Eye of the Storm

From the Walker County Courthouse, Huntsville, Texas
Walker County’s Precinct 3 commissioner, James “Buddy” Reynolds, is a bundle of enthusiasm as he describes the kind of cooperation that has emerged in this largely rural storm devastated county an hour north of Houston.

"I know my people, you know." he smiles, "Well, not all of them..." and he proceeds to tell the tale of a trip, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike's rampage through the region, down roads clogged with fallen trees. Faced with a mass of timber that was making a ten-minute trip into a journey of hours on end, he had broken out his logger's chainsaw and grimly set to work. At that moment a group of folks in a four-wheeler arrived. "'You need any help?' they asked, and out come these three big, burly, boys. I said, 'If you'll pull on them while I cut them up it sure would be a help.'" Then, thinking a little further, he had asked, "'Y'all aren't the kids who've been tearing up my roads, are you?' You know I'm kind'a jealous of my roads. Well, they just kind'a looked around and didn't say anything..." They continued to help with the cleanup, he says. "There is just such a sense of community."

Like many in this East Texas county Reynolds, a Democrat, has little patience with complainers. "We all have to work together."

The logistics of the recovery are daunting even in the city of Huntsville, nearly 120 miles inland from the devastation of the Gulf Coast. In the neighborhood in which this is being written power lines were compromised in some way on virtually every city block, meaning that restoring power to this city of only 30,000 requires literally hundreds of power company and tree-removal assets. Even so, the damage in Huntsville is light compared to the rest of the region. Early reports from Entergy, the power company serving the bulk of East Texas, indicated fully two/thirds of the company's high tension main lines had been damaged, in addition to numerous switching stations, and a key power station at Willis, Texas. As evening fell on Saturday 99% of Entergy's customer base in East Texas was without power. As of this writing only 40% of Entergy's customer base in Huntsville has been restored.

My elder daughter, reporting in from Conroe, Texas, thirty miles south of Huntsville, related having seen a line of power company trucks on I-45 "...stretching as far as I could see, both ways, on the highway." This group of vehicles, made up of more than 500 units was headed north into the repair effort in East Texas.

I spoke to Julie Hartwig, who had fled the Houston area to shelter from Ike in Huntsville at her daughter, Crystal Graff's, apartment, as she watched a volunteer unit of the Texas Baptist men carve up the shattered remains of a century-old oak tree. The tree had fallen alongside the house, taking down power lines and trapping cars in a garage, but doing no damage to the home. Hartwig's family seemed to epitominze the concerns of many here. Mrs. Graff's husband is a submariner currently on tour in the South Pacific. She said his sub had fortunately made a port call in Guam as Ike was landing so it was possible to get him the news that everyone was safe quickly. Hartwig said another daughter, a student at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Houston, was terribly concerned about missing class time. (At latest report UTMB, along with virtually every other school or college in the Houston area, had cancelled classes through the week.)

Discussing the situation in the region Mrs. Hartwig expressed amazement at the level of volunteer help and the involvement of people from around the country. Down the street from our little clump a power repair crew from the Midwest labored to repair power lines that had been damaged by falling limbs and broken power poles. As the Baptist men rolled a four and a half foot cookie of the oak tree out from behind the cars trapped in her daughter's garage she said, "We just couldn't do it without people like these guys."

People who complain of a "slow" response (I've actually had trouble finding a story to cite online for this, interestingly enough.) are simply ignorant of the task at hand and how many individual points of disarray must be addressed. East Texas is an area roughly the the size of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined. Fully half that region has been heavily damaged by a storm that had hurricane force winds more than 70 miles from its eye and was still a hurricane as the eye neared Palestine, 180 miles inland.

This morning, as we looked around town for a computer to borrow, my younger daughter, who has been volunteering at the local shelter where people displaced from Galveston have been staying, was surprised to see power trucks with Arizona license plates working on the power grid of Huntsville. There are those who speak of private enterprise as though it was all dog-eat-dog. Here in Huntsville, where we have hardly noticed the failures of Lehman Brothers and AIG, life is bag of ice to bag of ice and ordinary citizens and businesses are banding together from all over the country to show what Buddy Reynolds means when he glows with pride at "...a sense of community."

Posted by Lee Emmerich Jamison at September 17, 2008 2:33 PM
Comments
Comment #263202

Great story !!
We have outages here in my neck of the woods due to IKE aswell…. and we are hundreds of miles away!
We were fortunate, but some friends and neighbors could be without power for a week or longer.

