Where Gratitude Abides

Hurricane Ike innundates the Galveston Seawall Memorial to victims of the 1900 Storm

Two months after Hurricane Ike ravaged the Texas Coast, ferry service once again connected Galveston Island with the Bolivar Penninsula. The primary link between the island and coastal communities to the east, the ferry is both a luxury and a necessity. Each trip carries a combination of residents, fishermen, commuters, and sightseers intent on nothing more than the simple pleasures of crossing the water: feeding seagulls from the after deck, or watching dolphins off the bow.

Hurricane damage to the ferries and their landings was significant after the storm. Even the channels required dredging, filled as they were with sand and silt deposited by the surging water. The need to transport heavy equipment and emergency supplies to communities like Crystal Beach and Port Bolivar was primary. But in time, even before full service was restored, anyone could come along for the trip.

One day, a woman ahead of me in a grocery line mentioned to the checker that she’d made a special trip to Galveston to ride the ferry, I asked her why. “Because I could”, she said with a laugh. “It sure felt good.”

In the beginning, there was much that didn’t feel at all good. Twenty-foot-high piles of debris weren’t good, nor were the boats dry-docked in front yards and parking lots. Homes reduced to empty, concrete slabs evoked despair in families displaced without adequate temporary housing. The bureaucracies drove everyone crazy, and more than a few people became convinced their insurance adjusters, FEMA officials, or state insurance pool administrators were the devil incarnate.

But in time, the mountains of debris began to disappear. Waterways were cleared, and marina slips sounded. Shrimp boats began working the bay, and new fences appeared around yards. Young, wind-bent trees were straightened and staked, even as leaning and broken power poles were replaced, one by one. Though individuals continued to suffer, and suffer grievously, it became clear: for the communities of the upper Texas Coast, the time for relief efforts was over. The road to recovery had begun.

Portofino Harbor ~ September 15, 2008
Portofino Harbor ~ November 15, 2008

Shocked by the level of Ike’s destruction,  many people initially had despaired of recovery.

Entire neighborhoods had been wiped off the map. The Topwater Grill in San Leon was gone, as was the fishing fleet that supplied area restaurants. The Classic Cafe, Skipper’s Café, Okie’s Liquor, and Joe Lee’s restaurant were nothing but shells. Even Maribelle’s, an infamous waterfront bar with a history of dead bodies in the restrooms and live bodies competing for the title of “Miss Wharf Rat” was swept into the shallows of Galveston Bay.

But by November,  despite some small business closings, the Classic Cafe had reopened, the Topwater Grill announced plans to reopen, the shrimp boats were trawling, and regular progress reports were being posted throughout the area.

As restaurants began re-opening in Galveston, an important announcement was made. One of the Island’s traditional holiday events, Dickens on the Strand, would take place as usual, though events would be limited to daylight hours, partly to allow people to see the progress  being made toward restoration of the city’s justly famous historic district.

Even in small communities like San Leon, Bacliff, Crystal Beach, and High Island, restaurants and gas stations opened. High-end bed and breakfasts may have been traded for rows of mattresses with granola bars tucked under the pillows, but time and effort were stitching life back together.

Once basic services were restored, an unorganized but effective grass-roots economic recovery movement developed, as people began to put dollars available for hurricane relief back into the local economy.

Groups with regularly-scheduled luncheon meetings traveled to Galveston, and ate in the reopened restaurants.  People made a point of heading to the Island for weekend recreation, buying gas for their cars in the little towns along the way, or in Galveston itself. Needing something from the grocery, people patronized the smaller Mom-and-Pop stores that were trying to survive, rather than going to Target.

Now and then, someone would criticize the emphasis on reopened restaurants, bars, and shops by saying “That just benefits people with money to spend.” But no one heard the merchants or their employees saying that. Everyone knew what it took to get “back to business,” and what it took was customers and their money.

September 14, 2008
November 3, 2008

The weekend that Benno’s on the Seawall opened, a friend and I drove to Galveston for dinner. As we waited for our meal, the door opened again and again. Each time another customer stepped in, pure joy washed across the faces of the owners and staff. Customers meant dollars; dollars meant hiring; and hiring meant independence and stability.

As the owner said, “Don’t give me a thousand dollars. Eat in my dining room, and pay me ten dollars. While you’re bringing me that ten dollars, you’ll park your car out front, and other people will know I’m open. When you’ve finished a good meal, you’ll tell someone you enjoyed eating here, and I’ll have another customer. I don’t want a hand-out. I want business.”

