Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hurricane Ike: Lions, Tigers, And What Can We Bear?

(A short by Guilherme Marcondes of Brazil, blending puppetry, illustration, photography and CGI)

Hurricane Ike: Lions, Tigers, And What Can We Bear?

When I read that a tiger was roaming the devastated Bolivar Peninsula, I began to imagine Hurricane Ike himself as the tiger.

I lived in India as a small child during the late 1950s, and grew up on stories of my father's tiger hunts out in the forested areas where he worked most of the time. Twice a tiger began poaching humans from small villages, almost always an animal who has been partially disabled or become too old to hunt for its regular game. If news of this reached Daddy's crew, they quite sensibly refused to go out into the field to work until the tiger was dealt with. He went with a professional hunter, sat in a tree blind all night with a goat tethered below, and once it was his shot who killed the tiger. He made pains to tell us he took no pride in it. He said it was dangerous but not skillful hunting, taking down an animal who had reached the end of its natural resources, and he refused to take the skins or keep a photo.

In this case, however, it was the Tyger who took us down.

Humans have always chosen to live in proximity to nature which can destroy them. Those margins tend to be fecund and nurturing when nature is peacefully asleep. The Mississippi, Vesuvius, San Andreas -- we cluster like dolts near our imminent death. But we are not dolts, we do know the risk. We simply think we can outrun it, outbuild it, outlive it.

Among the Yurok of Northern California, the world was seen as a flat disk of land floating on The Ocean Beyond The World, into which all rivers ran. Beyond that Ocean lay The Ocean Beyond The Ocean, and further still was the World Beyond The World. Between the two Oceans was the lip of the great bowl of sky, which did not fit snugly but shifted from side to side. As it rattled up and down, it created the ocean waves. Sometimes as the sun goes down, you can see through that gap between the sky and distant ocean's border, glimpsing the World Beyond The World -- what we call the green flash at sunset.

The motion of the sky and its subsequent waves create instability in our land disk, they believed. (If this is not the most elegant theory of plate tectonics you can imagine, existing for tens of thousands of years before our modern "science", I'll eat my Mao cap.) To help settle the earth, every spring they had a long dance where they pounded the bare earth with their bare feet, communing with it all the way down, reassuring it. When the dances went well, there was no terrible earthquake that year.

It makes as much sense as building levees to corral the Mississippi and halt its westward roam through New Orleans and the Atchafalaya. More sense to me, in fact.

And for a century now, wetlands and barrier dunes along the Gulf Coast have been altered so developers could earn quick money building houses for the rich. Roads and commercial property always followed, meaning more development, and eventually communities rose up where those native to the region knew it wasn't smart to build.

Map of Karankawa Indians, Texas Coastal Area (Map from Texas Indians)

The people who originally lived on the coastal bend of Texas, from barrier islands inland, are collectively known as Karankawas. They made a vivid impression on the first Europeans to encounter them, standing generally over six feet tall, heavily tattooed, men with pierced nipples and lips, and covered either in mud or rancid shark liver oil to ward off insects. (Some Europeans wrote you could smell them coming because of the fish oil, but after enduring coastal mosquitoes, many newcomers themselves took up using the emollient, odor be damned.) They were highly skilled archers, with long bows over six feet in length and arrows up to three feet long for use in shallow water.

The Karankawa are legendarily said to have practiced ritual cannibalism, but this claim must always be regarded with suspicion: Apparently one of the first questions Europeans asked any new tribe they countered was "Where are the cannibals?", and they remained so obsessed with the subject that generally some obliging joker among the newly "discovered" people would finger a neighboring tribe as eaters of human flesh. In actual fact, the only reliable evidence we have of ritual cannibalism among peoples of the Gulf Coast are the Catholic explorers and missionaries themselves, converting their wafers and wine into the body and blood of Christ before consumption.

The Karankawa only lived on barrier islands and the coast itself during winter months, when shellfish were edible, fish migration beneficial, and the mosquitoes not as bad. Plus, of course, the threat of hurricanes was to be avoided. During the summer they retreated inland to hunt and forage. On Galveston Island, Karankawa rescued the few survivors of the ill-fated Pánfilo de Narváez Expedition in 1528. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca wrote that upon finding them in their pitiful condition, the Karankawa sat down and wept with them. By 1860, through disease and outright genocide, the Karankawa were extinct.

Early European settlers along the Gulf Coast moved on as soon as they could unless they were pirates, in the military or of a certain mindset to adapt to the environment. By the mid 1800s, this latter group, the settlers, knew to keep things simple: Grow a little rice, catch a few fish, smuggle enough to buy sugar and kerosene, and ride out the hurricanes which came up without enough warning to flee. Like islanders and hazardous coastal dwellers anywhere, they've developed a particular culture, tough and easy-going in a mixture I understand.

