Day 4: 'We thought we were going to die' (w/video)

By Jessica Priest; Marina Riker; Jon Wilcox
Aug. 26, 2017 at 11:42 p.m.
Updated Aug. 26, 2017 at 10:40 a.m.

Lucas Garcia, 60, walks out of his home in Refugio. "When it got to 3 a.m., we were all wishing we would have left," said Garcia's son-in-law.

Lucas Garcia, 60, walks out of his home in Refugio. "When it got to 3 a.m., we were all wishing we would have left," said Garcia's son-in-law.   Olivia Vanni for The Victoria Advocate

REFUGIO - Lamar Rodriguez, 51, huddled with her two young grandchildren in a neighbor's bathtub in a dark, shuddering home.

"We thought we were going to die," Rodriguez said, almost overcome with emotion Saturday afternoon as she stood in the midst of her ruined neighborhood.

Powerful winds and deluges of floodwater mangled the family's aging home and sowed terror in the hearts of Rodriguez and the neighbors who sheltered there. By Saturday, the storm had left the city - and most of the rest of the Crossroads - without power and water. In more rural areas, including Refugio, phone service was even gone.

The intensity of Hurricane Harvey stunned many in the Crossroads who had not seen a Category 4 storm since Carla 56 years ago.

Harvey hammered the Crossroads on Saturday with record-shattering force, flinging boats aside, ripping apart hundreds of trees, and leaving most of the Crossroads without power and water.

Somehow, Crossroads counties escaped any reports of deaths or serious injuries. In neighboring Aransas County, where Harvey blasted ashore as a Category 4 hurricane, at least one person died.

Refugio appeared to be the hardest-hit area of a region decimated by Harvey. After roaring through Rockport about 10 p.m., the hurricane made a second landfall at Copano Bay in Refugio County.

Rains flooded the city's nearly-completed high school renovations, which were paid for with a $20.64 million bond package. Winds crumpled an in-town Exxon gas pumps and awning like tissue paper. And the mangled roofs of residences inundated neighborhoods.

Throughout Refugio, the signs of that natural power could be seen in shattered buildings, warped metal and crumbling facades.

Like much of the city, the aging home in which Rodriguez found herself began to disintegrate around her as she hid from the storm in near darkness.

"The pieces of the living room fell. Pieces of the kitchen fell. The shingles flew off and the water and the rain came through," Rodriguez said.

The grandmother said she spent Friday night and Saturday morning trying to distract her 6-year-old and 7-year-old grandchildren from what she thought were their imminent deaths.

"My (23-year-old) daughter was looking at me like, 'We have to keep to this together.'"

After a night huddled in darkness against the storm's powerful assault, many Victoria residents ignored the mandatory curfew city officials enacted from noon Saturday until 6 a.m. Sunday.

As Harvey's howling winds let up, residents ventured out Saturday afternoon into the rain. Left without power and water, many searched for supplies while others wanted to see the damage done.

Tempers flared among a crowd gathered outside the Cracker Barrel convenience store at Halsey Street and Crestwood Drive in Victoria.

"We need ice, we need water, we need some kind of help around here," said Norma Llamas, 41, of Victoria, who was at the end of the line outside Cracker Barrel. "Literally nobody is helping, and everybody is shutting everything down."

Llamas said residents needed more shelters or stores to be open because they were struggling with no water or electricity available at their homes.

To try to keep the crowd under control, Cracker Barrel employees kept the front doors closed and asked those in line what merchandise they wanted. The workers would then go inside and retrieve the order.

Amirali Wazirali, Cracker Barrel owner, said he opened the store about noon so people could buy whatever they needed "super quick."

Wazirali said the store would remain open until supplies run out.

"We opened so people can get what they need, but when the lines start to get big, we will do what we can to keep it under control," he said. "We don't want any conflicts, arguments or anything like that."

Examples of kindness abounded as well. Jason McClelland, 39, of Bloomington, drove around Bloomington to help where he could.

On his trip, he discovered a 65-year-old man whose cellphone was dead as the power in his home.

"His house sustained severe damage, he was cold, wet and scared," McClelland said. "I let him charge his phone, made him some coffee and let him catch up watching the Weather Channel."

The kindness countered, to an extent, the cascade of bad news:

Power remained out across almost all of the region, including more than 30,000 households in Victoria and 14,000 in Port Lavaca.

Citizens Medical Center, the Victoria County-owned hospital, lost all power when its backup generator also failed.

The city of Victoria issued a boil water notice shortly after 10 a.m. Several hours later, the city shut off all water.

The lack of water caused some residents to consider fleeing the city in the face of oncoming floodwaters. Brandon Georgie, 27, who lives in the north part of the city with his grandparents, said his family would risk the trek to San Antonio on Sunday if water service doesn't resume.

"We're just trying to gauge whether they're able to fix it quickly," Georgie said. "And, if not, we'll have to go up."

Thirty miles to the south, Port Lavaca police officers cheered when Chief Colin Rangnow gave them permission late Saturday morning to go out and assess the damage. They were antsy and eager to ease the fears of those who had left their city behind.

"I know you've been chomping at the bit, so congratulations you're going be out there all damn day," he said.

They divided the city into four zones with two officers assigned to each. They took note of damaged houses and businesses, as well as citing people violating the noon curfew.

