Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hurricane Ike: Eight Days Later

Elizabeth Jones of San Leon sits with her four-month-old grandchild (Elizabeth Jones of San Leon sits with her four-month-old grandchild; photo by Sharon Steinmann of The Houston Chronicle)

Hurricane Ike: Eight Days Later

The news cycle in the rest of the country appears to have moved on from Hurricane Ike. I can understand this: The near-meltdown of our entire financial system and the resultant evil seizing of yet another opportunity by the Bush administration to shift the cost of their failure onto working people is critically important. This regime will continue to hurl their feces at us until we chop off their hands. However, I note a huge volume of folks still tuning in here at this blog to find coverage of what, for them, is first-hand disaster. I particularly want to shout out to the people dialing into us from the Gulf Coast -- you there in Point Bolivar, High Island, League City, Brazoria, Beaumont, Orange, Seabrook, running on generator, perhaps? -- who are coming here. I'm thinking about you.

And it's not just me. I'm getting daily hits on Ike posts from people in Trondheim, Norway; Boquete, Nicaragua; South Korea, New Zealand, Iran, Sri Lanka, Chile, South Africa, as well as all 50 states, looking for information about how it goes in the aftermath.

Many local and online news sources have gone either silent or perfunctory. Perhaps it is a concerted media blackout, the corporate powers and/or Republicans trying, once again, to reduce disaster to a short cycle of sensationalist reporting followed by the next Anna Nicole Smith frenzy, so large numbers of people won't ask awkward questions about civic responsibility and governance. When Letterman runs his nightly "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" moment, a frequent past excerpt is Ronnie Raygun declaring "Government isn't the solution to our problems, government IS the problem" with his shellacked dyed hair the first clue to his Alzheimer-plaque-riddled oblivion and his B-actor smile not hiding the coldness of his neoconservative eyes. For millenia, people have chosen to form governments in order to protect them from being swept away: Consolidate community resource so when the unstoppable strikes, we can save the lives of strangers. Leaving this to individuals, or to charity groups, has never worked long-term. It took a huckster like Reagan and the metastatic generations after him to convince average Americans to vote against their own long-term interests. How many more enormous swaths of geography, population, and culture do we have to lose to subsistence existence before we demand a New Deal?

If you live along the San Andreas fault, take note: When the Big One strikes, if these folks are still in power, you will be SOL.

(Richard Crook celebrates with a dog he rescued at Crystal Beach on September 18; photo by Eric Gay/AP)

And yeah, some of the TV shots portray big beach houses rendered to kindling, but the overwhelming majority of those whose economic survival has been destroyed by Hurricane Ike are working class and/or on fixed incomes. Tourism helps maintain the tax base of many Gulf Coast communities, but the tourists want a service industry to keep them happy on vacation, and those jobs are now indefinitely absent.

This section of coast also draws a high population of Snowbirds, retirees from northern states who come here to spend their elder years in a trailer on Social Security (because it was cheap to live here). Shrimpers, rice field workers, trawlers, rig monkeys, migrant farmers, and fast food workers don't have any other means of support.

Over one million evacuated elsewhere and those still not able to return home are wondering WTF to do now, without residences or jobs. Over 22,000 are still in shelters in Texas. It's safe to assume these people are hard workers, devoted to their families, often disabled, more likely to be people of color or children or single mothers than the average population. They will do the best they can, as usual. But we have to make sure Republican leadership and the media are not allowed to again perpetrate the smear job that was likewise done on the residents of New Orleans: They are just as deserving of respect and dignity as Katina evacuees were and are.

Gerald Barnett, 10, takes a box in a human chain of volunteers preparing to handout boxes of food to Houston residents (Gerald Barnett, 10, takes a box in a human chain of volunteers preparing to handout boxes of food to Houston residents; photo by Marcio Jose Sanches, AP)

One striking exception to the trickling away of reporting on the aftermath is the Houston Chronicle online. This newspaper, which had an edition ready to hit the streets before Ike's winds had died down, is doing an unprecedented job with getting information out on its blog. They are utilizing every possible facet of online technology and resource in creative and community-created ways to go above and beyond "reporting the news": They are serving their community in profound and untiring outlets. This is absolutely a Pulitzer-worthy effort.

Because they are almost the only source for current, useful news, I'll be quoting from them heavily in this round-up. In every case I'll give you a link to go directly to the horse's mouth, because what is there is a goldmine of information, far more than I can even allude to. This is an example of what a newspaper can do which will never be offered by blogs: In the field reporting, documentation, and community connection.