One of my good friends is a descendant of Mary Hannah Hollingsworth, born 1817 in Lancashire, England and an immigrant to Canada by 1828. She married a Scot, George Albert Brundrett, in Canada and they moved to Michigan, where Brundrett was a sea captain on the Great Lakes. After he died in the 1840s, Hannah moved with her seven children (ages 15 to 3) to the Gulf Coast where free land was offered to settlers. They went first to Bludworth Island, then started a ranch on St. Joseph Island. This sand barrier island, across from Aransas Bay from Rockport, is low on trees and drinkable water, high on snakes and mosquitoes. Hannah made a go of it, however.

During the Civil War, Union blockade of Texas was constant and Saint Joseph was frequently bombarded by Union ships. Hannah was on her third husband by this time, with two baby daughters, but when the rest of the island inhabitants finally gave up and retreated inland, she refused to leave, despite being estranged from her husband. Almost as soon as the rest of the population cleared out from St. Joe, 50 Union Marines landed on the island and burned or demolished most of the dwellings. They commandeered Hannah's home, and while they did not treat her badly, she kept her distance, eavesdropping on their plans. A few days later, she slipped out at night during a favorable tide, rode up island to Cedar Bayou channel and waded across it neck-deep in her heavy long dress and petticoats to warn a Confederate installation that the Yankees were coming. She returned to her home in time to change clothes and feed her babies' breakfast. If you've seen Aransas Bay and Cedar Bayou, you know what courage this woman had.

I was born in Rockport, on a blistering August afternoon in a tiny hospital with no air conditioning, close enough to the ocean that my mother said she could smell the iodine. We moved to Palacios when I was six weeks old, then to Lafayette, Louisiana six weeks after that, and by nine months of age I was living in India, so I did not grow up a Gulf Coast kid, but I love the region passionately. The last thing I did in 2000 before I went in for my knee replacement surgery (the operation which left me with a cognitive brain injury for over a year) was to drive to Port Aransas and hobble into the gulf for a possible goodbye visit. I tend to cry when I listen to Nanci Griffith's song:

Gulf Coast Highway, he worked the rails
He worked the rice fields with their cool dark wells
He worked the oil rigs on the Gulf of Mexico
The only thing we've ever owned
Is this old house here by the road
And when he dies, he says he'll
Catch some blackbird's wing
And he will fly away to heaven
Come some sweet bluebonnet spring.

(You can listen to my favorite version of this song, by Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, at this link.)

(Map of Bolivar Peninsula from the Houston Chronicle)

Apparently many of the people who lived in more remote areas of the coast and intended to flee Hurricane Ike were prevented from doing so by early advance of the storm surge. One article from the Houston Chronicle states on the Bolivar Peninsula, by Friday "rising water had already swamped much of the peninsula", trapping Norbert Kurtz with his dogs Galoot and Lucy. Similarly, on Friday morning, waves whipping over Texas 87 turned back June and John Peveto of Crystal Beach. "Many abandoned their vehicles and walked or caught rides in high-clearance trucks to High Island. Those abandoned vehicles — scores of them — are scattered, many half buried in sand or muck, across the marshy landscape."

The article goes on to state "The communities of Caplen and Gilchrist, which bracket man-made Rollover Pass on the east end of the peninsula, were hit hardest by the storm. Most of the homes there are gone, leaving nothing to mark their place save concrete foundations, some of which sprout the shattered remains of the timber pilings on which they stood. The storm surge scoured many areas so deeply that septic tanks are completely exposed. Three of the four lanes of the State Highway 87 bridge spanning Rollover Pass are wrecked and impassable, mauled by storm surge. The integrity of the single lane remaining is suspect."

Kurtz, his dogs, and the Pevetos were rescued yesterday. All search and rescue on Galveston Island has been concluded, and likely some of those resources will be reallocated to other areas such as the Bolivar Peninsula. The death toll is currently at 51. However, the absence of bodies in some areas where there were known to be people who had refused to evacuate has led some authorities to caution about the possibilities of people having been washed out to sea.

The Dallas News yesterday printed a long article with first-person accounts of those who rode out Ike. I'm going to copy in a couple of these here to share:

'Among those who made it out alive was Kathi Norton, who put on a life jacket as the storm closed in on High Island, on the Bolivar Peninsula. She and her husband, Paul, knew the dangers of staying, and put their important documents, credit cards, money and cell phones into a plastic bag, and held on tight. All too quickly, the floodwaters rose and the house started to break apart. Through the gaps, they saw refrigerators, lawn mowers and hot tubs floating past. The deck broke away next. Then the roof started to buckle.

