Day 5: 'At least God let us live'

By Jessica Priest; Jon Wilcox; Marina Riker
Aug. 28, 2017 at 6:21 a.m.
Updated Aug. 28, 2017 at 3:33 a.m.

Kyler Carpenter, 10, left, and Laela Carpenter, 11, look up through a hole that was torn in their roof by Hurricane Harvey.

Kyler Carpenter, 10, left, and Laela Carpenter, 11, look up through a hole that was torn in their roof by Hurricane Harvey.   Olivia Vanni/ for The Victoria Advocate

Heather Meadows said she feels as if she is living in a nightmare.

"Is this all a dream?" said Meadows, 22, who has lived in Tivoli for a year and a half. "Can we just all wake up now?"

Meadows is one of thousands of Crossroads residents who have been left to pick up the pieces after Hurricane Harvey destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses when it made landfall as a Category 4 storm Friday night. From the coastal city of Rockport to Victoria, hundreds of thousands were without running water or electricity. Others have lost their homes entirely.

Between Corpus Christi and Houston, hundreds of thousands of homes lost power. In Victoria, Harvey darkened virtually the entire city, but power started coming back for some Sunday.

Officials offered no timetable for returning water service to residents in Victoria and most smaller surrounding towns.

Victoria, Calhoun and Refugio counties remained under mandatory evacuation orders.

Victoria found some relief Sunday as the rainfall was less than expected, but historic flooding was still expected along the Guadalupe River starting Wednesday. The river is expected to crest just 2 feet short of the '98 flood that devastated Cuero, Goliad, Bloomington and Victoria.

Clasping rosary beads

Sunday, Meadows and her boyfriend spent the morning at what was left of their Tivoli home, which is about 30 miles from where the eye of the storm made landfall near Rockport.

At Meadows' home, winds well above 100 mph ripped off the tin roof, which lay crumpled in the backyard.

Inside the house, which had been painted a shade of pale blue, water had flooded more than 6 inches above the wood floor. Articles of soaked clothing lined the hallway, where the roof was missing entirely.

Meadow's boyfriend, Drayke Murphy, 29, pointed to the hole in the ceiling.

"I got a new skylight," Murphy joked.

The couple, who both work for the state parks service, heard rumors that it could take a month to restore running water and power to the area. Fortunately, they are able to stay at a family ranch about 20 miles away until they can piece their lives back together, they said.

"How do you come back from this?" Meadows asked.

But other south Texas residents weren't as lucky. Delia Garza, 56, lived in a trailer with a niece and her 6-year-old daughter, which was next to her father and sister's homes.

Garza, who grew up in Tivoli, waited out the storm in her father's house, which is across the street from her trailer. As Harvey struck Friday evening, she took shelter in her father's bathroom with her sister, who clasped rosary beads while praying they would make it through, Garza said.

"My sister was looking out the door and watched her trailer get torn apart," said Garza.

The family spent Sunday picking through debris in trailers owned by Garza and her sister, which were missing roofs. Water flooded both structures, and walls were ripped apart.

"At least God let us live," Garza said. "That's the important part."

'Don't forget about us'

In Bayside, the isolation felt by Jillian Carpenter, 31, was matched by the level of devastation in her home and community.

"Don't forget about us," said Carpenter, a wife and mother of two, while standing in her debris-strewn yard.

Having returned from their temporary refuge in Portland, Carpenter and her family began working to make their home livable again - a process they anticipate will take months, if not longer. Days after the storm, the family returned to find gaping holes in their roof, severe water damage inside their home and a large mesquite tree toppled onto the home, among other problems.

"We walked in, and I damn near started crying," she said.

On top of the destruction visited on Bayside by Harvey, broken infrastructure is making repairs even more difficult. Town residents said power, mobile and landline phone service, as well as water, remained unavailable. The same applied for many state, county and federal aid and resources, Carpenter said, although Department of Public Safety troopers began patrolling the town in response to some residents reporting suspected looters the night before.

Carpenter's sister-in-law, Christy Carpenter, 39, said she also was frustrated by the lack of help.

"There's no one out here," Carpenter said. "There's no help."

Bayside residents are still waiting, she said, for officials to clear debris from roadways, restore power, repair water utilities and watch for potential looters.

Although the tiny town's single maintenance worker, Jason Suniga, 35, who is also a certified water and sewer operator, began clearing roads Sunday morning, he was forced to stop when his tractor broke midday.