In addition, the Houston Chronicle is compiling a spectacular photograph collection, both from their own photographers (go here and scroll down to the Photography section) as well as making available images sent to them by online viewers here. I spent hours going through the hundreds of photos taken by journalists, which are arranged intelligently, download instantly, and are extremely high quality, both in terms of format and content. In addition, there is geographic coherence to some of the files, i.e., all photos from Galveston or the Bolivar Peninsula on a given day. Many of the images illustrating this post are from these files, and I do recommend viewing them yourself here. However, I have to issue a trigger warning: Some of these photos are heartbreaking. One in particular showed a dead animal on the Bolivar Peninsula with strong clues as to what it endured as it died, and I haven't been able to put it out of my mind since. I took care not to bring the hardest of these photos to this post, and if you don't want to see the underbelly of tragedy, best not to look through all of the Chronicle's photolog.

Agitated water moccasin on the Bolivar Peninsula (Agitated water moccasin on the Bolivar Peninsula)

The City of Austin has announced it is shutting down our Convention Center as of Thursday, September 25, for "repairs". I find this suspicious given that over 1,000 Hurricane Ike evacuees are currently living there with no place else to go. Supposedly FEMA officials have the "goal" of getting them into temporary housing elsewhere, but our local news reports that the vouchers FEMA has issued some people for hotel/motel lodging have been refused by those motels because either (a) there was no clearance with the business from FEMA or (b) the people applying for the vouchers failed to make a second confirmation phone call. Does this run-around sound familiar to you?

In order to get transitional housing, FEMA will have to "determine that the applicant's house was not only damaged by Ike, but has to be deemed inaccessible and uninhabitable." Wonder how long that will take? Let's ask someone in one of the trailers outside New Orleans.

More than 400,000 people statewide have registered for FEMA assistance, and about 135,500 families had qualified for government-funded hotels, but apparently only 9,000 have received transitional vouchers. The KXAN article reports that Austin city officials have stated "they are still not going to turn people away. They are looking at the Delco Center as a possibility for those who by next Thursday are still not set up in transitional housing." For those of you not familiar with Austin, the Delco Center is a sports center 15 miles and over half an hour's drive from the heart of Austin with NO walking-distance food or shopping outlets.

To register with FEMA, call 1-800-621-3362, TTY 1-800-462-7585 or visit (all Austin public libraries offer free internet access).

When dealing with FEMA:
• It will take approximately 15 minutes to complete the application process. Only one family member per household should register. Before you call or go online, gather the following basic information to speed the process:
• Social Security number (including your spouse's);
• Daytime telephone number where applicant can be reached;
• Address of the damaged property;
• Current mailing address;
• Brief description of disaster-related damages and losses;
• Insurance information; and
• Direct deposit information to help speed delivery of funds.
• If you have losses that are covered by insurance, please contact your insurance company prior to calling FEMA; it could speed up FEMA's delivery of assistance for any remaining uninsured essential items for which you may be eligible.
• When the home becomes accessible for inspection, you should notify FEMA through the helpline at 800-621-3362 or by visiting a Disaster Recovery Center. FEMA may provide additional assistance after the home has been inspected. If an applicant is denied assistance, the Helpline can also assist in an appeal of that decision.

To protest the shunting of Austin evacuees to a distant location, contact Sara Hartley, Office of Emergency Management, (512) 802-1469 (pgr) Hurricane Ike Media Hotline, (512) 404-4653. Or you can send an e-mail to the City of Austin Public Information Officer via this page: PIO form.

Matthew Harris, 12, hugs his mother Karen Harris as they wait in line to board a bus that will take them out of Galveston September 13 (Matthew Harris, 12, hugs his mother Karen Harris as they wait in line to board a bus that will take them out of Galveston September 13; photo by LM Otero, AP)

Galveston is now allowing residents to return as of 6 a.m. Wednesday, September 24, in a staged, tightly-monitored fashion. Only those who live behind the seawall will be allowed to stay. Residents who live in the West End can check on their property, but must leave before curfew begins at 6 p.m. Violators risk a $2,000 fine. Every resident will be stopped at a checkpoint and given an information sheet, letting them know what to expect and who to contact, according to City Manager Steve LeBlanc.