'"The whole floor was just opened out," he said. Norton grabbed his wife and headed for an outdoor staircase, escaping in time only because a flagpole kept the house from crashing down for a few precious seconds. "I look up, the house is coming on us," he said. For hours, they sloshed around in 4-foot waves before finding themselves perched in a tree. They finally made their way onto someone's motor home, which then started to sink. They were able to cling to rafters of a nearby structure and hang on until daybreak. "We had to grab that staircase and float wherever it took us," the 68-year-old retiree said.

'Willis Turner decided to ride it out on his wooden boat next to his house on Crystal Beach, also on Bolivar Peninsula, but it nearly capsized and he was saved by a rope his wife tossed to him. The two held on inside a home that she said "vibrated like a guitar string." "It was like an atomic bomb going off. Right after the eye passed, whole houses came by us at 30 miles an hour - WHOLE HOUSES! - just floating right past," Turner said. "It was unreal. Unreal." Turner and his wife awoke the next day to an island they no longer recognized. The first four rows of houses on the beach were washed into the sea. There were no more restaurants, no more gas stations, no more grocery stores. The neighborhood was gone.

'In Galveston, Charlene Warner, 52, weathered the storm with her landlord and a neighbor in the apartment above her own. "It felt like an earthquake - the rumbling and the rocking of the building," she said, smoking outside a shelter in San Antonio. "Everyone was praying. It was so terrible. All I could say was, 'Lord, please don't kill me. Forgive me for what I done,"' Warner said, as a tear rolled down her cheek.

'After the storm, she and neighbors waited for rescue, but no one came. The water receded, leaving a layer of muck filled with snakes. But with no water, no electricity and a shrinking supply of food, Warner decided to go for help, sliding her way across the goo a block and a half to the fire station. Firefighters took her and neighbors to a spot where they could get on an evacuation bus. She arrived at a shelter in San Antonio with her purse stuffed full of personal documents and cigarettes, and one spare outfit that she washed and drip-dried on a railing Tuesday. "I lost everything. What you see with me is all I have," she said. "I never seen anything like that in my life. I'll never ride out another storm."

'Cheryl Stanley said she and her husband, Tom, wanted to evacuate their Galveston apartment before the hurricane hit but couldn't. Their son, Casey, has cerebral palsy, and the three live on the third floor. When they tried to leave, the elevators were turned off, and they couldn't carry Casey down the stairs. "It was horrible," Cheryl said. "The building was shaking all night."

'A few hours into the storm, Casey said he didn't feel safe in the bedroom, so they moved him to the living room. About three hours later, the ceiling in his bedroom collapsed. "Thank God, we got Casey out of there," his mother said. After the storm passed, paramedics carried Casey downstairs. And neighbors carried the wheelchair."

When Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas attempted to allow a "Look and Leave" policy for her city on Tuesday, it had to be rescinded only hours later as miles of traffic jams stopped highway movement toward Galveston, including emergency crews and supply vehicles. Galveston has no water, sewage, electricity, or hospital, and there is no date anticipated when these might return. In Houston, America's fifth largest city, most of the population is still without power and isn't expected back on for at least another week. The port, one of the nation's busiest, is being swept by sonar boats to clear debris clogging navigation.

(Resident trying to return to Galveston snarled in traffic; photo by Beatrice de Gea for NY Times)

The International Herald Tribune states Houston "Mayor Bill White complained FEMA wasn't bringing in the supplies fast enough, and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett had personally taken over coordination of efforts to hand out relief supplies. FEMA officials in Houston said they were refining glitches in the relief effort and delivering millions of meals and water every 24 hours. Spokesman Marty Bahamonde said FEMA will begin paying for 30 days of hotel expenses for homeowners whose houses are uninhabitable."

But what happens after those 30 days are up? What's going to happen to the 3000 evacuees still here in Austin? At least one of them on the evening news last night had found an aerial photograph of her house in Galveston -- or rather, where her house used to be -- and said "That's it. I'm now living in Austin." Welcome, sister.

The Christian Science Monitor yesterday observed "Charitable organizations, which played a central role in post-Katrina emergency relief, report they're already exhausted and depleted after responding to hurricanes Gustav and Hanna, as well as tropical storm Fay."

