Saturday, September 27, 2008

After Ike: Monday, Sept.15

It’s Monday, and we’re back on State Highway 124, this time with eight air boats and 17 game wardens. Medics and volunteer firefighters from Gilchrist and Crystal Beach also are on hand.

We’ve inched a bit closer to High Island as the storm surge recedes, but the bridge is still miles away.

Yesterday, Game Wardens Hector Gonzalez and Shane Detwiler rescued a man from the remains of a house on the peninsula; his skin was covered in chemical burns from the pollutants in the water, they said. They whisked him by air boat to an ambulance waiting at our staging area.

Bolivar Peninsula actually is part of Galveston County, and several Galveston County deputies have arrived with trailer loads of bottled water and meals-ready-to-eat. They help game wardens load the supplies onto air boats.

Thanks to several local reporters who camped out at the staging area the day before, the story of Bolivar’s annihilation has gotten out, and representatives from the Associated Press, USA Today, the New York Times, the San Antonio Express-News, CNN, the German Press Agency, the Beaumont Enterprise and more are arriving hourly.

Game Warden Bobby Jobes asks me if I’ll be riding with him again; I decline, thinking I will be more useful at the staging area. What I don’t say is that I feel uncomfortably bloated with destruction. Sadly, it’s a familiar feeling … from Bosnia, and from Mitch and Allison and Charley.


The Governor’s Press Office Saturday issued an edict that media would not be allowed to take seats on any state-operated boats, though they could accompany rescuers in other vehicles. If this stands, reporters will largely miss the entire unfolding story here.

I call back to TPWD’s Austin headquarters, and make the case for allowing reporters to embed with game wardens when operationally feasible. TPWD’s communications division director makes a gutsy call: subject to the on-site commander’s approval, go for it.

“Operationally feasible” means only if there is room and the journalists’ presence won’t negatively impact the mission. In addition to actively searching for survivors who need a way off Bolivar, game wardens are delivering food and water and ferrying medics and linemen and engineers who need to survey the damage to infrastructure.

Practically speaking, this means I have many more journalists to put on airboats than I have airboats to put them on. I begin a list: it will be first-come, first-served. The New York Times arrives on-scene after the San Antonio Express-News.

The Express-News gets a seat first. The Associated Press (eventually I’ll have five journalists -- print and broadcast -- from the AP on-hand) arrives after almost everyone else, an oversight at the bureau, one reporter tells me.

So, the AP, with perhaps the largest audience of anyone, gets tacked-on near the bottom of the list. It’s not an easy decision. I reason that, first, it’s a fair way to do things. Second, a great many residents of Bolivar and the surrounding area who are displaced are getting their news from local television and news media.

I am happily surprised when I get some help from the reporters themselves. Robert Crowe, from the San Antonio Express-News, gives up his seat for a Beaumont Enterprise reporter.

“This is their back yard,” he says. “My photographer is already out there … I can wait.”

In fact, all of the journalists are a good deal more patient and flexible than I would have expected. And let me tell you, I appreciate it.

It doesn’t occur to me that “embedded media’ might not mean the same thing to everyone on the scene. The first boat out, with KFDM-TV journalists Jennifer Heathcock and Jack Fitch, doesn’t return for hours.

I had suggested to the game wardens that they simply do their jobs, not to take detours or come back early for the reporters. They did just that, at one point dropping the reporters in Gilchrist while they continued house-to-house searches farther down the island.

“We’ll look for you on the way back,” one of the game wardens told Jack. “Better be there.”

The other reporters who get airboat rides are taken on roughly hour-long tours, which certainly gives some access they otherwise wouldn’t have had, but might not have been the best use of a game warden or an airboat.

It’s not what I intended, which was for one or two reporters to accompany each boat as it refuels and goes back out – if there is room. I mentally kick myself for not carefully explaining this scenario to the game wardens in charge and getting their buy-in at the beginning of the day.

I have two, seemingly contradictory jobs here: first, to try to keep the media from interfering with the work the game wardens and other emergency responders are doing. I'm here to answer questions, take heat, run interference.

TPWD game wardens are perfectly free to arrange their own ride-alongs with reporters and talk about just about any topic within their competence, any time. They are professionals, and sometimes make my job back at headquarters seem superfluous. On the other hand, they're very busy, stressed-out professionals with a lot of other things on their minds just now.

