. Pixxie seemed pleased to be home too.


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