On a bigger scale, I think we're looking at another mass migration of people from one region to another, such as occurred after Katrina. Such as occurred after the 1927 Mississippi Flood, when an entire generation of African-American tenant farmers said "Fuck you" to the white land owners of the Delta and followed railroad lines north, leading eventually to (among other things) Motown and Oprah Winfrey.

Coastal building policy has been a controversial ember for some time, and is going to flare back into open flame in the months ahead. The Christian Science Monitor already sidled up to the issue yesterday with an article which states 'Safely ensconced behind a 10-mile long seawall built after a catastrophic 1900 hurricane, native Galvestonian Andrew Shelton took barely a lick from Ike. On either side of the seawall, however, a 12-foot storm surge claimed perhaps hundreds of recently built homes with beach access and million-dollar views.

'The contrast, says Mr. Shelton, reveals the folly of an exuberant coastal policy that has allowed taxpayer-subsidized market forces to place some of the nation's most valuable real estate on the coast's most unpredictable perches. "The irony of this storm is that rich people who built outside the seawall got wiped away and the lower economic classes who trust the seawall survived," says Shelton, whose great-great-grandfather, John Henry Hutchens, survived the 1900 hurricane, which killed more than 6,000 islanders.

'As the unprotected West End neighborhoods of Galveston Island remained impassable, and news came that much of Bolivar Peninsula to the east, also unprotected, had borne the brunt of Ike's massive wall of water, questions are being raised about the storm's impact on coastal development. I think people are now going to weigh carefully their investments, whether it's in terms of industry, business, and government," says Heber Taylor, editor of the Galveston County Daily News, Texas' oldest continuously published newspaper.

'With President Bush visit to the island Tuesday, it's a debate that's likely to focus on Galveston, where storm memories run deep in the island's colorful and multi-cultural heritage, and where recent decades have seen political and market shifts that seem to contradict the hurricane lessons learned, and still practiced, by many natives.

'On the other side of the debate is the notion that coastal development is no riskier than building in wildfire-prone California hills or along Tornado Alley in Kansas, with few critics questioning the right of residents there to receive federal insurance and rebuilding aid. Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with its $130 billion federal aid package, began shaping that debate in earnest, sparking deep reforms in required construction practices. In some beach towns in and around Galveston Island – including Bolivar, Rollover Pass, Crystal Beach, and Gilchrist – Ike may now define how Texas decides to draw both physical and philosophical lines on beach-building.

'Even before the storm, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson proposed that new coastal construction be set back at 60 times the erosion rate – 60 feet for every foot of erosion, for example. "We now have a graphic example of why you should build as far away from the dunes as possible," Mr. Patterson told the Houston Chronicle during a flyover. Local officials blasted Patterson's proposal, claiming that communities couldn't survive without new construction. The late '90s real estate boom helped fill tax coffers at a time when local industries were declining – especially in old boom towns like Galveston.

'So far, the federal government has largely sided with building boosters. In high-erosion corners of the Gulf like Dauphin Island, Ala., the Army Corps of Engineers has moved sand in order to replace home lots that washed out to sea. Generous infrastructure funds guaranteed by federal law allow the government to underwrite disaster recovery, and also tend to support rebuilding on vulnerable lots.

"It's a very positive sign for sensible management if the State of Texas does take a new look at how we rebuild extremely vulnerable shorelines," says Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. "But I'm also skeptical, because the people who are being shut out of rebuilding tend to be wealthy and politically influential. People say, 'Those people must be nuts to build on the West End of Galveston,' but it's actually the taxpayers who are nuts for subsidizing that development."

'Alphonso Nickerson, who rode out Ike with his mother behind the seawall, says wealthier residents will certainly rebuild. "If you don't have to worry about money, it's no big thing," he says. But Carlos Silliman, a laid-back outdoorsman, says city government has abandoned the lessons of the last half-dozen storms. He thinks the city should stop building infrastructure to the unprotected areas and pay more attention to storm-proofing the city's five electrical substations, all of which fizzled out.

'"Yes, these kinds of storms become memorialized and they become part of that culture," says Anthony Oliver-Smith at the Institute for Environment and Human Security at United Nations University in Bonn, Germany. But he says, "Memories of [natural disasters] begin to diminish after 30 years, at which point development begins again to put people in harm's way."'

(Residents of Pasadena, Texas, affected by Hurricane Ike receive ice, water and food from members of the Texas National Guard; photo by Chris Graythen, Getty Images)

Even for those willingly staying behind in the current disaster zone, things are going to get much worse before they get better. The soil of Bolivar Peninsula is spongy with moisture and contains tangled mats of vegetation which are a refuge for snakes and a breeding ground for vast clouds of mosquitos. One man in Galveston was found on the street with more than 1,000 mosquito bites, and he was airlifted to another city.