The second job is to help the reporters get their stories. Not just because it will place the agency I work for and the people I work with in a favorable light, but because there are thousands of people out there who are depending on these journalists for information about their homes and loved ones.

And, for better or worse, often it is true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. This is true even, or maybe especially, for large-scale calamities like hurricanes. Policy makers and the people who allocate assets don't necessarily have an inside line to heavily impacted areas ... sometimes they get their information the same way everyone else does -- from the media.

As a former newspaper reporter, I think I understand what the journalists here need and I want to help them do their jobs. Several of the reporters tell me throughout the day that I've been helpful to them. Several game wardens tell me the same. I hope it's true.

Mid-afternoon I get a text message from Austin (oddly, even when cellular voice communications are down, sometimes text messages get through … cell service is non-existent, then spotty but improving by Monday). I’ve been spotted talking about the airboat operation on News8Austin, our 24-hour Time-Warner news channel. I walk over to reporter Russell Wilde: “Man, you guys are fast!”

They Own the Road

CNN also is transmitting by satellite, and when a Department of Public Safety sergeant bulldogs his way down the staging area, telling reporters they have to move their vehicles, I tell the CNN crew to wait; they’re about 15 minutes into a 45-minute transmission.

I pull one of our game warden captains aside: “Don’t you outrank that guy? Isn’t this our operation?”

“Well, yeah,” he replies. “But it’s their road.”

State troopers – more than 100 descended on Chambers County after the storm – are either very, very helpful or oddly obstructionist. Some allow reporters through barricades as soon as they see media credentials. Others insist I come and escort a photographer through. Early in the day Sunday, on the way to the staging area, two young troopers refuse to allow a game warden truck (towing an airboat) through a barricade.

When that incident makes its way across the airwaves, Chambers County Sheriff Joe LaRive wastes no time at all making his feelings known. By the time we get to the roadblock a few minutes later, in an identical truck towing a similar airboat, the troopers move the barricade aside with alacrity. I think I saw one click his heels and salute.

A Diversion

Media Relations Field Operations Rule #31: If you can’t get the media to the story, make up a different story.

Just kidding. I didn’t make-up anything. But, talk about a way to pass the time: more than a dozen cowboys ride through our staging area and through flooded pastures (in some places actually swimming their horses) to round-up cows that have taken shelter atop a levee.

The cows are not at all inclined to get back in the putrid, salty water they have so recently escaped, but the ranch hands clearly know what they are doing and soon we have a cattle drive funneling up Highway 124 between the emergency vehicles.

TPWD Chief Photographer Earl Nottingham’s photo of the event will make the New York Times, the Austin American-Statesman and his hometown paper, the Temple Daily Telegram, among others.

Finally, an airboat returns with more people aboard than it had when it left. Hector and Shane have done it again, rescuing a couple – and six of their pets – who had taken shelter in an attic crawlspace to avoid rising floodwaters. For two days they signaled in vain to passing helicopters. The couple’s gratitude is evident in their tears, and in the hug the woman gives Shane after she steps onto the highway.

“We’re ‘top boat,’” says Gonzalez, with a grin as he throws his arm over Detwiler's shoulder and poses for a photo. It’s part good-natured jibe, part pride and part cheerful challenge to his colleagues.

At the end of the day, almost all the boats are back and the fuel trailer is nearly empty. I still have nearly 10 reporters who have not made it out to the peninsula, and I’m feeling guilty as hell.

Somehow, I think, I should have been smarter about this.

The $6 Million Question

Sometime during the afternoon a Texas Army National Guard UH-60L Blackhawk helicopter circles and then lands on the highway behind us. A few days more than seven years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, local law enforcement and emergency responders and the military still can't talk to each other over their radios.

A crew chief jogs down the road, finds a ranking game warden and asks: "Do you have a mission for us? We're flying around and we have no idea what we're supposed to be doing. Do you maybe have some grid coordinates we could search?"

Detwiler, an Army veteran who served an active duty stint in Iraq, grabs a GPS and begins reeling-off 10-digit grids for the crew chief.

Another Blackhawk comes in and hovers over the flooded pasture. The crew chief runs back to his aircraft and both helicopter take off for the peninsula.

Each UH-60L costs taxpayers about $6 million, and -- last time I checked -- more than $3,000 an hour (including flight and maintenance crew costs) to operate.

