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Hurricane Ike cuts a fickle path

The massive storm consumes some homes in bayou country near Galveston but leaves others barely touched.

September 14, 2008|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

LA MARQUE, TEXAS — Hurricane Ike swallowed Dawn Demers' four-bedroom home so completely that she couldn't even see her rooftop as she stood marooned on a bridge, staring at brown floodwaters and trying not to weep.

Just down the highway, Ike somehow spared Gary Jenkins' ramshackle trailer, chewing up a few tree limbs but leaving Jenkins unharmed as he sat listening to radio bulletins in his pajama bottoms Saturday morning.

The worst hurricane to hit the Texas coast in recent memory was capricious, destroying some homes and lives while leaving others blessedly untouched. Here in bayou country on the sodden northwest rim of Galveston Bay, no one could explain how staying in a mandatory evacuation zone paid off for some but ruined others.

The storm that howled across Galveston Bay in the early Saturday blackness left J.J. Cuellar's home underwater in Freddiesville, yet barely touched his mother's home here in La Marque a few miles away. Ferocious winds and a biting storm surge pounded Richard Berg's three-bedroom frame house in San Leon but merely flipped a few shingles from the roof of Charles Ray's cozy white house in adjoining Texas City.

"Nobody knows why a hurricane acts the way it does," Jenkins said, marveling that his blue trailer held fast through Ike as he rode out the storm while "holding on to my rear end for dear life."

Jenkins, 55, an oil field worker, seemed an oasis of tranquillity in a sea of misfortune, with his baseball cap, beach shoes and sleeveless T-shirt with a message that read "Bump and Grind, Redneck Style." He declared that he never considered obeying evacuation orders, having survived previous hurricanes.

"I stayed put, and so did my trailer," Jenkins said.

Galveston County, which includes the low bayou towns as well as the city and island of Galveston, was a patchwork of survival and destruction Saturday. Galveston, which was closed off by police Saturday, suffered massive flooding and wind damage, squeezed by floodwaters from the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Rescuers searched for residents who had defied evacuation orders, only to be cut off by water.

Northwest of the bay, some areas were badly flooded while others stayed relatively dry. Many homes were barely nicked by Ike, while others were inundated, had roofs ripped off or were crushed by felled trees.

Many roads disappeared beneath murky floodwaters. In Dickinson Bayou, fishing boats and pleasure boats lay in a tangled heap on a flooded roadside, flanked by submerged cars and trailers.

Huge trees and telephone poles were toppled in Moses Bayou, where water lapped at roadsides and cows wandered in soggy fields.

Some areas of the county were under evacuation orders, but residents of other areas were told to make up their own minds. Some fled; some didn't.

Demers did evacuate, to a friend's house nearby, but that did not ease the sting of awakening Saturday to discover that her house -- and many of her neighbors' homes -- had been inundated.

"That's my house -- or it used to be my house," Demers said, gesturing to a spot in the churning floodwaters below the bridge where she stood.

"I don't know what we'll do," Demers said. "Everything we had was in that house."

Nearby, J.J. Cuellar left his two-bedroom house to brave the storm at his mother's sturdy frame home, hunkering down helplessly as Ike put his house underwater.

"It's so far underwater I can't get to it, Cuellar said. "Everything over there is gone. That place is done."

Eva Cuellar's home emerged unscathed, save for a few downed tree limbs and a neighbor's carport that was sent careening across the front yard.

"It's crazy -- we're fine right here but my son and my mom both lost their houses over in Freddiesville -- just completely gone," Eva Cuellar said, picking her way through debris in her yard. "It makes you wonder why we keep on living around this place."

Her son was concerned about his pregnant wife and their immediate future with their first baby on the way, but he also felt compelled to see his flooded home.

"I really got to see what it looks like," he told his mother. "I might just swim over there, or wade on over. I'm serious -- I've got to see my house."

As Cuellar spoke, Richard Berg drove up. He had moved his family and possessions out of his home in San Leon before the hurricane and waited out the storm at a local high school. By Saturday morning, he feared the garage was gone, and perhaps the whole house.

"It's probably underwater," said Berg, who works for a gas company. "I'd have to go through eight or nine feet of water just to get to it to check it out."

He said he had built the house seven years ago, right next to his previous home. He shook his head. "I'm pretty sure it's all gone," he said.

Down the road in Texas City, Charles Ray used a pitchfork to gather up tree limbs and debris from the home he shares with his mother. He was stunned by the paucity of damage, given the ferocity of the storm. He was at a loss to explain his good fortune.

"It was touch and go for a while during the night -- the house was shaking," Ray said. "But it held up pretty well, and thank God for that. There's no explaining it."

A few miles away, Demers could wait no longer for her husband to return from his attempt to check on their flooded home. Wearing a T-shirt and shorts, she walked down the bridge roadway and waded into the murky water, determined to find her husband or her home, or both.


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