October 6, 2008

Dozens Still Missing in Texas After Ike Hit

By James C. McKinley Jr.

Jerrith Baird last spoke to his grandmother by telephone the night Hurricane Ike swept away most of the houses on this narrow spit of land.

The grandmother, Jennifer McLemore, 58, who worked at a local hospital, had holed up with her dog in a newly built beach house on stilts. She giggled with nervous fear, as she described to her grandson how three neighboring houses were being carried away in a flood, along with a trailer home she owned.

Then her cell phone went dead. The next day Baird, 17, kayaked from High Island, where he lives, over to the town of Gilchrist, then waded through debris to where McLemore's house had been. Nothing was left but a couple of pilings sticking up from a concrete slab. Her car was half under water in the bay. No one has heard from her since.

"To me the worst part was thinking what may have went through her mind," Baird said.

Three weeks after Hurricane Ike hit Texas, at least 34 people from the Bolivar Peninsula, where the storm did the worst damage, are missing, and some are presumed dead, said Galveston County officials and the Laura Recovery Center, a nonprofit organization that has tracked missing people for the county.

All last week, volunteers and state rescue workers combed miles of debris on the peninsula and in the marshes on the east side of Galveston Bay, using dogs trained to find human cadavers.

The volunteers say it is slow going, wading through salt grass and brackish gullies, full of the detritus of ruined lives - broken houses, boats, cars, machinery, appliances, toilets, bicycles, toothbrushes, vases, tools.

Two bodies of people from the Bolivar Peninsula have been recovered so far. On Sept. 24, Gail Ettinger, 58, a chemist who worked for oil companies, was found dead, face-down in a marsh on the mainland, about 10 miles, or 16 kilometers, from where her house in Gilchrist succumbed to the floodwaters. Three days later, Herman Mosely, a carpenter in his 40s who was last seen in a local bar, was found on a small uninhabited island in Galveston Bay.

So complete was the devastation on the peninsula that county officials and local firefighters fear some hurricane victims may be lost at sea or hidden in the vast marshes of Chambers County, just east of Houston.

"Some people will never be found," said Colin Rizzo, the county official overseeing the search.

Though its eye remained far out to sea, the storm's outer winds pushed a flood of water across the peninsula early in the morning on Sept. 12, trapping more than 100 people who had been assured they would have time to leave, residents said.

During the day, rescue workers in helicopters saved about 130 people from the floodwaters - plucking many from swamped cars that they had tried to flee the storm in - before the winds grew too strong to continue the operations.

Yet scores stayed behind or found themselves trapped in their houses, either because they believed they could weather the storm or because they were too old and infirm to escape, residents and family members of the missing said.

The floods rose to at least 18 feet, or 5.4 meters, above normal tide, inundating the peninsula, while 100-mile-an-hour winds battered the houses. The wall of water washed scores of homes into the bay beyond the peninsula, leaving a bombed-out landscape of ruins, debris and sand.

Survivors told terrifying stories. A local welder spent the night in a lifejacket with his hand clamped on a flashlight, watching the floodwaters flow just beneath his deck while the winds ripped away at his house. Another man ended up naked in a tree a hundred yards from his demolished home. Two others floated across the bay, clinging to debris, and washed up the next day in Chambers County.

Michael Clow, a 53-year-old handyman, said he swam to a neighbor's house after his cinder-block home broke to pieces around him.

Struggling in water far above his head, he floated on a cooler in which he had stuffed two kittens, some cigarettes and a stash of beer.

"I said, 'You are either going to die or you are going to get to that house,'" Clow recalled, sitting like a shipwrecked sailor in the wreckage of his home.

The storm also caught several elderly and disabled people off guard.

Dolores Brookshire, a 72-year-old part-time cashier, called her niece, Joann Mier, at 5 a.m. on the day the outer bands of the storm arrived. She had no car and lived in a house in Port Bolivar with her son, Charles Allen Garrett, 42, who used a wheelchair.

Brookshire told her niece that the street was already filling with water and that a neighbor who had promised them a ride to Dallas had never shown up.

"She says, 'I'm calling you to tell you that I love you and to tell you bye,' and I said, 'Why? Where are you going?' and she says 'Nowhere. Me and Allen are going to drown,'" Mier said.

They have not been seen since.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

(c) 2008 International Herald Tribune. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.


Image Caption: Pararescueman Staff Sgt. Lopaka Mounts receives a hug from a resident after Hurricane Ike, Sept. 13, 2008. Sergeant Mounts is assigned to the 331st Air Expeditionary Group on Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force)