Every Guard member I met in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike showed the same initiative; they were eager to help, desperate for missions. That these highly capable soldiers were put in the air in such expensive, sophisticated machines without a clear objective is mind-boggling.

For certain at least one Blackhawk provides a vital service today. A call came in overnight requesting that game wardens check on two elderly women who had stayed through the storm with their pets on Crystal Beach.

Armed with a neighbor's address, Bobby Jobes, John Feist and Rod Ousley set-out to find them. Not only do they find them, Ousley talks them out of their wrecked home.

Then, Earl (he was a Boy Scout, it turns out) signals a passing helicopter with a cracked car sideview mirror. The women, too frail for an airboat ride back across the bay, are airlifted (with their pets) to safety.

Nicely done, gentlemen, I think to myself. Very nicely done indeed.


A couple of the game warden supervisors have driven their trucks through floorboard-deep water to High Island. Even though it's late, I decide to take the remaining reporters -- the ones who didn't make it onto our airboats -- over there by truck. The alligators on the road and in the water are a hit, especially with the New York-based journalists. We make it to High Island, and after talking to a local resident there who has driven as far as the Rollover Pass bridge, decide we may be able to drive as far as Gilchrist.

Even for the reporters who have seen images of the peninsula from the air, the devastation at ground level is shocking.

We stay there, near what had been the intersection of State Highway 87 and Paisley Road, as the sun sets over Galveston Bay. Print reporters wander among the Stonehenge-like ruins of stilt homes, taking notes, and TV reporters put together quick standups to send back with their packages.

One picks up a license plate and muses that it would make a nice souvenir.

“I’d really rather we didn’t pick up anything here,” I say. “Eventually people are going to come back to what were their homes, and any little scrap that is left might be important to them.”

Driving Out

In the distance, a pair of headlights wink through the darkness. We await the approaching vehicle, knowing it must be a resident of one of the devastated towns further west. As the battered, black truck pulls up next to us, I recognize Bobby Anderson.

Immediately he is bathed, through the driver’s window, in the harsh glare of camera-mounted lights. He looks exhausted, and explains that he had rebuilt the starter on the truck – cleaning out sand and shells – and that he is hungry and thirsty. I pass three plastic cups of mandarin oranges trough the reporters, and a case of water.

Bobby tries to refuse the water, saying he doesn’t need that much. He finally takes it, saying he’ll give the extra to someone else if it’s needed.

He declines to repeat for the reporters the story he’d told me the day before in Crystal Beach, the story of his friend Sandy being swept out of the rafters of the Rancho Caribe golf shop.

Bobby does complain bitterly about a civilian search and rescue team from California that threatened to commandeer his truck, and who – he says – he witnessed breaking into sheds and utility rooms taking tools “for the rescue effort.”

“They might have started by bringing a little food and water,” he observes.

I silently wonder why I don’t have a case of MREs in the back of the truck right now.

The pillaging California rescue crew is a story I’ll hear at least three more times from different residents of the peninsula in widely scattered locations. I still don’t know if it really happened, but it seems like a profoundly bad way to conduct business. As far as I know, no one there that night – nor any other news organization – has followed-up on that story.

We pick our way through the debris under a nearly-full moon, and I am relieved to find that the water across Hwy. 124 is no higher than when we came in. Maybe a little lower, even.

After dropping the reporters at their vehicles, I follow them out through the roadblock. In Winnie, I keep going to the Interstate, thinking I’ll find an open gas station. I turn West. I’m looking for the lighted sign at J.J.’s Chevron, but of course it – like every other gas station in Chambers County – is dark at 11 p.m.

For the first time in five days, I switch the radio from KTRH-AM to a country music station, and just drive. I drive all the way to Baytown, nearly all the way to Beltway 8 in Houston, before I find an open gas station that actually has fuel. I get in line.

The store shelves inside the Texaco are stripped nearly bare, but I find a couple of packs of cigarettes – Bobby Jobes had given me one of his last packs earlier in the day – some bottled iced tea and a package of cookies.

Along the way, I call district supervisor Capt. Rod Ousley and the incoming strike team supervisor to find-out the plan for the next day (an Army Chinook helicopter, ATVs and house-to-house searches on the peninsula). I make more calls, letting the day’s media contingent know what we’ll be doing and when and where to meet.

