Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hurricane Ike's Lingering Effects: Days 4-5

[Photo of Point Bolivar Lighthouse in the foreground, and Crystal Beach TX further beyond, taken from the direction of Galveston Island the day after Hurricane Ike made landfall. Virtually everything's under water even hours after the water has begun receding back into the Gulf!]

Day Four

The tedium becomes overwhelming, so I'm really sinking myself into yardwork. After beginning the back yard yesterday, and getting the first two attacks from yellow jackets, I retreated. This afternoon, I got stung inside my own house! If the damn things are going to get me, then I'll take the war out to their turf -- not mine!

There isn't really much else I can do, and we're blessed with amazing cool weather -- low 80's! I can't emphasize how unusual it is to have decent weather after a hurricane! We really got fortunate.

With this weather, I shouldn't be short-tempered. But apparently frustration isn't only the product of the usual sticky heat and waiting in lines. Mine is clearly frustration borne of tedium and minor aggravations like those of the aggressive insect variety. Again today, I get two more stings -- one in my open eyeball! At least now I know the vitreous fluid doesn't come pouring out deflating your eye! Strangely, beyond the uncontrollable eye-watering, I actually caught a little buzz. It made the colors (once the white-out stopped) very intense in that eye. Nevertheless, it's not a trip I want to repeat: it's painful.

During the day, there's more activity in sound: frequent sirens from groups of either fire or paramedics vehicles (unsure which). One that was in my vicinity was clearly a fire, due to the black smoke, and brought both fire vehicles and even a chopper. It's noise! Maybe not the welcome kind, but it breaks the eerie silence that hovers in those immediate days after hurricanes.

Beyond that, the persistent uncertainty gnaws at you. I catch a little news on the car radio in spurts, but nothing personally useful. It would seem easy to drive to Katy, but a 30 mile roundtrip takes gas, and gas is still a long wait, to say nothing of people's temperament at the pumps. Staying in Katy is a different problem: leaving my home unattended and a looter's draw. So I stay home just to avoid that prospect. With 2/3 of a tank, I think I can wait it out. If I get down to 1/4 tank, I'll just drive out to Columbus an hour west. They'll have gas without the hassles.

This evening I drove to the Home Depot near my home to get wasp spray, and apparently they close early. Wasted trip, wasted gas, just another of those little cumulative frustrations of life in indefinite uncertainty.

Another is the frustration of intermittent cell phone signals. I've been very happy to have cell phone service (thankfully I had the presence to know I'd need a car charger at some point). That said, I've had a number of partial conversations with friends, unless it's under ten minutes or so. Trying to call back is usually fruitless – there's no available signal. Looking forward to another boring night in the dark, the only thing you can do to break the boredom besides walking around the darkened neighborhood is get on the phone with someone. But after a few minutes, getting cut off abruptly is no fun.

I'd noticed today the cell phone signal seemed to be more consistent, so I started making a couple calls. After the last one cut off, to my surprise I was able to get a signal about two minutes later -- a hopeful sign! During my last call, I nearly got heart palpitations as I saw a bright blue flash of light in back of me (I thought lightning!). Then a sound ... and TV! My electricity came on! Hallelujah! Four days was long enough!

Finally I started seeing some of the images of the devastation on Bolivar Peninsula (across the pass from Galveston Island). It's wiped out. A friend of mine, Jackie bought an older beach house in Crystal Beach back in 2000 (one that's only about 4 feet off of ground level) and had mentioned at the time that she was going to sell her condo in Houston and move out there permanently. I have no idea if she did so.

But knowing Crystal Beach was ground zero for Ike's storm surge, and now seeing the town -- save for the lighthouse and the water tower -- has been virtually wiped clean off the map, I worry that she may have stayed. She's obviously transgendered (not a good mix in a shelter), and has her poodle. It strikes me that with her tough military background, she may have decided to stick it out and fight it. I'd drop her an Email, but that doesn't work well when you have no electricity.

Galveston is devastated. Bolivar's little towns are utterly destroyed. So much more damage further inland than I thought I'd see. And the flared tempers show on TV. Even the mayor is angered at FEMA, and is taking over the POD distribution. They apparently sent a truck from one of the POD sites -- against the mayor's protestations, as there were assigned police to guard -- back to the staging area at Reliant Stadium. 7AM Tuesday, the POD opened and there were no supplies. FEMA just can't seem to get it together!

Really, the county and city are the only ones who seem to have a grasp on things! Thank God for Mayor Bill White! He was great post-Katrina, and he's shining again now that we have our own unique version of it. There's been other confusions as well – communication by the mayor’s office and media that PODs were supposed to all be open until 8PM, but a few locations shutting down at 6PM.

KTRK, Channel 13, has been really digging to get the information this whole storm (kudos go out to Miya Shay, Wayne Dolcefino and Art Rascon for not being easily brushed off with fluff or vague responses). Tonight they showed President Bush who apparently visited the area today (maybe explaining all the helicopter activity I’d heard). According to reports, he disallowed any media from riding along with him, and did another fly-over, surveying damage from a helicopter. According to Melanie Lawson, the President gave a press briefing before doing his flyover survey, and gave a fluff-filled, soundbite pat on the back to Houston:

"I have been president long enough to have seen tough situations, and have seen the resilience of the people to be able to deal with the tough situations…. I know with proper help from the federal government and the state government, there will be a better tomorrow." What a feeling guy! He couldn’t buy a clue if it was given to him for free!

The electricity return is making progress, and I truly feel fortunate! I’m part of 836,000 people who’ve had power restored. That’s out of 2.26 million who lost it originally. Only 37% of us have gotten it back.

