Monday, September 15, 2008

Hurricane Ike -- West End, Bolivar Peninsula, and FEMA Response

Point Bolivar Lighthouse, Texas (Point Bolivar Lighthouse, photo by Larry Brandt)

Hurricane Ike -- West End, Bolivar Peninsula, and FEMA Response

As terrible as the damage from Hurricane Ike to Galveston is, word is emerging that communities to either side of Galveston -- the Bolivar Peninsula and the west end of Galveston Island -- have been wiped out. In addition, there is some question that this news is being kept from the public by a deliberate media blackout imposed either by Texas Governor Rick Perry or, as he claims, by "federal authorities".

In a post today by Vince Leibowitz at Capitol Annex, questions are raised about the media blackout and possible reasons for such an action. He links to TV footage of a press conference where ABC13 reporter Wayne Dolcefino confronts Governor Perry about access to Bolivar and the West End, well worth watching here. Wayne Dolcefino speculates that government officials don't want Katrina-like images coming out of Texas. The reporters discussing this issue quote one official who says there "could be some unpleasant surprises" ahead.

However, since then I have been able to find some information online about the regions in question, and Wayne Dolcefino has been able to fly over Bolivar. Associated Content reports that the Bolivar Peninsula, the 27-mile-long barrier island just east of Galveston which includes the communities of Port Bolivar, Crystal Beach, Gilchrist, High Island, and Caplen, has experienced "near total destruction". The article states '"The few houses still "standing" have severe damage and are surrounded by desolate sand and piles of rubble where neighboring houses used to be. Hurricane Ike's storm surge and winds have destroyed not only many of the buildings on Bolivar Peninsula, but also the very land itself.'

Current satellite images of these areas are available at this independent site being run by Jake Abby, including some before and after shots, and they verify the above report.

KHOU of Houston in its article quotes Kathy Rush of the Gilchrist Volunteer Fire Department as stating "Crystal Beach looks like somebody set a bomb off. For the most part houses are leveled." She goes on to say “My house looks like a slab with a sign hanging on it.” She estimated that 80 percent of structures on the peninsula have been destroyed. U.S. Postal inspectors who went on a brief survey returned stating there was no place left to which mail could be delivered in Gilchrist. KHOU has some video of Bolivar Peninsula, including the interview with Kathy Rush, available here. This also includes a brief comment on the devastation which has been visited on wildlife, such as birds with broken wings.

Fresnel lens from the Bolivar Light ABC13 reports the historic Bolivar lighthouse, which survived the 1900 storm and sheltered five dozen people from death during the storm of 1915's 126 mph winds, has been destroyed, with the top shaved off.

With regard to the West End, including community of Jamaica Beach, The International Herald Tribune reported 'Officials expressed fears that more would be found as other areas of flooding were searched, particularly on the west end of the island, where there was "horrendous" devastation, said the city manager, Steve LeBlanc. "We had been taking rescue calls" from the west end, LeBlanc said at a news conference, "but we have lost all communication with them. We know there were people out there. What happened to them, I'm not sure."'

I was able to find a couple of pieces of footage of the West End. One is raw video without commentary from KHOU, a 15 minute clip which begins at Mud Island, crosses San Luis Pass and follows the waterfront south of 3005 to Jamaica Beach, Galveston Island State Park, and Lake Como. You can follow the path of this video on the aerial map below of Galveston Island at this link (click on the map to zoom closer).

Jamaica Beach, Texas before Hurricane Ike At just past 11 minutes in of this video, you can see Jamaica Beach, with a few official-looking vehicles in it. For comparison, here is a pre-Ike photo of Jamaica Beach from their town website. I had this already on my hard drive because the characters in the novel I am currently writing spend a week each summer at Jamaica Beach. I've been to this part of Galveston Island several times, and I feel a personal empathy for what has happened there.

ABC13 also has some video of the West End with a little commentary available here.

The Capitol Annex post at the beginning of this article stated "local government leaders and some legislators have already begun to criticize both the state response and FEMA’s response to Ike, although none of that has been covered by the media yet." Our local (Austin) news this morning did include a clip from Texas Congressman John Culberson expressing his anger about the fact that 300 National Guardsmen, state troopers and other emergency workers are going hungry at a high-school football stadium and at another staging area on Houston’s west side. He said "they were brought in and just dumped", and have run out of food and water. He beseeched nearby residents to take food and water to the would-be rescuers, and blamed FEMA. The Dallas Morning News covered the story here. (Thx, Jesse, for the link.)