Mostly, I just drive. I’m tired. It’s now been five days since I left Austin, and in that time I’ve managed maybe 16 hours of sleep. It’s good to know the highway is open and I can just leave if I want to.

I want to, actually, but I don’t. Not yet.

[Photos 1, 3, 5, 7 and 8 courtesy Earl Nottingham/TPWD]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Rites of Passage: Friday, Sept. 12-Sunday, Sept.14

7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 12

The last stop of the day is at Game Warden John Feist’s house. The power is already off, and John hurriedly empties his refrigerator and freezer and grabs some essentials for what he figures will be a long couple of days camped-out at the sheriff’s office.

On the way there, a motorist tells us a homeless man is camped-out at the Army Corps of Engineers park up the road. John radios the sheriff and lets him know we’re going to get him. The Sheriff calls back: no way. Essential personnel were supposed to be back at the shelter of the office an hour ago.

The DPS troopers are hunkered-down at the county maintenance facility, and all of the deputies are in. We’re the last law enforcement vehicle on the roads, and we’re late. John is clearly torn, but as gusts buffet his truck, he clicks the radio back in place and we race for safety.

10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 13

The winds have died enough (they are still gusting to more than 40mph) for us to venture out. We stop half a dozen times to clear trees from the road. It takes us two hours to go less than 10 miles. Power lines are down everywhere.

Feist, Boatmate Scott Evans, Chief Photographer Earl Nottingham and I begin making the rounds through the parts of Chambers County we can reach, checking on people we know rode out the storm. In the Channelview neighborhood of Anahuac, entire houses have been swept from their foundations.

Wind and waves have peeled the bark from oak trees.

The storm has wrought havoc with communications. Cell phone towers are down everywhere. Radio repeaters are down. Tin cans with strings, when the string is intact, still work.

The game wardens are frustrated; before the storm, they moved their boats north to Silsbee, out of the worst of the hurricane’s projected path. They want them back. In the meantime, they cover as much ground as possible in their 4WD trucks.

Towards the end of the day, John makes it to the Corps of Engineers park. There, he finds Mr. Genesis Trinity, the man who weathered the storm in a tent atop the birding platform. He was, he told John, collecting data for NASA, and had clocked winds between 175mph and 250mph. He says he’ll ride his bicycle down to the Johnson Space Center to deliver his findings as soon as the roads are clear.

7 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 14

We awaken with a sense of purpose. Before the storm, district game warden supervisor Capt. Scott Ousley made a fallback plan in the event communications went down: meet at the Beaumont office at 8 a.m.

Overnight, Maj. Rolly Correa’s strike team has moved-in and literally set up camp in the parking lot of an old Academy store. More than 30 game wardens form five teams with boats: one to Port Arthur, which is badly flooded; one to Pleasure Island; one to Bolivar, or as close as they can get … and so on.

Earl heads-out with game wardens who have been assigned Sabine Pass. I opt to stick with the Chambers County game wardens. By mid-day, we’re launching air boats off of State Highway 124 – as close to the town of High Island as we can get.

It’s not very close; we’re still more than 6 miles from the bridge that crosses the Intracoastal.

Game Warden Bobby Jobes, a Chambers County veteran of more than two decades, runs his air boat down the flooded ditch along Hwy. 124, sometimes down the roadway itself. Debris in the canted power lines nearly 30 feet overhead show how high the water was, or at least how high the tops of the waves were.

We pull up where the highway emerges again from the water at High Island, built on a 38-foot-tall salt dome. A crowd that includes the assistant fire chief is waiting. We’re the first boat they’ve seen, they say, though the assistant chief has been in radio contact with the Emergency Operations Center in Galveston and several residents have working landlines.

The High Island residents are okay. About 120 stayed, and property losses are relatively light, especially – as we will see – compared to the rest of Bolivar Peninsula. The town’s elevation and grove of massive oak trees have shielded residents from the worst of the storm.

From High Island, we skim west along the bay-side edge of the Peninsula. All of us are shocked when we recognize Rollover Pass; the 200-odd houses that once stood there are gone. Literally, nearly completely, gone. I’ll be quoted later by the Associated Press saying that it looked like someone took a razor, and “pffft.”

I said a lot of things about the destruction I saw Sunday, but I don’t really know how to make that sound and I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that. Still, it’s an apt description of what we encountered. Only – if it was a razor – it was a dull blade indeed, and left a stubble of pilings and overturned vehicles and – in rare instances – unshaven patches where houses still stood.