Here's some details:

• The West End has no water. The East End has compromised water supplies, not enough to fight fires, and if the water line extends above an electrical outlet or switch, turning on that switch will cause a fire which cannot be stopped.
• Gas service to every home has been turned off. LeBlanc said residents need to contact a technician with their gas provider to arrange for service to be returned.
• Residents will have to sort and bag their own debris and trash.
• Very little retail is open.
• LeBlanc urged residents to re-consider bringing young children and the elderly in the city, given its condition. He also advised residents who plan to clean up their property to bring rubber gloves and face masks to protect them from the mold.

A house lies across Highway 87 near Crystal Beach September 15 (A house lies across Highway 87 near Crystal Beach September 15; photo by Smiley N Pool for The Houston Chronicle)

On the Bolivar Peninsula, search and rescue has been concluded and all but about 35 residents have now departed, leading County Judge Jim Yarbrough to back off from his threat to forcefully remove residents. An article at the Huffington Post states "Authorities plan to allow residents back to the peninsula next week to examine their property. Because the main road is impassible in many spots, they'll load people up in dump trucks and other heavy vehicles."

Shackle the lioness who rode out the hurricane at the First Baptist Church in Crystal Beach, Texas (Shackle the lioness who rode out the hurricane at the First Baptist Church in Crystal Beach, Texas; AP photo)
Shackle the lioness has been taken to the mainland. In addition, the tiger at large (whose name was never given but I've been thinking of him as Guillermo Blake) has been captured and taken to safety.

An alligator crosses Gulfway Drive on the north side of the Bolivar Peninsula, September 15 (An alligator crosses Gulfway Drive on the north side of the Bolivar Peninsula, September 15; photo by Tony Gutierrez/AP)

About 1.4 million customers remained without power statewide, including about half of the Houston area. For a map of where power has been restored in the Houston area, click here at the Houston Chronicle. As of this writing, the local utility outages are reported as:

• CenterPoint: 46% out
• Entergy Texas: 29% out
• Sam Houston: 35% out
• TNMP: 24% out

As of September 19, CenterPoint Energy has released the map below showing estimated time for completion of substantial restoration (which they define as 80%).

CenterPoint Energy power restoration map
The Houston Chronicle is maintaining a comprehensive list of Where to Get and Give Help (including make donations), in every conceivable category. This is the best source out there, bookmark it.

Blanca Linares, 76, originally from El Salvador, smiles as she gets a bag of ice from 13-year-old volunteer Daniel Medrano in Galveston (Blanca Linares, 76, originally from El Salvador, smiles as she gets a bag of ice from 13-year-old volunteer Daniel Medrano in Galveston; photo by Julio Cortez, The Houston Chronicle)

The Houston Chronicle has a Guide to Tree Debris, determining how to tell if a tree can be saved, getting reliable tree-damage assessment and removal, trees that survive hurricanes, how to get rid of vegetative debris and haul it yourself.

Salatheia Bryant-Honors, Co-Pastor of Reedy Chapel A.M.E., prays (Salatheia Bryant-Honors, Co-Pastor of Reedy Chapel A.M.E., prays; photo by Nick de la Torre, The Houston Chronicle)

The Houston Chronicle is running a "Fact or Fiction" section to research and report back on rumors arising in Ike's aftermath. A few of their answers are:

• The rumor that "If you're out of power for five days, FEMA will pay you $2,000" appears to be false. The Chronicle reports "The FEMA Web site shows no indication that they are cutting checks for any amount of money due to Hurricane Ike, much less $2,000, nor is the agency offering any money to people because their homes have lost power."
• The rumor "The statue that commemorates the 1900 hurricane in Galveston was destroyed" is also false. The monument is still standing.
• The rumor that "All Houston-area YMCAs are open to the community for showers and battery-charging" is mostly true. But you need to know which YMCA's are open and have power. the Chronicle is providing that information here (PDF file).