Buying “local” has its costs, of course. For some months, gas was more expensive in Galveston. A sandwich there could be a dollar or two more than in Houston neighborhoods, and prices at the Mom-and-Pop stores certainly were higher than at Wal-Mart.

But as those businesses met their payroll and paid their suppliers, the entire community benefited. When it comes to recovery, cheaper isn’t always a bargain. Sometimes, more expensive has terrific side benefits for everyone in town. The businesses knew that, and they helped one another in every way they could.

Still, recovery is more than reopened businesses and rebuilt homes. A deeper recovery begins when people are able to take a breath, give a sigh, and finally sense the stirrings of new life.

In recovering communities, people talk about more than grief and loss. A woman whose home was damaged provided shelter for a homeless family — but also partied at the Renaissance Faire. A retiree whose fishing boat was carried away by the surge signed on with a demolition crew, worked sixty hour weeks, and returned to wade fishing at San Luis Pass. After days spent repairing the landscape around their church, a group of women stopped to exchange cuttings for home gardens yet to come. None had forgotten the storm, but they understood there is a time to move forward.

While water still surrounded piles of debris, confusion and a sense of helplessness were understandable. But in time, people began to say, “There’s still a lot to do, but we can do it. We got help. We were given a hand when we needed it. But now we can go on, and build on our own success.”

The Beached Whales Boat ~ Clear Lake Shores

By the time Thanksgiving arrived, holiday banners were flying in Kemah.  After services of Thanksgiving, dinners were served at community centers and schools around the area. In Dickinson, a woman whose home had been destroyed drove to Houston to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. In Bacliff, a couple living in an RV smoked turkeys and briskets for anyone who wanted to stop by.

Even in the midst of so much pain – even with houses swept out to sea, businesses destroyed, families separated, jobs lost, lives disrupted and dreams destroyed — much remained. Hope rose with each day’s sun, and fears ebbed away with the tide. Was a sofa sitting in a ditch at the base of the Kemah-Seabrook bridge? Did a dollhouse still wait to be plucked from a bed of seagrass? Was that a Mercedes buried in the beach sand, or a piece of pink planking washed up from Maribelle’s bar? By Thanksgiving, such oddities often went unnoticed and unremarked.

Instead, it was the signs of recovery that counted: literally as well as figuratively. One of my favorites, a row of plywood turkeys with surfboards, proudly proclaimed, “Thanks to Ike, We Finally Got Our House Cleaned.”

Other signs were less humorous, but more significant. A restaurant marquee posted the longed-for phrase, “Now Hiring.” Optimistic signs tucked into windows promised, “Open Soon.”  But best of all were the simple signs — hand-lettered or spray-painted, vibrant on fences or nearly hidden in debris — that invited celebration.

“Thanksgiving’s Coming,” said one. “Give Thanks for Whatever’s Left.”

Comments always are welcome. I’ll be traveling later this week, so my responses may be a little slow, but I will respond. In the meantime, a happy Thanksgiving to all.
Published in: on November 22, 2015 at 8:03 pm  Comments (49)  
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Vino et Veritas, Oak Island Style

Carved grapes from the tasting room bar at Frascone Winery

I’ve been drinking Red Cloud’s Finest for years. An organic Guatemalan coffee, roasted and distributed by a small local importer, it’s as good as any I’ve found. Richly complex, it tastes of the circuitous route that brought it to my cup.

Joe and Terry Butcher, owners of El Lago Coffee Company, dreamed of importing coffee the old-fashioned way: by wind-driven ship. They named their vessel Red Cloud and set sail for Belize, where they loaded 10,000 pounds of coffee beans into her hold.

Unfortunately, the first and only voyage of Red Cloud ended on New Year’s Day, 2008, when thirty-foot seas, sixty-knot winds, and a missing rudder stop combined to plunge the sailboat and her cargo to the bottom of Sigsbee Deep, in the central Gulf of Mexico.

Galveston Rising ~ The Trees

As the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Ike’s September 13 landfall approaches, most Galveston homeowners who still are engaged in rebuilding and reconstruction don’t need any reminders about the complexity or frustrations of the process.  Still, reminders are everywhere, posted primarily by high-minded attorneys concerned that the poor, benighted people of the Texas Coast understand the statute of limitations and its role in ensuring they receive fair and just compensation for their losses.