We beach the boat and walk in at the places where each of the lower peninsula’s three incorporated towns stood. Gilchrist is a memory, and the post office there is just a slab. In Crystal Beach, perhaps half the homes are left standing.

Port Bolivar, the westernmost town on the Peninsula, appears to have fared better, though the water line just below the second floor of some of the homes hints at the destruction within.

In Crystal Beach, we meet Bobby Anderson, walking up what used to be State Highway 87. We ask him if he wants to leave: no, he wants to get his truck running and come out on his own. Does he need food or water? No, he’s okay for now. Anderson is a builder and owned three homes on the Peninsula. He rode out the storm near his house on Jack’s Road, and asks about Gilchrist.

I shake my head: “It’s pretty much gone,” I tell him.

Bobby then asks if we’ve seen a woman, and begins to describe her. He and his friend Sandy had climbed into the rafters of the sturdiest building they could find. As rising water came through the walls below them, an angry swell reached up and plucked them from their perch. Anderson reached for something solid, and reached for his friend. As she slipped from his grasp, he shouted for her to swim back.

“No,” I tell him. “We haven’t picked-up any women, and we haven’t heard anything about her.”

Anderson turns and walks a few steps away. I see his shoulders heave once, twice, and then he rubs his red-rimmed eyes and walks back.

A postal inspector who had hitched a ride with us walks up just then with a big grin on her face. She is, she has told us several times, having a grand time. She cheerfully asks Anderson how he’s doing.

“I was doing okay,” he says, with a forced laugh. “But then I got over it.”

We make it to Port Bolivar – more than 30 miles from our launch site – before turning back. We’ve seen a handful of survivors on the peninsula, and none have wanted to leave the wreckage of their homes. We’ve told them we’ll be back the next day with food and water.

9 p.m.

Darkness has fallen and a full moon spangles the waters of East Bay and the water over marsh and pastures, water that shouldn’t be there. It’s a beautiful night, and if not for the images of the day etched in our minds, it would be hard to believe anything was amiss.

A slideshow plays as I close my eyes:

(click) A Gilchrist Volunteer Fire Department ambulance floating in the Intracoastal.

(click) A house lodged on Goat Island, where no house has ever stood, roof intact and windows still boarded-up.

(click) Sunken boats littering the canals in Crystal Beach subdivisions.

(click) Dead animals – nutria, muskrats, rabbits, cows – floating, swollen and stinking, on the outgoing tide.

(click) An elevator cage standing between the shorn pilings that once supported a home.

(click) Bobby Anderson, grasping at a last, thin thread of hope.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

What floats: Sunday, Sept. 21

Refrigerators float. Mattresses float. Walls and windows and staircases and roofs float. Boats float, of course, and so do life jackets, coolers and bottles of vegetable oil.

Shoes float; so do plastic toys. Surprisingly, televisions float. Stuffed animals, dressers, hats and mardi gras beads float. Collanders float, cows float, and armadillos and marsh rabbits and horses and snakes float.

The theory is that people will, too, and that’s why we spent the day searching a massive debris field in southern Chambers County.

Apparently no one really knows how many Bolivar residents are still missing a week after Ike. We do know that much of what was Gilchrest and a good chunk of Crystal Beach is now a splintered jumble against a treeline about 5 miles inland of East Bay’s northern shoreline.

That’s where we took the cadaver dogs today. Five teams spread out across Chambers County – some traveling by all-terrain vehicle, some by airboat, some by swamp buggy. We searched shorelines and ranches and refuge marsh.

No one has yet found a body.

Everyone agrees that doesn’t mean one or more isn’t out there; it’s just that there’s so damned much debris on the ground, and so much death stink in the air, it’s awful hard to know for sure.

But Chambers Co. Sheriff Joe LaRive – and the game wardens and deputies and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees and dog handlers – all the good people out there today, feel a certain duty to be as sure as they can possibly be.

For Bobby Anderson, who says his friend Sandy was swept out of the rafters of a Crystal Beach building at the height of the storm. For the people Game Warden Hector Gonzalez talked to who, one moment, saw a dozen people on the roof of the house next to theirs; the next moment, nothing.

This low country has a habit of keeping its secrets on a schedule all its own. Like the story I heard this morning about a skull that washed into a duck blind a couple of seasons back; turned out to be the noggin of a fellow who had disappeared a decade before.