"We cannot arrest people right now. The jail can't hold them. That's kind of our Achilles' heel," Rangnow said.

During the first briefing of the day with the National Weather Service, first responders were in good spirits, but wary about residents returning to a city still without power and with some roads submerged. They knew the forecast called for the already-inundated city to receive enough rain that could lead to catastrophic flooding.

Calhoun County Sheriff Bobbie Vickery suggested deputies put up barricades at the county line, but Calhoun County Judge Mike Pfeifer worried that would take too much manpower.

Overnight, Harvey downed trees and power lines, tore off roofs and shattered windows in Port Lavaca.

One of its most destructive displays was at the Nautical Landings Marina, where some boats appeared to have been tossed like rubber duckies in a tub while others were sunken.

Prominent city features didn't fare much better. The pier at Bayfront Peninsula Park, renovated over several years, was scattered along the coast line. The Lighthouse Beach Park was under water.

Keith Hussong stayed part of the night on his sailboat, Rosy, there. He chose not to leave because it's been his home for 27 years.

"It was like being in a washing machine, I guess," he said.

The storm surge in Port Lavaca was 6 1/2 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

Vickery's concern about Port Lavaca residents returning on roads with fast-moving water appeared to be realized by 6 p.m. as several vehicles were stranded along U.S. 87 leading into town. The highway was surrounded by corn fields that looked more like a sea with white-capped waves.

Along the coast to the west, the devastation was so great in Seadrift that Mayor Elmer DeForest banned all from entering. Flooding made at least half of the town's roads impassable, the mayor said, making it difficult to account for all of Seadrift's 1,392 residents. The town also lost all power, phone, internet and water service.

Later Friday night he lifted the order, allowing residents to return. The city has a sunset to sunrise curfew.

With forecasts calling for Harvey, now a tropical storm, to keep dumping historic amounts of rain, officials warned the Victoria area was far from out of the disaster. Sixty miles north of Victoria in Hallettsville, city officials were going door to door warning residents living along the Lavaca River of rising waters. The river hasn't flooded the city in 36 years, but this is a storm set on breaking multiple meteorological records.

As the region raced to clean up in advance of more flooding, the debate about preparedness wasn't waiting.

Refugio County Judge Robert Blaschke said county officials had little responsibility for those who disobeyed mandatory evacuation orders.

"If they make a choice not to leave," he said, "they are on their own."

Although Lamar Rodriguez said she knew of the county's mandatory evacuation order, she said she was not prepared for the reality that befell her and her family.

"I knew God was with us, but I looked, and I couldn't see him because I was in the middle of a storm," she said. "The house was falling apart."

She also said if she had known of an available shelter, she would not have hesitated to seek refuge there.

Rodriguez is angry with local officials for the the unavailability of a 20,000-square-foot, storm-resistant dome in nearby Woodsboro that was used to house emergency responders rather than the public.

That multi-million-dollar structure, which was funded with a 2005 voter-approved bond, served as a staging point for Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Wardens and their watercraft.

"I don't understand the politics of it," Rodriguez said. "I don't understand any of it."

In Victoria County, officials opened a dome at St. Joseph High School and another at Bloomington Elementary School for several hundred residents.

Blaschke said officials did not turn away residents who sought shelter at the dome and offered a shelter at Joy Ministries, a Refugio church. He also confirmed the Woodsboro dome was not meant for the public to shelter in.

But Rodriguez and many other city residents never knew of the Joy Ministries' availability as a shelter. Blashke said limited resources prevented the county from opening additional public places of refuge in the city.

Although the county judge said Joy Ministries was advertised as a shelter option on Facebook, a lack of sufficient time prevented officials from spreading the word through local televisions and newspapers.

Refugio native Virginia Perez, 62, who has survived numerous storms said she too did not understand the decision to use the dome for authorities and not the public.

"I think it's ridiculous," she said. "I thought that's what it was for."

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Journalists Gabriella Canales, Amber Aldaco, Laura Garcia, Olivia Vanni, Nick Galindo, Ana Ramirez, Carolina Astrain, Mike Forman, Becky Cooper, Chris Cobler, Rey Castillo, Sam Hankins, Nicole Crapps, David Vasquez and Marcus Gutierrez contributed to this report.

Related coverage

Day 1: Here comes Harvey

Day 2: Brace yourself

Day 3: 'Prayers protect us'

Day 5: 'At least God let us live'

Day 6: 'It's the luck of the draw'

Day 7: 'Everybody will pull together'

Day 8: Guadalupe floods parts of Victoria

Day 9: Texas Zoo evacuates animals

Additional coverage

DeTar generator may help city restore water

Residents wait outside store to get supplies

Family of 5 flees burning home

Refugio County suffers extensive damage

Several roads closed because of damage, flooding

Lavaca River to flood

Jackson County officials discuss shelter options

Ganado roads cleared by officials

1 confirmed dead in Rockport

Calhoun County survives (w/video)

Residents wait outside store to buy supplies

Bloomington wreckage after Harvey

Several roads closed because of damage, flooding

City reminds residents to boil water

VISD to resume classes Sept. 5

Car found in Guadalupe River

San Antonio opens doors for evacuees

Surveying Bloomington wreckage after Harvey

'We're alive. That's what matters'

Emergency workers have done yoeman's job


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