There’s nothing wrong with a gentle reminder, or with fair settlements for that matter.   But this is America, and contingency fees being what they are the attorneys’ messages have taken on a distinctly apocalyptic tone.  Every local freeway and road that skirts the water has at least one of the fervent billboards: The end is near!  Are you prepared?  Time is Running Out!  The door is closing!  (Request a free case review now!!!)

Reading them, it’s impossible not to think of tent revivals and tv hucksters.  The billboard advertisers seem to suggest they can save our psyches and mop up lingering insurance messes with the legal equivalent of the ShamWow, but Galveston residents aren’t naive. There are some problems no amount of legal wrangling – or money – can solve. (more…)

Raise High the Floor Beam, Islanders….

The very definition of “heart-tugging”  is a toddler or young child standing in front of an adult, arms outstretched, begging to be picked up.  Confused, frightened or hungry for attention, they’ve already learned a key to unlocking the resistant adult heart: the single word, “Up!?”   Spoken with authority or pathos, it’s a word that brings big, strong arms down to a child’s level, enfolding the needy little bundle of humanity into a blanket of security, raising it in a flash and ensuring its safety “up there”.

The urge to flee upward seems as instinctive as our impulse to run from danger.  On my third birthday, our neighbors decided I should have a pet.  Invited to share cake and ice cream, they appeared at the back door with a tiny black puppy in a box.  It may have been a cocker spaniel ~ I remember black, glistening curls of fur and long, floppy ears.  The pup wriggled in paroxysms of pleasure as Mr. Ramey rubbed its belly and scratched its ears.  I was entranced, until they put the puppy on the floor.  Turning a few quick circles, the creature produced a cascade of wild yips and headed straight for me.     

I don’t know what I was thinking, but what I did became the stuff of family legend.  In two bounds I was onto a dining room chair and up on top of my mother’s prized mahogany dining table, shoes and all.    Down below, the puppy tumbled and jumped, trying to follow.  I screamed in terror, refusing a chorus of entreaties to “be quiet”, “come down” or “pat the nice puppy”.  Eventually, the well-meaning neighbors collected the pup and made their way home.  I came down from the tabletop after being promised more ice cream, and eventually received a turtle for my birthday. (more…)

Published in: on September 12, 2009 at 2:00 pm  Comments (26)  
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An Almost Silent Spring

Every gardener in Houston knows the significance of February 14th.   Never mind Valentine’s Day,  it’s the traditional time to trim back rose bushes.  The actual pruning may take place on the 18th, or the 26th, or even March 1st for the lazy or preoccupied, but the ritual pruning of the roses means only one thing.  Spring is on the way.

I don’t have roses, but I have three large pots filled with  Cape Honeysuckle.  A beautiful shrub native to South Africa, its  red-orange blossoms resemble tiny versions of the trumpet vine flower and attract butterflies and hummingbirds galore.  Shortly after the 14th, I gave all three a serious pruning, and settled back to watch them fill out.  As February gave way to March and March  began to draw ever more closely toward April,  the plants sprouted new growth with a vengeance while I vacillated between restlessness and a strange lethargy.  Even as the honeysuckle climbed toward the sun,  I declined into a sense of anxiety and unease.   The days grew longer and the temperatures  warmed,  but the world seemed monochromatic and dull.  Looking around, I experienced no seasonal anticipation, no delight in the world’s renewal.  It hardly felt like Spring.

In the midst of my decline, friends in Dallas and Oklahoma began to post photos of their own harbingers of Spring. I grew curious and more than a little confused. Why were pear and plum trees blooming  in Dallas, two hundred miles to the north, when my neighborhood redbuds hadn’t begun to flower?  When folks in Kansas and the Carolinas began to brag on their  narcissus, crocus and daffodils, I still hadn’t seen a dandelion. 

Eventually, I realized anew that more than homes, businesses and boats had fallen victim to Hurricane Ike.  The suffering and loss endured by the natural world had been hidden by the dormancy of Winter.  With the  passage of the Spring equinox and the turning of the season, the full extent of the damage was becoming clear.  Massive live oaks stripped of their leaves by wind and innundated by salt water showed no sign of new growth.  Cypress, always bare through the winter, were refusing to leaf out.   Stopping at a pretty, anonymous tree I pass every day, I bent the end of a twig. It snapped off cleanly with the sharp, easy crack that says “dead”.  Reaching farther up the limb, I bent a larger twig, and found more dead wood.  I stopped and turned away, unwilling to explore further.