"It's just a pain that everything I need right now is not working," Suniga said.

The same applied for the town's water-pump generator, which he couldn't estimate how long repairing it might take.

And with the town's leadership evacuated and unavailable, Suniga said he was on his own with those problems and more.

"The thing is, you can't call anybody because you don't have any signal," he said. "Everything I'm finding out - I can't notify the mayor. I can't notify anybody."

Bayside resident Chris Naylor, 68, said he also was frustrated with the town's leaders.

"It kind of pisses you off," he said. "Running from (Harvey) is a good thing, but they can get back the very next day, and they are still not here. We still don't have water."

Naylor said he spent Friday night and Saturday morning bailing water from his home and cracking windows open to prevent the storm's low pressure from exploding them.

Bayside's mayor and council members could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Although Naylor said he has lived in his 110-year-old Bayside house for decades and weathered Hurricane Allen in 1980, as well as at least five other severe historical storms, Hurricane Harvey was the worst by far.

"This is the first time I said to myself, 'If I get through this, then that will be the last one I ever ride out,' " he said.

Naylor, his 3-year-old dog, Honeybun, and a neighbor waited out the storm in his house, spending much of the night praying, he said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Tinsley said that because severe weather disabled observation points in Refugio County early Friday night, accurate wind measurements were unavailable. But meteorologists have estimated winds reached 160 mph using data gathered by a weather service observation plane high above the storm, he said.

Naylor estimated 170-mph winds battered his home, a guess he thought likely, considering Harvey's eye passed nearly over Bayside. He pointed to toppled trailers, uprooted palms and bark-stripped tree trunks as evidence.

"The wind was on all sides," he said. "Everything was flying."

Despite the danger from hurricane-force winds, Naylor said his real fear lay with the innumerable tornados likely spawned by the storm. The impact of one of those tornadoes, he said, likely would have obliterated his home.

My house "would have been gone," he said. "And I'd probably be gone with it."

Naylor's nearby business, Copano Bay Nursery, which he has owned for 20 years, was not as lucky. Before the nursery, he owned and operated a fresh fish wholesale business at the property for another 30 years.

"It's gone," said Naylor, adding he was unsure that he would be able to rebuild.

With the destruction of that business, Naylor said he finds himself without sufficient income and at the mercy of paltry Social Security checks.

"You're kind of numbed to see everything devastated," he said. "I think I had a pretty good attitude, but I watched my business blow up basically."

Rockport devastated

But the damage in Tivoli and Bayside was dwarfed by Rockport, a tourist destination of about 11,000 residents and a popular weekend getaway spot for Crossroads residents. Harvey's 140 mph winds toppled mobile homes, while dozens of businesses and homes collapsed on themselves.

Hangars at an airport had collapsed onto planes. Buildings home to once-thriving businesses were unrecognizable piles of debris. By Sunday afternoon, the downtown was crowded by National Guard members and electricity maintenance crew. They were some of the only people visible, with the exception of home and business owners accessing damage.

Robert Zbranek, 56, was there when the disaster unfolded Friday night. He planned to ride out the storm from his 38-foot sailboat docked at Rockport Harbor - until it started to sink, he said.

"There wasn't anything I could do," he said.

Hurricane Harvey's winds tossed the "Sweet Mother Pearl" - named after his mother - out of the water and slammed it onto the dock's wooden posts, causing the boat to leak, he said.

The Army veteran escaped to his car but lost all of his belongings in the boat, he said.

Sunday, he wore the only set of clothes he had left - American flag-print shorts with a blue T-shirt. He was barefoot.

"Pretty devastating," he said.

Iconic sign toppled

The strength of Harvey also stunned Victoria residents, but most considered themselves lucky.

Sean Braun, 42, used a hacksaw with his father, Thomas Braun, 64, to cut up downed trees and clear them from their driveway in downtown Victoria.

Sean Braun said he watched Harvey approach from his screen door after taking a shower.

"I was dry as a bone and a gust of wind and rain soaked me. I had to start over," he said.

His father, who was in Victoria for Hurricane Carla in 1961 and Hurricane Claudette in 2003, added, "the wind force around here was incredible."

Like Sean Braun, Gloria Denison, 84, quickly took a shower before the storm cut off the city's access to water.

But unlike Thomas Braun, Denison didn't know what to expect from a hurricane.

"I thought the roof would be gone," said Denison, who moved from San Antonio to Victoria about nine years ago.

She lives with her son, who returned to work at Home Depot.