In Austin, as schools which were being used as evacuee centers are being reclaimed for classes, evacuees are being consolidated at the Convention Center (Netroots Nation attendees, yes, the same rooms we were in). Austin still has 4000 people from the Gulf Coast at shelters, at least 1500 of which are from Galveston and have no hope of returning home for the foreseeable future. One local story highlighted a young woman, Veronica Perez, who is here with her husband and a 12-day-old baby, literally only a bag of clothes and baby supplies and no money at all -- they had to leave before her husband could get his check. She is very worried about her baby getting sick "from being around all these people", and she said "I know my house is gone. Has to be."

Austinites are going to the centers to offer what help they can, even if it is only to listen to the frustration and fear these displaced Texans are living through. The local Capital Area Food Bank has already received donations of $25,000 and another 25,000 pounds of donated food, all of which has immediately gone out to feed evacuees. I'm going to post their website again here, since they are doing the immediate work of feeding folks. Can't get more basic than that.

I watched the rescue of one couple from a flooded house in Texas City, who had spent the day after Ike in their hot attic. When the water began pouring in, the man called 911. He said they told him to "tie my ID to my ankle, so maybe they'd be able to identify me when they found my body." He was seriously pissed off by this response.

Why is it that as much as 40% of Galveston's population didn't evacuate, despite the warning that they "faced certain death"? I can't exactly argue their mindset, because I certainly would have left. But I can imagine my little brother being one who stayed put. When you are poor, when you don't believe anyone in authority based on lifetime experiences of being lied to, manipulated and treated like crap, when your car won't handle a 300-mile stop-and-start drive (if you have one), you can be seduced by the idea of "I can handle this, I handled Gustav, I'm tougher than those other folks." Raised poor means you do face horrific challenges more or less on your own, with your family. And you do survive things other people call "unbearable". It's a combination of courage, despair, and poor judgment created by lack of positive learning experiences. (To put it nicely.)

Do not assume they are stupid, or counting on rescue. Most of the people being interviewed right after rescue are saying "Never again, no matter what, I'm clearing out." Of course, if they are treated shabbily post rescue, if the people currently in shelters are pushed around and put in toxic trailers like too many Katrina survivors were, there is a certain percentage who will choose to face death again rather that endure further class humiliation.

When I was in fourth grade in a small, mostly Latino town in South Texas, one day our teacher handed out mimeographed sheets to all of us about a free school lunch program about to start. (It was 1964). I read it carefully before folding it into my pocket. Every Monday, my mother raided the corners of her purse, piggy banks, the car, for coins to make up enough to pay for our school lunches, which as I remember was perhaps a dollar a week. It was still cheaper than sending us to school with home-made lunches, but the stress of finding that much money caused her to lash out at us without being able to stop herself. This mimeographed sheet was like a gift from god, I thought.

After I got home, I found her in the kitchen making beans, rice, and greens from the garden. She was focused on cooking as I pulled out the sheet and asked the main question on it: Did Daddy make less than $250 a month. Absent-mindedly, she answered "Hell, yes" as she stirred something. Then reality sunk in and she looked up at me. "Why are you asking?"

I began joyfully explaining the golden opportunity we had just been handed. Before I could finish, she snatched the paper from my hands and read it. Her face went red with rage and she ripped it up in my face. "This is charity" she hissed at me. "This is a government hand-out. Do you want people to know how bad off we are? Do you want them to treat us all like shit? Don't you EVER tell anybody how much money we have, and don't you dare take charity from all those assholes who want to make themselves feel better by making us beholden to them."

I knew she was wrong. I knew how hungry we were, and that it wasn't dignified, either, to be hungry. However, I was nine years old, unable to argue. I didn't take in her logic. But I did absorb some of her shame, against my will. It's still in there, making it hard to write this and admit it, making me want to make sure you know my mother was brilliant, the finest human being I ever met, my role model in most other regards.

Shame makes people crazy. It contributes too often to their deaths. And the way to assist them out of it is not to call them stupid for having it. I don't expect George W. Bush or Michael Chertoff to understand that, of course, but we who are looking for the bigger picture can find an effective way to deal with the increasing likelihood of irrational human response to natural disaster in our nation.