It is wonderful to hear a story of people coming together to help. The AMERICAN SPIRIT will never be broken!

Posted by: Dawn at September 17, 2008 3:36 PM
Comment #263245

FEMA is doing a good job. Nice agency to have around.

I know this is terrible, but how would the people of Texas feel if a liberal pastor said this happened because God was punishing them? Or that people in Texas deserve no help, because they chose to live somewhere prone to hurricane damage? Or, when heading East for refuge are told they are unwelcome because they will drive up the crime rate and probably never want to leave to go back home? Or sit in on a national debate as to whether or not Texas is deserving of being rebuilt?

American spirit was broken the last time around. It’s nice to see it making a comeback.

Posted by: Max at September 17, 2008 5:52 PM
Comment #263256

Man! It’s great to be operating under the influence of alternating current again!

Dawn, thanks! It is so much easier to make a “good” (read that ‘controversial’) story out of pain and loss and conflict. We have all that here, and curfews and price gouging, too. But we are trying to learn the lessons of past failures. For example, the neighborhoods have been restored to power only after the businesses. That’s not because the businesses were the squeeky wheels or had more political influence. It’s because they do a much, much better job of providing for our needs than the FEMA “PODS” (points of delivery). Free enterprise(getting ice in ten minutes) works better than centralized planning (waiting in a line literally a mile long for ice).

Max,
You sound like someone with a chip on his shoulder. I personally think there is a legitimate discussion in whether it makes sense to spend billions of dollars of the nation’s tax money to rebuild a coastal city that could not exist at all were the sea not held back by a single flimsy system of walls that would not have held against a direct hit even by the late Gustav. In a comparison with The Netherlands, for example, where one finds a people constantly on guard, locally active and carefully partitioned like the crew and structure of a modern aircraft carrier, versus New Orleanians, a people who seem sure the world will save them, cloistered in a submarine city with all the structural partitioning of a rowboat.

We Texans watched Galvestonians act too much like this as Ike’s storm surge waters loomed upon them. We were horrified that people could take the lives of those who would be called upon to save them so much for granted. The psychology of this is that people can deny the reality of an event as long as they believe there is a shelter or savior of “last resort” to save them if they are wrong. It is better for everyone simply to tell people who want to weather the storm in the face of all warnings- “If you need to be saved in the midst of the event you won’t be. You will die.” At least then they are making their bets having seen all the hands on the table.

Of course, you are quite right about the condemnations of pastors. There is no excuse for people passing themselves off as purveyors of God’s love gloating on what they consider His judgement. It is fair, though, to point out that one third of the murders in Houston from 2005 to 2007 involved recent former residents of New Orleans. It’s just a statistic. But it is, really, a very interesting statistic.

Houston has had similar influxes before. We have a huge population of Vietnamese who arrived in the 1970s, for example. They didn’t have such an impact on crime statistics, though. What makes New Orleanians so special?

Posted by: Lee Jamison at September 17, 2008 8:48 PM
Comment #263257

Hunstville is where the state prison is, right? Is business booming? It seems like some of the able bodied inmates might be able to help a lot.

Before the hurricane landed, Illinois was anticipating sending thousands of emergency workers to help, but we have a lot of flooding here without the hurricane, just excessive rainfall.

Posted by: ohrealy at September 17, 2008 8:50 PM
Comment #263279

Lee Jamison-
Conservatives will be humbled with Liberals alike anytime they underestimate an event like this. Human beings in general are bad judges of risk. Afterall, one of the reddest of red counties is in California!

Ultimately, nobody has any call getting smug. New Orleans was devastated by corruption, but so was the less liberal Florida and the Red Carolinas during their hurricanes.

Wherever politicians are comfortable and impractical dilletantes, trouble will be brewing and disasters will be made worse.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 18, 2008 12:07 AM
Comment #263368

I heard someone on a talk show call in and say (almost verbatim):

When a natural disaster strikes Republicans, it is a blessed opportunity; to unite, organize and profit anew. When a natural disaster strikes Democrats, it is god’s wrath, and nothing they do can alter that except becoming Republican.

It was good for a chuckle, until I realized the import of what the caller was saying. He captured a big piece of the divide between Democrats and a very influential sect of the Republican Party.

Posted by: David R. Remer at September 18, 2008 1:40 PM
Comment #263374

ohrealy,

Huntsville is the headquarters of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, seven units of which are located within Walker County. And, as a matter of fact, prison trustees have been instrumental in the distribution points at which ice, food, and water are being given out to area citizens in need. There is, of course, a rational limit to the trust one can place in inmates, else they would not be wards of the state.