Hand-made sign asking (Photo by James Nielsen, The Houston Chronicle)

From the Houston Chronicle, an expansive and very helpful guide to living without power, Weathering Ike: What To Do After The Storm. This includes:

• Games to play with friends and family when the power is off
• Accounts of people doing generator and resource-sharing
• Recipes for those without power
• Places to take the kids, including libraries, museums, YWCA's and malls with power
• Tips on avoiding injury and disease after a storm
• Should you trash or eat defrosting food?
• Things to keep in mind when filing your insurance claim (with contact numbers for most major insurers)
• An updated list of distribution centers supplying ice, water and meals (MREs) for residents
• Phone number for hotel and motel chains in Houston
• Saving your wine

I'll reprint here one section from this excellent series: Tips to protect your home from power surge, by Corilyn Shropshire and Tara Dooley

"When the lights go on, it will be unexpected, the lucky ones with power say. Here are some tips to be prepared so you don't blow it when the lights go on in your neighborhood:
• Unplug it: Unplug all appliances, especially sensitive electronics such as computers, plasma televisions. Turn off air conditioners. New homes with electric water heaters sometimes have switches. Turn those off. When power first arrives in crowded neighborhoods, a short-term overload is possible. That can damage electronics.
• Breaker box: Stay away. Those boxes are often poorly marked and messing with the main breaker can cause more trouble than it's worth when the power goes on.
• Take it slowly: Leave one light on. But once power is up, plug in small appliances first. Then switch on the bigger ones. Finally, turn on the air conditioner.
• Check your connections: Energy companies are responsible for the system until it hits your home or business. The rest is up to you. Check the connections from the wires to the house. If there is a problem, call an electrician.
• Be mindful of dangers: Just because the power is on in your home, does not mean all is right in the entire world. Just yours. Remember to stay away from low hanging or downed power lines. Assume they are dangerous.
• Dig carefully: It's not just about the electricity. Gas lines are also a concern. Underground lines can be disturbed by well meaning maintenance efforts. Before digging holes in the ground to fix a fence, make sure the underground utility lines are marked. You are required to call 811 for the service that will mark the lines. Remember, there may be a wait for this service."

For evacuees returning to their homes, Bobby Hankinson wrote for the Houston Chronicle a guide to What to bring back:

"If you evacuated from Houston or its surrounding communities for Hurricane Ike, please wait to return home until your city leaders give their public approval.
When it's safe to return, take the opportunity to pack accordingly. You may want to consider acquiring a few additional items while you're in an area that was not as hard hit by the storm.

"Here are some suggestions for what to bring with you, especially if you will be returning to a home with no power:

• Water. Buy bottled water for drinking and fill up jugs for sanitation.
• Gasoline. Lines in our area are very long, and fuel is in short supply.
• Ice. Fill up a cooler.
• Non-perishable food. Some supermarkets are open, but lines are long.
• Batteries.
• Flashlights.
• Candles.
• Matches.
• Prescription refills.
• Baby wipes and hand sanitizer.
• Cleaning supplies.
• Charged cell phone and laptop, plus a car charger for electronics.
• Disposable camera to document damage for insurance.
• Written list of important phone numbers.
• Extra towels, socks and underwear. Even if your water is on, washing machines need power to run.

Commenter cb mallard shares these additional tips to homeowners:
1. Disposable latex gloves to wear under work gloves.
2. Large clear and black garbage bags. Clear means save, black means throw away. (This is invaluable because everything is covered in mud - so items and piles become indistinquishable)
3. Small kitchen garbage bags (prior water,sewage, etc. - put under toilet seat , then tie and thow away.
4. Sense of humor. Find a stuffed animal and set it on an upholstered chair in your yard - any kind of trashy yard art like that (a) helps you find your home when trash is 8' high and (b) lifts spirits. We put a big stuffed bunny on a Harley.
5. Have a watch or alarm set for every 60 min to take a water break.
6. Take 6 million pictures.
7. When in doubt or really sad about something - keep it, every heirloom doesn't have to be thrown away today; some can be rescued, or thrown away later. CDs can be washed off, or you may not be ready.
8. Find out from state about generator, power washer allotments. You will need both if you are going to clean up. This is not the time to go off brand - get one from Lowes or Home Depot or someplace to which it can be returned if it doesn't work.
10. What you need in the begininng are people with lots of upper body strength (young, strong) ripping up carpet and tearing out walls, etc. calls for that. Someone with less strength can take pictures (take 2 of everything from different angles, take the ceilings, etc.)
11. Have a picture pile. People brought things out by wheelbarrow and I took pictures before we put in the 8' trash piles. This is so crucial for insurance - both flood, FEMA, etc.
12. Apply for all the help you can get. Don't worry, if you are not eligible you won't get any. This is a good job for the person who doesn't have a lot of upper body strength.
13. You need a bag with Social Security cards, driver licenses, electric bills, mortage papers, insurance papers. The Red Cross and Salvation Army were great. Go early in the process and early in the morning! Take a book to read and plan to be there 4 hours."