The New York Times reports 'The sludge left in homes and on roads as floodwaters recede represents a “toxic soup” of mud, human waste, asbestos, lead and gasoline that poses serious health risks and must be removed before people return. Homes must be inspected for structural damage and for leaks before natural gas service can be restored. And before debris can be hauled away, hazardous material has to be separated from what can be sent to recycling centers, burned or chipped into mulch.

'“At 60,000-feet altitude, the damage just looks like a lot of debris,” said Steve LeBlanc, the city manager. “Just clean it up. Flip a switch. And we can be back online. It’s a whole lot more complicated than that.”

Christopher Cox amid the remnants of his in Galveston after Hurricane Ike (Christopher Cox amid the remnants of his trailer in Galveston, Texas after Hurricane Ike; photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters)

'Waiting on hold with his insurance company, one resident of Galveston Island, John Strange, took a break from scraping sludge off his home’s vinyl floor. He said the bugs that were emerging from the sludge were just too overwhelming. “They could fly away with your hat,” he said. “The roaches are bigger than I’ve ever seen in New York City. They’d whip a New York roach. The mosquitoes are as big as your thumbnail. You name them, you know, like ‘Hey, George.’ ”

'In New Orleans, the sludge and floodwaters left after Hurricane Katrina had lead levels that were 56 times the amount considered safe in drinking water and bacteria levels that were 19 times the acceptable measure, according to federal officials who briefed Congress at the time. The Environmental Protection Agency will begin taking samples of the sludge and floodwater this week to check for contaminants, Galveston city officials said. Grady Clay, an engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, said that adding to the difficulty in clearing the debris was the large amount of construction material from hundreds of collapsed homes that has to be separated if it has asbestos.'

Adding to the worry is the question raised by an article from The Institute for Southern Studies stating 'The Galveston area of Texas that took a direct hit from Hurricane Ike is home to a top-level biodefense laboratory that studies highly contagious and deadly diseases including bird flu, but lab officials are assuring the public that the pathogens were secured before the storm made landfall.

'The Robert E. Shope Laboratory is located in the Keiller Building on the sprawling University of Texas Medical Branch campus in Galveston. The basement of the Keiller Building flooded during the storm, but UTMB reports there was no loss of biocontainment or biosecurity. All labs were decontaminated and secured prior to the storm, with all infectious agents stored in proper containers, according to UTMB. However, UTMB's statement contradicts claims by state and federal officials that the lab's pathogens were destroyed before Ike hit. For example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's spokesperson told CNN that the lab's pathogens were purposely destroyed before the staff evacuated the facility. Officials with the Department of Homeland Security also told the network dangerous materials were destroyed.

'Some observers question the wisdom of building top-level biolabs on a barrier island vulnerable to severe tropical storms and intense flooding.'

No shit, Sherlock.

And then, of course, we circle back around to lions and tigers on Bolivar, oh my.

Shackle the lioness in First Baptist Church, Crystal Beach, TX, after Hurricane Ike (Shackle, an 11-year-old lioness, growls on her altar at the First Baptist Church, Crystal Beach, Texas; photo from AP)

I've found no further word on the tiger. The lion, however, is an 11-year-old lioness named Shackle. Her owner, Michael Ray Kujawa, was trying to flee Crystal City when he saw cars and trucks stranded in early floodwaters, blocking him from leaving the peninsula. He persuaded Shackle from his car and was met by other residents who helped them to the nearby First Baptist Church. They locked the lion in the sanctuary and fed it pork roasts as the storm arrived. Shackle never panicked as water came up to their waists and debris came through broken windows. Kujawa stated "When you have to swim, the lion doesn't care about eating nobody."

I keep thinking about the kind of person who, when they see a neighbor struggling through floodwaters with a grown lion, say "Hey, there's Mike with a lion, let's go help him put 'er in the Baptist Church" and then stick around through the storm with him and his animal. There's neighborliness and then there's unflappable flexibility. I think the latter is part of Gulf Coast culture.

Galveston County Judge Jim Yarbrough says the Texas attorney general's office is trying to figure out how to legally force out the 200 people refusing to leave Bolivar Peninsula, since it has no gas, power, or running water. (Not to mention the tiger.) Even with martial law, I wouldn't want to be the folks going up against the neighbors of Shackle.

(Shackle the lioness lying on the altar floor of the First Baptist Church, Crystal Beach, Texas; photo from Metro UK)

[To view an interactive map showing video and photo reports by the New York Times from around the region that was hit by Hurricane Ike, click on In Ike's Wake.]