Stephen,

Hubris has a way of showing itself under any banner. Philosophies are not guarantees of success. In the modern day they are really more often window-dressing for people trying to sell something than what they really should be- guides for the distribution of human effort. What I am advocating for here is a philosophy that spreads both the responsibility to decide and the responsibility to work to the largest practical number of hands. In my community I see that philosophy successfully at work.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at September 18, 2008 1:47 PM
Comment #263490

David,

Since “Democrats” seem better suited to situations in which complaining is a strategy designed to improve their lot Democrat strongholds such as New Orleans fare badly in real emergencies where there is no padding of comfort to parasitize.

The Republican Party tends to fall into this trap as well, in as much as it is hard to build a party structure around truly independent people. Thus the party that proposes to represent conservatives usually winds up simply being Democrat Party Mark II. I made a note in my article of Buddy Reynold’s party affiliation primarily because it is no matter to me. In Walker County he is seen as so conservative even the Republican Party here endorsed him!

The problem with both parties is that they can’t help centralizing decision making and rewarding squeeky wheels. In the meantime conservatives will get things done if they get just a little support. The storm recovery after Ike is not national news because the conservative slant of this region is getting recovery done, we don’t have masses of crying Democrats wailing in agony and there is not enough gunfire in the streets for people to say “Republicans” have failed.

Now, if we can just keep Governor Goodhair from embarrassing us with his whining things will be just fine.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at September 19, 2008 11:22 AM
Comment #263527

Lee, it was subtle, and I almost missed it too! But, when the caller said: “When a natural disaster strikes Democrats, it is god’s wrath, and nothing they do can alter that except becoming Republican. “

He was of course, referring to how Republicans view disaster striking Democrats. Not how Democrats or God view it. That was the telling twist and humor of the caller.

Now that I have spoiled the ironic humor by explaining it… :-(

Posted by: David R. Remer at September 19, 2008 3:37 PM
Comment #263537

Lee J, I am glad to hear that they are allowing prisoners to help. Apparently, Sam Houston was from Huntsville. It sounds like it could be an interesting area, if they figured out something better to do with prisoners other than warehousing them. On those bad people from New Orleans, maybe there is something in the water in TX that makes them go nuts, or it could be the accent, or Stephen Daugherty or DRRemer might have walked up on them and yelled BOO! {:>/]-

Posted by: ohrealy at September 19, 2008 4:58 PM
Comment #263608

David,

I had not missed the caller’s irony but, in as much as it seeks to cast all of a people with a widely divergent set of views in a single light, I thought better of congratulating him for his cleverness.

ohrealy,

Sam Houston loved Huntsville enough that he chose to make it the family home. He even dragged Margaret and the kids back from Independence several times, though one aspect of that burg did finally stick to him. Independence was the original home of Baylor University, and the president of that institution in the 1850s, Rufus Burleson, I believe, was a personal friend of the deeply religious Margaret. He convinced Sam, a lifelong avowed atheist, to accept salvation.

Sam Houston, never half-hearted at anything (except perhaps leading untrained Texian soldiers against Santa Anna’s professional army) fought against secession as Texas’ governor. Once unseated for that stance he returned to Huntsville, where he routinely would visit the prison to rally the spirits of captive Union soldiers. Jeff Hamilton a slave of Sam Houston stated in a book called “My Master” that Sam manumitted all his slaves early in the war.

Houston died in Huntsville in June of 1863.

I share your misgivings about warehousing people. It is corrosive both to them and to the community that keeps them. The Caddoan peoples who once lived in this region had no stockades and knew almost no crime. From an evolutionary aspect, however, they were unable to resist us. Our society is at once so subtle and brilliant, and so brutal and cruel. We raise wonderful criminals and our efforts at restoring them to society are shameful.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at September 20, 2008 10:04 AM
Comment #263626

Lee J, Sam Houston is one of the most interesting people in American history, I think primarily because his life was so long, spanning the generations. I don’t think that very many non Texans are aware of his accomplishments.

Towns like Huntsville, now described as a micropolis, have played a more significant part in our history than now or probably in the future. Politicians today all seem to be from nowhere, anywhere, or everywhere.

This was the contemporary obit in a Houston newspaper:
http://www.samhoustontrust.com/obituary.htm

Posted by: ohrealy at September 20, 2008 12:26 PM
Comment #263696

On the original topic, an amusing video from CBS on Hurricane Grandstanding:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UKD3iXNJSs

Posted by: ohrealy at September 20, 2008 3:29 PM
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