In the neighborhoods, confusion clearly reigned in the plant world.  Many redbuds never bloomed, and pears were putting on leaves before blossoms appeared.  The Indian hawthorne was late, the azaleas hardly noticeable. Crepe myrtles and palms seemed fine, but many shrubs were brittle and yellow.

Even worse than the damage and confusion was the complete absence of so much we’d taken for granted.  Ditches always filled with bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush were clogged with salted debris.  Once-rich beds of iris and amaryllis were reduced to a few sad blooms. Across whole neighborhoods, the little grace notes of life had fallen silent.  Gone were the brick walkways bordered with marigolds, the trellises, the tumbles of begonias and baskets of bougainvillea that could drench a day with showers of salmon and magenta reflections.   Where lantana and petunias once grew, chunks of concrete foundation piled higher as hibiscus, loquat and lilies struggled to survive.  Orange and lemon trees were bulldozed while planters once filled with geraniums and daisies were turned into ashtrays and trash bins.

In some neighborhoods,  garden after garden has been replaced by patches of empty, sand-covered dirt as homeowners wait for construction to begin.  The houses can be rebuilt in a year, but it will take more than a few years to replace the beauty and complexity of the gardens.  Whatever its style, a real garden requires time, commitment and care, and many of these gardeners never will live to see their dreams flower in quite the same way.  A garden is far more than a carload of plants from Home Depot or Lowes, and certainly more than the new flowers now planted at our intersections and in front of apartment complexes.  Those flower beds are neat and tidy, but they’re absolutely identical from one location to the next.  For all practical purposes they’re “rent-a-flowers”, and in three months they’ll be replaced by something else.  They add a bit of color to the landscape, but have nothing to do with gardens, or with all of the love, curiosity, surprise and delight that gardens bring.   

As one of my gardening friends put it after watching  a front-loader drive through her salvia and dusty miller beds, “This year we’re going to have to take what Mother Nature offers.”  Her off-handed remark was my salvation.  Instead of exhausting myself watching for signs of a normal spring, I began looking around to see what was happening despite the extraordinary circumstances.

This past, utterly gloomy and damp Tuesday, I was driving down a main street through town when I happened to glance across the esplanade and noticed a flash of gold in a vacant lot.  An impulsive u-turn later, I pulled into the lot and discovered a stand of gallardia-like flowers shining as though lit from within.  Looking around, I was astonished.  There were sunflowers  scattered here and there, and a bit of scraggly wisteria climbing the telephone pole. There was a mysterious white berry with flowers along a collapsed fence, and the tiniest but most vibrant little coral-colored  flowers I’d ever seen.  There were tall purple things and creeping purple things.  There was a remnant of a white geranium on what appeared to have been a trash heap, and yellow-green blossoms the size of a pinhead scattered throughout it all.  In that single vacant lot, I found at least a dozen varieties of wild flowers, all  passed by hundreds – if not thousands – of motorists a day, none of whom saw more than a glimpse of the taller flowers.

I was so astonished I made two more stops at vacant lots, one next to a boat chandlery and one in a neighborhood which itself had gone to seed since the storm.  There were fields of white and pink primroses, lantana of all sorts, more wisteria, and great sweeps of tall, graceful yellow and purple flowers I couldn’t identify.  It was truly astonishing.  In the midst of a world where human gardens had been swept away like so much scattered seed , Mother Nature had moved in and strewn her gifts with a generous hand.  It was not that the beauty of flowers was missing from the world.  They only had moved, taken on new forms, and were waiting to be discovered. They were, in fact, hiding in plain sight.

After finding the third flower-strewn lot, I called my friend and said, “Get your camera.  There’s something you need to see.”  For the next two hours, we stalked the urban wildflower, amazed at the variety and profusion we found.  Later, as I enjoyed and processed the photos, it was clear the temporary trowel-for-camera trade had been worthwhile. 

As with so many things in this post-hurricane world, things rarely are as they were.  But it surely is Spring, and  the grace notes are starting to sound ~ one  exquisite blossom at a time. 

Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below.
Published in: on March 27, 2009 at 6:06 pm  Comments (19)  
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