YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Ike holdouts band together

Survivors who defied evacuation orders are stranded on devastated Bolivar Peninsula, which has become an island.

September 17, 2008|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

BOLIVAR PENINSULA, TEXAS — Still tough and stalwart at 80, Claude Kahla survived Hurricane Ike. His hardware store did not.

"Blew it right off the concrete slab and sent it sailing out into Galveston Bay," Kahla said Tuesday, standing where his 12,000-square-foot store had once been.

Kahla, a Bolivar native who had refused to evacuate, was surrounded by devastation. Homes had been ripped from their moorings and shredded into debris that clogged roads and marshes. Cars and trucks were buried in the sand and marsh grass. Utility poles had been snapped in half.

Long rows of sheared-off home pilings stood like sentinels, marking scores of denuded beachfront plots. Dead fish and seabirds gave off a putrid smell.

Ike had disgorged the prosaic totems of a beach town's life: a flat-screen TV, a water ski, a sofa, a tricycle, a tackle box, an unopened case of bottled water. Sea grass had been deposited atop utility poles by the surge, which Kahla described as well over 20 feet.

Ike punished Bolivar more savagely than any other community along the Texas coast. Virtually nothing was spared.

"Oh, man, this is unbelievable. Amazing, just amazing," said Alan Bunn, a navigational coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Everything's gone."

With the peninsula cut off by floodwaters and debris, rescue teams were slowly searching for about 350 people who authorities say defied a mandatory evacuation order.

"We're trying to pull 'em out, but some of 'em just plain refuse to leave. These are some hard-headed folks," said Bobby Jobes, a state game warden.

Jobes and fellow warden John Feist used an airboat to search for survivors -- or corpses. Jobes said they had rescued about 15 people.

What did survivors say when rescued? "They said: 'Wow,' " Jobes said.

The wardens said they had to persuade an 89-year-old woman and her 59-year-old niece to leave their waterlogged home. The women didn't want to abandon their dog and cat. The wardens put the women, and the pets, on a National Guard helicopter.

"There's a different breed of people down here. They're hardy, stout, crusty kind of people," Feist said. "They've lived through all kinds of hurricanes, so they thought they could live through this one too."

Kahla figured he could take on Ike. "I've never left the peninsula for a storm. It's not the way we do it around here," he said as he cleaned up debris from his store near Gilchrist.

His brother, George, 75, also stayed. "I lived through the worst of 'em. This was just one more," he said.

Debra Gernert and her 81-year-old mother, Mary Issacks, also stuck it out -- after an aborted attempt to flee. On Friday afternoon, as a tidal surge bore down, Gernert decided to leave. But by the time she had loaded her mother and an elderly friend into her car, the roads were flooded.

"The surge came up so fast, it was unbelievable," Gernert said. People were escaping submerged cars, she said. Some residents tied ropes around their waists and waded out to rescue stranded motorists.

Gernert, her mother and their friend made it to George Kahla's house in aptly named High Island, the highest point on the peninsula, where they rode out the storm.

Issacks said she hadn't wanted to leave anyway. "I survived cancer three times. I'm not running away from a storm," she said. Besides, she said, she refused to abandon her Labrador retriever, Lucky -- "my baby."

Gernert wrote down the names of 113 people who had weathered the storm in High Island. But she did not know how many had been farther south. "Well," Claude Kahla told her, "anybody who stayed drowned. I'm sure of it."

Judge Jim Yarbrough, the top elected official in Galveston County, which includes Bolivar, said he feared the worst. "I'm not Pollyanna," he said. "I think we will find some" corpses.

Rescuers said they had found no bodies as of Tuesday. In fact, some people caught in the tidal surge survived.

Four men were washed from their homes on the peninsula and dumped 10 miles away, across Galveston Bay, Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia said. All lived to tell the tale.

"They had boards and refrigerators and dryers . . . stuff to float on," Sylvia said.

Yarbrough said he was fed up with those who refused to leave the peninsula, usually home to about 4,000 people. He threatened martial law to remove residents from remote areas with no electricity, food, water or plumbing.

Claude Kahla and his fellow survivors knew nothing of the judge's threats; they had no phones, no TV, no Internet.

"I'm staying right here," Issacks said, holding Lucky by his leash. "Nothing could be any worse than Ike."

The little band of survivors were snacking on Cheez-Its and pungent Vienna sausages on white bread as they helped Kahla clean the carcass of the store he had for 53 years.

Kahla said he stayed to protect his store. Now, surveying the desolate landscape, he found it disorienting.

"All the landmarks are gone," he said, looking at lots scraped clean. "The Baptist church, the Fire Department, the bait house."

He felt weary and beaten. Perhaps, he said, it was time to give it all up. "You know," he said, staring down the empty highway, "I think the good Lord wants me to retire."


Times staff writer DeeDee Correll in Denver contributed to this report.

Los Angeles Times Articles