And here's one of the recipes for those without power, from Nicki: 'I make a "salad" from rinsed and drained black beans, drained corn and a can of Rotel. It's better with fresh cilantro and lime juice, but at least it's spicy and a relief from the peanut butter sandwiches.'

Sculptures of the Blues Brothers sit in chairs in front of a demolished business on HWY 87, September 18, in Crystal Beach (Sculptures of the Blues Brothers sit in chairs in front of a demolished business on HWY 87, September 18, in Crystal Beach; photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

If you are one of those who will be returning home to assess damage, here's some advice from Texas Watch, a statewide consumer advocacy organization active in insurance, nursing home resident protection, patient protection and consumer law issues:

• Take Documentation.
• Make a comprehensive inventory of the household items lost in the storm, and keep receipts from emergency repairs and temporary housing costs.
• Track Communications with Your Insurance Company.
• Keep a log of all communications with your insurance carrier, including anytime they fail to return a call or miss a scheduled appointment.
• Be Careful What You Sign.
• Do not sign anything you do not fully understand. Make sure all documents are explained thoroughly so that you know what you are signing and how it will affect your claim.
• Ask for Proof.
• If your insurer tells you that you are not covered, require them to offer proof. The burden is on the carrier to point to the exclusion in your policy.
• Complain if Necessary.
• If you believe that you are being treated unfairly by your insurance carrier, file a complaint with the Texas Department of Insurance and/or the Texas Attorney General's Office.

Contact Texas Watch's Ike Insurance Hotline at (888) 738-4226 for assistance in filing complaints. (Staffed M-F, 9-5 CDT) This toll free hotline will be the clearinghouse of information and a way to compile information about potential insurance abuse.
Texas Watch will not be able to directly solve victims' insurance problems. However, it will monitor complaints and refer them to the appropriate government agencies, such as the Texas Department of Insurance and the Texas Attorney General's office.

A cat looks down from a a tree in Galveston's flooded West end (A cat looks down from a a tree in Galveston's flooded West end; photo by LM Otero/AP)

Over 20,000 cattle and hundreds of horses have died or are dying as a result of consuming salt-contamined grass and water. In addition, Hurricane Ike reportedly broke down more than 90 percent of livestock fencing in Orange, Jefferson and Chambers counties. Officials with the Texas Department of Agriculture said the situation is "unprecedented."

As I reported in a prior post, owners of livestock may contact their local emergency management officials, or call the Texas Animal Health Commission at 1-800-550-8242 extension 296.

To assist in the care of farm animals in the stricken region, you can:
• Offer financial donations through the Texas AgriLife Extension Service at their website or by calling 979-845-2604. They are setting up horse and cattle feed donation and distribution sites.
• Contact the Texas Department of Agriculture at their Hay Hotline or call 1-800-Tell-TDA to sell or donate animal feed, hay, or other resources such as feed and water troughs.

Employee Marleny Alvarado transports a cart full of animals from Galveston into the Houston SPCA (Employee Marleny Alvarado transports a cart full of animals from Galveston into the Houston SPCA; photo by Dave Rossman, The Houston Chronicle)

There simply isn't enough good to be said about the first- and second-responders to this disaster, many of whom are working on their own time to do heroic jobs. Any way you can honor and assist this folks, do it. I'm happy to report that not only did Gaido's Restaurant in Galveston survive, they prepared a sit-down linen dinner for exhausted rescue workers this week. Way to go.

(Mary Kay Gaido of Gaido's Restaurant prepares tables for a free lunch in Galveston for about 1,000 first responders helping with the recovery efforts following Hurricane Ike on September 18; photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images and Matt Rourke/AP)

Bits and Bobs:
Texas oyster production has been hammered as a result of habitat destruction by Hurricane Ike. Shrimp and fish seem to still be in full supply.

Thousands of fish are revealed on the shoulder of a road as flood waters recede in Orange, Texas (Thousands of fish are revealed on the shoulder of a road as flood waters recede in Orange, Texas; photo by Eric Gay/AP)

• The waves of Hurricane Ike have uncovered a ragged shipwreck near Port Morgan, Alabama that archeologists say could be a two-masted Civil War schooner that ran aground in 1862 or another ship from some 70 years later.

(Rabbi Roy Walter leads the Congregation Emanu El Shabbat; photo by Eric Kayne, The Houston Chronicle)