With all this communication breakdown and miscommunication, keep this in mind: the agency overseeing this is FEMA. Since Hurricane Katrina and Rita in 2005, FEMA has been wrapped up under the direct purview of Homeland Security Dept. and Michael Chertoff. Homeland Security Dept. answers to no one else, and directly reports to President George W. Bush. And as Dick Cheney has asserted numerous times, both he and the President have “unitary executive powers” – unrestricted powers to do anything they want without explanation, oversight or accountability for any of it. Houston has been hometown to Bush-daddy and Bush-mama since his junior high school days.

If Bush-baby had wanted this effort to run smoothly, he would have made it so with unfettered command. Or maybe he did exercise his authority and order Homeland Security Dept. to do so, which communicates a very different and disturbing message…. YOYO!

Finally, the came real shock of being in "Hurricane mode" this past week. The stock market tanked, badly! Trust me, there was no way for anyone in the Houston region to know! For those not in hurricane areas, this may be something you never have to live through, and so cannot relate. Since last Thursday, what media and news we've had has been commercial-free, non-stop news of the hurricane's track, the expected landfall and damage, and even this evening on TV, nothing but damage reports, POD reports, communication of needed information and press-conferences. We have zero news from the outside world! Absolutely nothing. There is no regular programming.

It wasn't until I went through this that I remembered back to my days in Corpus Christi and the same occurring there after Hurricane Allen, and Fern and Celia years before it. You become inured to focusing on locally surviving. But you forget the rest of the world goes on. The campaign stuff is infuriating and I'm worried about what's happening financially. And yet, we may as well have all been planted in Indonesia with no contact to the outside world. Without internet access, we're all clueless -- and even that's an understatement! I literally feel like Rip Van Winkle!

This is testament to how dependent we’ve now become on internet news. It’s happened gradually, but it’s had a comprehensive change on our lives – especially if you have any sociopolitical interests or activities. Now I've got new worries -- what else have I missed? Even with newfound electricity, it's going to be an unsettling night.

Day Five

A good portion of the morning was spent catching up! Catching up on outside news, catching up with friends who worried over me surviving the storm. After so long on the internet, I got a headache. So I decided to try to make my way to Home Depot and the grocery stores again. As it's Wednesday now, apparently traffic had picked up considerably. I tried three times unsuccessfully to attempt a trip and never made it out of my neighborhood. The east-west streets (Richmond and Westheimer further north) are clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Even my north-south artery (two-laned Synott Rd.) was clogged with traffic back ups, which is unusual.

I've become an involuntary urban shut-in!

Instead, I spent most of my day -- as before -- out in back, clearing vegetation debris to get to the downed fence debris. The angry yellow jackets are out in force. All their paper, honey-combed nests are down, and they're already hostile. My disruption of their new attempts at temporary homes is enraging them further. This takes up a good portion of the day.

After 8PM, I finally had a successful drive out of my neighborhood!

Unfortunately, stores are still closing early -- Home Depot at 7PM, Kroger at 8PM (I just missed it!). Again, more infuriating frustration over wasted trips! Waiting in long lines don't appeal to me, but making trips for nothing compounds the problem. But in my drive around, I noticed something good. Four gas stations are now open, with power and gasoline, and there was no waiting in multi-block lines! In fact, there was lots of business, but no lines at all -- a great sign. Noticing that the prices have gone up to $3.77/gal. -- a little over 10% rise from the $3.35 I paid two days before the storm -- was not so welcomed a sight.

But it is gasoline and I didn't have to drive 75 miles each way to get it. I topped off my tank, so it wasn't a totally wasted trip. The comfort level increases just a bit.

From what I see on TV, it seems FEMA is finally getting it together. Chertoff and the county and the mayor are all working in concert, and for the most part, everyone appears to be on the same page. It's about time.

Other things on hurricane news: there are over one hundred tankers parked in a line, anchored off of the Galveston coast. All of them are waiting to come into the Port of Houston to unload, maybe even some to load. Refineries are just in the beginning stages of bringing things online again, so it may be a while for some of those loading. This would be a horrible time for another storm to hit the western Gulf of Mexico -- thank God for the current weather patterns!

Only in Texas: after Ike devastated a lot of the coastal areas in Chambers County, across Galveston Bay from Houston / Galveston, many of the pastures lost fencing (and even some cattle). As there were numerous reports of wandering cattle, some of the ranchers have begun old-fashioned cattle drives of their herd to relocate their stock. TV news showed shots of the cattle drives heading up Hwy. 124.

There's actually a few hundred people still on Bolivar Peninsula, along with the thousands in Galveston. How these Bolivar folks survived, I don't know. But they stayed, and probably for good reason. Even in this difficult time and conditions, lootings are being reported. It makes it impossible for authorities or military to convince people to leave. They'll live with the hardships, they're staying with their homes and belongings.

Crazy Shirley, a Daily Kos contributor who has a beach home in Crystal Beach sent me a video response to my previous diary entry on Kos. It was well-done, with many photos of the old, casual Crystal Beach days. It reminded me of my days living on Corpus' North Beach, and days spent out at Port A or J. P. Luby Surf Park on Padre Island. Then showed the news shots and satellite photos of Ike bearing down. Finally a few shots of the devastation post-storm. It was all done to the tune of Green Day's "Good Riddance (I Hope You Had The Time Of Your Life)." I started worrying about Jackie again, remembering our GCTC beach parties on both West Beach and at Jackie's on Crystal Beach. I worried about whatever happened to the nursing home staff and residents from Baytown and where they ended up.

I also started remembering Corpus, in those first few months post-Celia.

That was too much -- I started crying uncontrollably. You can only stay numb for so long....
"All last night, sat on the levee and moaned
Thinking 'bout my baby and my happy home." — When The Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin

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