Not finding bodies a week after the hurricane ... is that good news or is it bad news? It's awful hard to know for sure.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Don't Like Ike

Before Ike, before I went to Anahuac and the Bolivar Peninsula, I wrote that I actually like tropical storms. Not so much, now. The devastation I have witnessed and so many have lived in Southeast Texas is sobering.

There's nothing malicious about a hurricane: it just is. And if we did not choose to build and live and work and play at the edge of the sea, hurricanes would be benign or even beneficial events.

But, of course we do. My grandparents did. My parents did. So did I, for a time. And with good reason: in Texas, the scape where water and land and sky come together is truly magical.

I'll be posting more blog entries from Ike's aftermath as I have time. Just wanted to get that out there.

For more Ike photos and news coverage, visit

Thursday, September 18, 2008

During the Storm

It’s two in the morning and I can’t sleep. The wind outside the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office is a ravening beast. Rainwater is blowing beneath the door at the end of the hall, creeping across the carpet. Leaves, too.

Ike has arrived. The eye is crossing Galveston Island now, and soon we may have a few moments of calm here. Then, the storm surge will come.

We lost our T-1 Internet connection several hours ago, when the electricity went. Here, the generator kicked-on immediately. The generator across the parking lot at the courthouse – also the emergency operations center – flickered to life briefly, then died.

My wireless modem works intermittently.

Earlier, game warden Jon Feist and I stopped to see what was up with the massive truck parked at the end of the runway at the small county airport here.

Turns out a team of scientists from the University of Alabama at Huntsville picked Anahuac as a good place to observe the approaching storm with their X-Band, dual-polarized radar. Not really sure what that is, but it can see a long way and tells them quite a lot.

One of the things it told the researchers this afternoon is that the eye of this storm had shrunk from 80 miles in diameter to a mere 60 miles, and that the eastern eye wall would likely pass directly over us.

"It's looking a lot better," one of the researchers said.

"For us, you mean?" I asked.

"Oh, no," he replied sheepishly. "I mean the storm is looking more organized. That's not better for us."

Outside, leaves and branches and debris are rocketing through the air. The trees in front of the courthouse are whipping through an arc of about 45 degrees; surely they’ll snap.

I’m surprised we haven’t had more rain. There’s some, and it’s pretty much horizontal, but not the torrential downpour I was expecting to see.

Talk about the “fog of war …” I wrote earlier that 12 people were trapped on a roof over near Sabine Pass. Some still swear that was the case. Someone else said it was a couple of oilfield workers trapped in their truck on the road.

That ship 60 miles offshore? Maybe it was 100 miles offshore. Or 120. And the Coast Guard did attempt a rescue, to no avail. Or, at least that’s what I heard.

The folks here in Chambers County have been unfailingly kind and hospitable, especially notable in a time as stressful as this. It’s beautiful country around here – at least it was, Friday. I was surprised to discover how many ranches dot this marshy prairie. There are thousands and thousands of cows in this county. Or, there were.

Now? That’s anyone’s guess.

Friday, September 12, 2008

And now, Ike

At the Chevron Food Mart on Interstate Highway 10 East in Anahuac, four game wardens, 11 DPS troopers and a Texas Ranger converge for lunch. The manager of the Blimpie’s sandwich shop here is family, and it’s a popular mid-day stop for law enforcement officers.

Overhead, gray clouds scud by, occasionally spitting rain into a freshening breeze. The weather at this moment is unremarkable; it could be any day of the year. It is, quite literally, the calm before the storm.

On Galveston Island, waves are topping the seawall. At Sabine Pass about two hours ago, a dozen residents in a mandatory evacuation area called from a rooftop. Game wardens responded, but were blocked by high water. Winds gusting to 40mph ruled-out an airboat rescue. There may be absolutely nothing rescuers can do for those folks who waited to long to get out.

God help them.

About 60 miles offshore, a heavily-laden tanker lies helpless in the storm’s path. A Coast Guard representative said this morning it’s not certain the crew will be rescued.

The Coast Guard is evacuating residents of Bolivar Peninsula by helicopter today. Most of the people who did not evacuate yesterday or the day before woke up this morning and (wisely) second-guessed their earlier decision. The road out through High Island is impassable, and the Bolivar ferries are no longer running.

