Waste Land, Texas

September 18, 2008 8:32:54 AM PDT
How could anyone have survived? That was the question rescuers asked themselves when they returned to the Bolivar Peninsula. As we rolled through the silent streets under a brilliant blue Texas sky, I was asking myself the same question. Galveston was wrecked, I thought, but Bolivar was wiped-out.

We'd heard the stories--that hundreds of residents ignored the evacuation orders, tried to leave at the last minute, but were forced to revert to Plan A as the storm cut-off their escape. Twelve hundred people lived here, but at least one-third of the population chose to ride out the hurricane. Authorities are desperately trying to account for everyone, but they can't. Search and rescue teams made plans to scan the shoreline with thermal imaging devices and walk twenty-seven miles of beaches. What was once a thriving Gulf Coast tourist destination had become a destination for cadaver dogs.

GO TO BOLIVAR. GET THERE ANY WAY YOU CAN. That was the email message from WABC-TV Assignment Manager, Kim Dillon, in New York. It was 8:30AM and I saw this one coming. "I'm already on my way," I wrote back. And I was--hurtling down I-45 towards Galveston in the rented Chevy Trailblazer with our photographer on this trip, John Carrozelli.

Bolivar is a long, narrow peninsula just north of Galveston Island. We had two choices, and each had risks. We could race back to Houston; go east on I-10 and then south to High Island, hoping to drive directly onto the peninsula. It was a three hour-long gamble that we'd lose if the Texas State Police refused to allow us through the checkpoints.

No, John and I decided to take the causeway to Galveston where we were bound to find somebody with a boat to ferry us two miles across Galveston Bay to Bolivar. The risk of being intercepted by the Coast Guard seemed worth taking, but I overestimated my chances of finding a skipper. That's all in hindsight, of course.

I would spend the next three hours crawling through one mangled marina after another, trudging through the mud, nearly overcome by the awful smell of dead fish and diesel fuel. When I stumbled onto a group of fishermen from Katie's Seafood Market, and their small, twenty-five foot workboat, I was thrilled. The negotiation was short. They had a boat--and I needed one three hours ago.

Within minutes, we were dodging the vast slicks of debris on Galveston Bay. You name it, and if it floats, we saw it and nearly ran over it. Even dead livestock, pigs and cattle, were bloated and bobbing amid plywood and so many plastic chairs.

We tied-up at a desolate fishing pier where, as is often the case with these things, one problem was replaced with another. We needed a car.

This is where a Vietnamese fisherman named Vinny Truong comes-in, with his uncle's battered pickup truck, the flat tire and the nearly empty fuel tank. The tire wasn't a problem--he had a spare--but we were about to tour the peninsula on fumes.

Hurricane Ike will be remembered as the storm that destroyed Bolivar. An eighteen-foot wall of water that buckled bridges, washed-out roads, smashed entire neighborhoods to pieces and swept them away. In most places, there is just a trail of appliances leading to the bare poles where the homes used to be. I have never seen storm devastation so thorough, so complete.

Clifford Howard returned to his street to discover that his home had disappeared. "If you had stayed, would you still be here?" I asked. "No," he said, "There is no way I could have survived that."

We traveled for more than ten miles, steering around cracked utility poles, vast sinkholes, lifeless power lines and shattered traffic lights dangling across the roads and twisting in the warm breeze off the Gulf of Mexico. The only sound we ever heard was the engine groaning under the hood of Vinny's truck.

Fisherman Pat Murphy was unable to escape the hurricane, but managed to survive. I found him aboard his damaged trawler, Proud Mary. "Well, some people got lucky," I said. "And a lot of people didn't," he replied, sadly. He told me how a friend, who had weathered the storm with him, watched his own wife get swept away.

"I don't know how many others died," he said. "But it's more than they're letting-on."

I have seen all kinds of hurricanes over the years, and all kinds of people coping with the aftermath. September is the cruellest month in this part of America. But the people I met in Bolivar were so awed, so stunned by the storm's power, they seemed beyond tears. It's the difference between seeing your home and your life's possessions in ruins--and not seeing your home at all. It leaves you more breathless than heartbroken.

No wonder the survivors are so worried about the friends they haven't seen in days.

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