"He said, 'I'll see you when I see you,'" Denison said.

At the Corral on Houston Highway, people were in good spirits because of the generosity of Limons BBQ.

Nicole Stiles saw the business announce that it would be open at 2 p.m. and got there 30 minutes earlier. At her home on Halsey Street and Sam Houston Drive, she had no electricity like most others. She stayed behind because her 95-year-old grandmother didn't evacuate from her nursing home.

Stiles has been surviving off of hot Cheetos and Goldfish.

"Even when it's not a hurricane disaster, I have to have my snacks," she said, chuckling.

But there were plenty of tears, too, when the Totah family saw their beloved Indian sign, which many Victorians consider iconic.

"I don't want to look," said Albert Totah, who put up the sign in 1954. He said it survived Hurricane Carla in 1961 with only minor damage.

Totah originally wanted to put up a sign of a cowboy with a lasso. When that wasn't possible, he settled for the Indian shooting a bow and arrow. They had just gotten all the lights working on it again.

His daughters, Cassandra Garcia, 61, and Stephanie Totah, 63, were especially emotional with the loss of what felt like another family member.

They don't have enough insurance coverage to restore the sign, which over the years many have offered to buy.

"Every day, it was, 'Well, let's turn on the Indian,'" Stephanie Totah said. "No more arrows. The cowboys won."

At H-E-B on East Rio Grande Street in Victoria, people lined up for hours for a free hamburger with all the fixings and a bag of chips.

Ashlyn Woodard and her fiance waited for hours not realizing at the end of the line there wouldn't be bottles of water. That's what the couple, who live in the county, really need.

Woodard didn't evacuate because her fiance works for Dow in Seadrift and was needed to shut down the plant. They tried to shop for water in advance of Harvey, but couldn't find any.

"Well, you could find some, but it was like 10 bottles of Evian for $25," Woodard said.

The couple have a water pump at home, but it won't work without electricity, which they haven't had for days.

Eddie Gonzalez said it was thanks to H-E-B he wouldn't have to eat Ramen noodles again.

When asked his age, Gonzalez smiled and said, "I'll be 53 next month, and thank God I get to see it."

Historic flooding to come

But the disaster is far from over for those living along the Guadalupe River in the Crossroads.

Sunday, police told Guadalupe River residents to evacuate in Cuero and Victoria.

The river was measured at 26.81 feet as of 7:15 p.m. Sunday in Victoria.

The National Weather Service predicted the river would rise by Thursday in Victoria to 31.9 feet - the second-highest level on record. The river reached its highest level in Victoria in '98. Then, it was 34 feet.

Robert DeLeon, 34, and Barbara Guerra, 36, didn't have time to process the damage Harvey had done to their Gunther Street home, which had a tree toppled on its roof, windows blown out and an electric meter torn from the wall.

They fit as much as they could into their truck and a friend's car to take to higher ground. They prioritized clothing, food and personal hygiene products.

"Luckily, I have my work trailer" to load more stuff up, said DeLeon, who is a contract worker.

In the trailer were chickens and a goat. His son fed one goat, named "Billy," a head of cabbage.

DeLeon's worries seemed neverending - repairs; three children, ages 2 through 13, to support; and now the possibility of losing everything. He's worried he won't have enough work to keep up.

"We're going to get like the sh-- end of the stick, in other words," he said.

A few blocks down on Gunther Street, the Guadalupe River was moving fast by Georgia Robinson's house. She said she had never noticed it much until now.

Tears welled up in her eyes when she thought of what she might lose.

She bought the home, built in 1944, less than a year ago and has put thousands of dollars of renovations into it.

Robinson, 51, drives a shuttle bus for the University of Houston-Victoria. Her home is not insured.

"This is just too much," Robinson said. "I'm just hoping beyond hope that it doesn't get inside the house. Come to my steps, but don't come inside."

Related coverage

Day 1: Here comes Harvey

Day 2: Brace yourself

Day 3: 'Prayers protect us'

Day 4: 'We thought we were going to die'

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

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Jackson County officials lift mandatory evacuation

Dozens of photos in our Harvey galleries

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Victoria street sign travels 40 miles

Looting will not be tolerated, officials say

Goliad County judge optimistic about recovery

Port O'Connor residents wonder about homes, businesses

Update on area schools' class schedules

HEB serves free hot meals

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FEMA arranges aid in Texas, Louisiana

Victoria College, UHV delay classes, assess damage

Victoria hospitals get power restored



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