Hurricane Ike is still 165 miles southeast of Galveston, moving west-northwest at 12mph. It’s a huge storm, with hurricane-force winds extending well over 100 miles from the center and tropical storm force winds forecast for more than half the Texas coast.

With such a huge wind field, a major concern is the storm surge. Wind pushes water into a big hump that travels ahead of the storm across the ocean. Low pressure allows that water to rise higher. A waxing moon, nearly full, pulls tides higher still.

The National Weather Service is predicting all of Galveston Island will be under water by late tonight. In Port Arthur, on Sabine Lake, bay waters will overtop the seawall and cover the city to depths of three to six feet.

South of Houston, water is creeping up over the access roads on Interstate Highway 45, the Gulf Freeway. My friend Brandon, in Fort Worth, has friends in Clearlake who declined to leave even though they are in a mandatory evacuation zone. If they leave right now, they may yet make it out.

Earlier today, U.S. Rep. John Culverson said in a KTRH radio interview (listen online to the non-stop storm coverage) that the Department of Homeland Security chief of staff told him that anyone remaining on Galveston Island this evening faces “certain death.”

That’s strong language, and probably overblown, but certainly indicates the seriousness with which authorities are viewing this hurricane.

Listening-in to the twice-daily emergency management conference calls, I can tell you that I feel better knowing that Jack Colley is coordinating this effort for the State of Texas. It appears to me, now, that across-the-board, state and local agencies have prepared thoroughly and thoughtfully for this storm.

On IH-10 heading east this morning, we passed long convoys of more than 20 ambulances speeding to safety with critically ill hospital patients. It’s an effort that has been underway for several days now.

The focus – at Colley’s direction – has been on evacuating people who, for whatever reason, cannot evacuate themselves.

I’ll spend tonight at the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office in Anahuac. My guess is that there are more people in this area who should have left but did not. My guess is that the game wardens with whom I am embedded will be called to help them. My guess is they’ll go, because that’s what they do. It’s what they’ve always done, since 1895.

[TPWD photo by Earl Nottingham; Game wardens near Sabine Pass, Sept. 10, 2008]

Friday, September 05, 2008

Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season

I listened-in on a conference call with the National Hurricane Center early this week as the remnants of Hurricane Gustav spun lazily across northeast Texas.

The forecaster presenting the tropical weather outlook to emergency responders and government officials noted that Sept. 10 marks the peak of hurricane season.

Even without that reminder, a look at the satellite image of a swath of ocean stretching from Africa to Texas told the story: storms lined-up like MD-80s awaiting takeoff at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

Batteries. Ice. Bottled water. Gas for the generator, if you have a generator. Radio. Full tank of gas. Bathtub full of water. Candles. Easy Cheese and saltines. That's some of what you'll need if you decide to ride-out a hurricane on the central Texas coast.

My acquaintance with tropical cyclones began early; when I was a young child, Grandma had two cats, Celia and Beulah, who had shown up on her doorstep a few blocks from the bay during their namesake storms (1970 and 1967, respectively).

Aransas County schools didn't have snow days built-in to the schedule, but we did have hurricane days, and a tropical storm could trigger a closing. I remember the feeling of awe I felt the first time I watched the harbor rise and cover downtown streets, including the old H-E-B parking lot.

Hurricane Allen, which made landfall in early August of my 11th year was memorable for being a three-time Category-Five storm. It weakened before making landfall between Brownsville and Corpus Christi, but not before my father had evacuated the family to higher ground.

Whether you stay or you leave, you'll want lots of plywood. Seasoned hands keep it on-hand to avoid lines and shortages right before a storm. The plywood, by the way, will cover your windows.

Some of the costliest storms haven't been ones with big Saffir-Simpson numbers (the scale, from 1-5, categorizes storms according to sustained wind intensity with Category Five being the strongest).

I recall one storm in the 1980s that we didn't take-off for. I remember the way the sky turned green in the east and the eery stillness of the eye. And I remember boats pushed across Highway 35 and piles of shell on beachfront roads and the wreckage of piers and snakes ... lots and lots of snakes. In the bayside towns of the Texas coast, we especially watch out for rattlesnakes. The storm surge and pounding surf on the barrier islands sweeps lots of wildlife off toward the mainland.

Tropical Storm Charley was the one that introduced me to cyclones as part of my work. The storm came ashore Aug. 21 right over Rockport before hanging a left and moving across the South Texas brush country. Over Val Verde County, Charley dumped more than a year's worth of rainfall in 24 hours.

