Wednesday, October 08, 2008

After Ike: Tuesday, Sept. 16

The CH-47 Chinook has been canceled. Instead, game wardens are driving in to Crystal Beach across the one, cracked lane remaining at the Hwy. 87 bridge across Rollover Pass.

We check-in with Capt. Audie Nelson, who is manning the TPWD command post at a bay-side boat ramp. I’ve launched here before, to fish the rich shoreline of Big Bayou and the Sunoco Lakes across the Intracoastal.

Airboats have run all the way down to Port Bolivar and game wardens are methodically searching for survivors house-to-house in the canal subdivisions. Elsewhere, other game wardens are fanning-out on ATV’s, checking the homes that can be reached from the muddy, debris-strewn streets.

Earl clears the slab of a home to create a make-shift helipad. Game Warden Pilot Captain Lee Finch is inbound with TPWD Deputy Executive Director Scott Boruff.

We get word that an airboat crew has found someone who wants out. We wait. After about 30 minutes, the journalists with me are getting restless, so we move on.

It will be a strange, wrenching day.

Near the center of Crystal Beach we see four people walking slowly across the sand-choked highway. Houston Chronicle writer Shannon Tompkins recognizes his friends of 40 years, Tim and Laura Wolfford. With their two teenage sons, Tim and Laura have come across the bay by boat to check on their Gulf-side home.

In their hands they carry a couple of deer antlers, an alligator skull, the jaws of a 450-lb. bull shark Tim caught 20 years before and a white, 5-gallon bucket. In the bucket is the couple’s wedding photo. Altogether, it is less than eight handfuls of stuff, and it is everything – save what they packed for a hasty evacuation to Conroe – that they now own.

Some of the folks who had homes on Bolivar used them as weekend or summer retreats. They’ve lost some possessions and face the monumental chore of cleaning up and rebuilding, or not.

The restaurant where Laura worked is now a pile of splintered lumber. The Chambers County hunting lodge that employed Tim is gone. The couple couldn’t afford flood insurance on the house they built. All they have now is each other, and, as tears stream down Laura’s face, her two strong sons support her on either side.

Shannon is overcome; he can’t find the words to even comment on what has happened to his friends. And, for the first time in this long week, I look away and choke back tears. This scene, I think, will replay hundreds of times in the coming days. It’s just too much.

The Wolfford’s, who will need so much in the weeks ahead, decline anything from us. They won’t even accept a ride back to the waiting boat.

Across the street from the Bolivar Yacht Basin, we see yet another cow lying beside the road. Dead cows are everywhere, but this one lifts its head and struggles – unsuccessfully – to stand as we approach.

The animal is dehydrated and, we learn, has a broken pelvis. Shannon grabs bottles of water and pours them over the heifer’s mud-caked eyes. I try to get some down her throat.

An Associated Press videographer is capturing all of this and I feel like an idiot. A gun is what we really need, but I can’t raise any of the game wardens on my borrowed radio.

A little farther on we run across Norbert Kurtz and his springer puppy, Lucy. The lanky 50-something can’t stop smiling, and his sunny disposition amidst all the destruction almost defies belief.

“I prayed. I prayed hard all night,” Kurtz tells us. “I said: ‘God, if you’ll just let me survive this, I won’t complain about anything else that happens.’”

Like the fact that his two bait houses are demolished and he lost his old dog, his best dog, to the storm.

Kurtz lives two houses down from the weekend retreat built my friend Brandon’s grandfather. The stairs are gone and electrical lines dangle from the underside of the house. The sink where I once filleted a 25-inch trout is tilted at a crazy angle, but still there. So is the house. Paw-Paw was an ornery old cuss, but he built well.

Down the road we run across a convoy of Humvees led by 26-year-old Staff Sgt. Charles Boxley. The Texas Army National Guard soldiers – many of them wearing right-shoulder unit patches signifying service in combat – are delivering MREs and water to anyone who needs it. Sometimes, if they see signs of survivors camping out, they just drop of a case of food and a case of bottled water.