A flash flood wiped-out the oldest section of the town of Del Rio, century-old adobe homes. Some of the inhabitants were never found. I spent the second night of the storm riding a 5-ton truck, picking up people who were stranded and handing-out bottled water at local shelters. I spent the next day chronicling the experience and making sure the AP had a spot on a helicopter.

In September, I chased Frances, a strong tropical storm, from Corpus Christi to High Island.

I like to have a couple of Jimmy Buffet cassettes, or nowadays disks or mp-3s, handy in a battery-powered boombox. "Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season" is a great one, obviously. The Internet is a real boon in this regard; with enough advance notice, you can probably put together an entire album's-worth of songs that either mention the name of the upcoming cyclone or the word "hurricane."

A little more than a month later, Hurricane Mitch slammed into Honduras. The deadliest Atlantic storm since the Great Hurricane of 1780, Mitch knocked the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 out of second-place on the list of deadliest storms.

Some 12,000 people died, with almost as many reported missing. I ended-up spending Thanksgiving and Christmas in El Salvador. Mitch was only a Category One storm when it made landfall.

By 2001, I was an on-call PIO with the Texas Division of Emergency Management, and ended up working nearly a month at the FEMA disaster recovery center in northwest Houston after Tropical Storm Allison dropped as much as 40 inches of rain over southeast Texas, leaving about 70,000 homes flooded and 30,000 people without even wet homes.

Now that I'm older, of course, I also make sure to hit the liquor store well before the eve of a hurricane. There is, in fact, a long tradition of "hurricane parties." Nothing worse than being stuck in a storm sober.

Hurricane Claudette was a strong Cat-One storm which made landfall just north of Rockport in 2003. For me, it is memorable mostly because my brother drove a brand-new Aransas County Sheriff's Office patrol car through a 4-foot-deep intersection. That was the end of the car, but John's law enforcement career continued.

I remember well Hurricane Rita, the second of 2005's one-two puch. For a week Rita appeared to be drawing a bead on the Port Aransas area. I worried about how best to prepare a 12-and-a-half ton sailboat to ride-out the storm.

In the end, for the Texas Coastal Bend, Rita was simply another harbor-over-the-parking lot event. Following so closely on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, Rita prompted the complete evacuation of Corpus Christi. Even the evacuees from Louisiana, sleeping on cots in the Corpus Christi Colliseum, had to go.

I was already doing hurricane-related duty at the time, as the agency I worked for attempted to reunite children and parents who had been separated from one another in the chaos of Katrina.

Have a family emergency plan that includes a friend or relative's phone number -- someone well out of the path of the storm -- where you can call to leave messages and get information if you're separated. Make sure the kids know the number.

Recently, preparing for likely questions I'd face on a TV morning show, I scribbled-down the effects of a hurricane on the natural environment. Hurricane Dolly had just come ashore around Port Mansfield. I looked at the answer I was formulating and thought: "I'd better check that."

If you're diabetic and your insulin has to be refrigerated, you get a lot of ice, just to make sure. A camp stove and bottled fuel is another good idea; even though it will be sweltering in the wake of the storm, you may want a hot meal. You also may have to boil water.

A coastal fisheries biologist confirmed the common wisdom I'd grown up with: "We need a good storm to flush out the bay." In fact, tropical weather systems are important sources of freshwater inflow and typically are good for the environment in the long term. I think of it as our corner of the planet breathing in, breathing out.

Truly, I view the approach of tropical weather much more calmly now that I no longer have a 30-foot sailboat to worry about and now that my elderly grandparents are no longer in Rockport. I'm also a good 200 miles from the coast and 500 feet above sea level.

With much of the rest of the nation, I was stunned by the immense suffering in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. Our government can do better. I've seen it do better.

I have a confession: I like tropical storms. The feeling in the pit of my stomach when the bottom drops out of the barometer. The funky sky color. The wind and rain. I even like NOAA's pictures -- the fiery shades marking rainfall and wind intensity, the serene spirals of water vapor satellite imagery. The follow-the-dots tracks.

At least the National Weather Service is on the ball. They predicted Katrina's effects and path with great accuracy, and they've been pretty close to the mark on a lot of other storms recently. Take a look at what's out there now.

[Photos courtesy NOAA, Wikimedia Commons]