A combat medic travels with the soldiers, ready to render aid. And – strikingly – these lean, hard young men approach each of Ike’s victims with soft voices and evident compassion. It’s the third day after the storm, and many of the Bolivar residents who stayed and survived are still shell-shocked.

Maybe the young soldiers recognize PTSD when they see it. Maybe they’re just good guys with good hearts. Whatever is behind it, the respect and empathy they demonstrate must be at least as valuable as the food and drink they are carrying, I think.

By now we’re all so numbed by the improbable destruction around us, nothing much surprises. The emu hunting for food in a roadside ditch elicits a glance and a shrug. The skull peering mutely up from a grave the storm waters have pried open: shrug. The skittish, thirsty dog? Well, we can do something about that.

Shannon, who often says he likes most animals better than most people, fills a plastic dish with clean drinking water and leaves it for the dog.

We drive off the peninsula as dusk descends. Back at the sheriff’s office, Earl and I compare notes. He got his truck stuck near the Rollover Pass bridge, but got to fly with Lee and shoot some aerials.

Game Wardens Bobby Jobes and John Feist rescued a Los Angeles Times team who had gotten stuck in deep sand, and ended up part of their story.

Tomorrow, game wardens will lead animal rescuers in to collect abandoned pets. They’ll also help remove the lion and tiger that have caused such a stir.

Shackles, the lion that weathered the storm inside a church (along with eight or nine humans), loads up into a cage like a good bird dog. The muddy tiger, which has been having a very bad week, has to be tranquilized.

But all of that is tomorrow, and by the time the sun comes up tomorrow I’ll be home in Austin.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The $1.33 Billion Question

What is the value of one life? I found myself thinking about that when I returned from areas of Southeast Texas devastated by Hurricane Ike. It was about the same time the odds turned in favor of the house in what some commentators have called “casino capitalism.”

Because of the economic meltdown, news of the storm and the search for its victims was swept to the back pages of the national dailies and disappeared almost entirely from television. At the time, there were still more than 400 people reported missing.

In its place, headlines like this: “Wall Street Woes take Shine off Lavish NY Lifestyles” (Reuters). To be fair, Ike was still in the news, but a Google news search for Sept. 15-17 returns more than twice as many stories containing the phrase “Wall Street” than the phrase “Hurricane Ike.”

And the disparity has only grown over the past few weeks.

Among other things, “news” is about capturing the largest possible audience, because larger audiences mean more advertising revenue. Of course this serves other purposes – newspapers and television stations want to report news their readers and viewers care about, that is relevant to them. But the end result is the same.

So, I get that: most Americans care more about stocks and bonds and market liquidity and the mortgage crisis than they do about a natural disaster in one corner of distant Texas. The bottom line, for many, is the bottom line.

So, in financial terms, what is the value of one life? I found an interesting article in the New York Times, in which one Chicago economist placed an average value of $4 million on each life. That figure represents lost earnings, pain and suffering, lost experiences and more.

If we use $4 million as an average, four Southeast Texas counties currently have a collective $1.33 billion problem. It’s not a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, and it’s not the $10 billion or so the United States spends on the war in Iraq each month, but it ain’t chump change, either.

On Bolivar Peninsula alone, more than 50 people are still unaccounted for. That’s more than one percent of the peninsula’s entire population. In the small towns of the Peninsula – Gilchrist, Caplen, Crystal Beach, Port Bolivar – a substantially greater percentage of each town’s population is simply gone.

Everyone who lived there knows someone who no longer does.

Of course, some of the currently-unaccounted for will turn up safe, if not entirely well, in distant cities or in hospitals or care facilities across Texas. But it’s a safe bet that many – a majority, even -- of the 333 people currently listed as missing after Hurricane Ike are dead.

This weekend in Chambers County, deputies, Texas game wardens, members of the Texas Task Force 1 search team and dogs trained in human remains detection will make a major push to try to begin answering that $1.33 billion question.

I’ll be there, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be thinking of the losses in economic terms. Neither will the people sifting through the rubble that once was Gilchrest and Crystal Beach and Caplen.

More likely we’ll all be thinking about the anguished mothers, fathers, children and other loved ones of those still missing, hoping for an answer to where they are now, even if that answer is not the one they most want to receive.