'They are small, but their voices are loud'
Nov. 25, 2017 at 9:42 p.m.
Updated Nov. 27, 2017 at 1 a.m.
AUSTWELL - The nose of a shovel sliced through loose dirt and weeds, forced into the earth by the sole of a cowboy boot.
Cindy Preisel, 53, grasped the shovel in one hand as she knelt to sift through dirt, plucking a flower bulb from the soil and tossing it into a bucket. She stood in an overgrown patch of weeds, the remains of flower beds she tended to for almost 10 years - until she abandoned her damaged Tivoli rental home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
"I'm trying to get some of my glads and lilies," said Preisel, who wore a knee-length denim jacket and aqua-colored earrings that matched the color of her eyes. "I already took my rose bushes."
But unlike other people who were forced from their homes after the hurricane, Preisel's story isn't a tragedy.
When Preisel's landlord refused to fix the one-bedroom cottage, a family friend offered Preisel's family a brand-new, three-bedroom manufactured home to rent on a nearby ranch.
"It's a good story," Preisel said. "But there are a lot of people around here that don't have such good stories."
Preisel's happy ending to her story is rare among those from Texas Gulf Coast residents, some of whom lost everything to Hurricane Harvey's raging winds and torrential rains.
In Tivoli, a rural town of fewer than 500 residents, trailer houses were obliterated, businesses' storefronts were destroyed and warehouses collapsed. Just 6 miles toward the coast, a few families in Tivoli's sister city, Austwell, already have demolished their homes that didn't stand a chance against the Category 4 hurricane.
The two towns share a school, where officials estimate 30 percent of about 165 students are still displaced. Local community leaders don't know whether those families will be able to afford to stay in the rural towns or if they'll flee to cities with more housing and job opportunities.
"We want to rebuild, and we want people to stay here," said Mary Canales, who grew up in Austwell and now serves as the town's mayor.
So far, the federal government has designated at least $5 billion for long-term recovery efforts in Texas. But officials don't know how that money will be divvied up between infrastructure, business assistance and housing.
It's also unknown how that money will be split between major cities such as Houston and communities with just a few hundred residents along the Texas Gulf Coast.
Places like Austwell and Tivoli.
Squeaking tennis shoes and the thuds of basketballs bouncing on the wood floor of a gym echo through the halls of the Austwell-Tivoli school in Tivoli.
"This little one here lost everything," said Principal Stephen Maldonado, who gestured toward a little girl with light blond hair sitting quietly against the wall of the gym.
Fourth- and fifth-grade students played basketball as Maldonado, 70, pointed to where water seeped through the gym's ceiling when Hurricane Harvey blew off the air conditioning unit, which still hasn't been found.
The faint scent of mildew and fresh paint are noticeable three months after the hurricane, which damaged the building so extensively that classes were conducted for weeks in administrative offices and portable buildings set up in the middle of the street.
"You wouldn't recognize this place," said Maldonado, whose white and red letterman jacket matches banners hung throughout the building.
For some of the students and teachers who walk down those halls, life has mostly returned to normal. But Maldonado estimates nearly a third of families are still displaced.
One family makes a 60-mile journey - one way - from Beeville to take their children to the school every day, Maldonado said.
Other faculty members also were driving 60 miles from Corpus Christi, where they sought shelter after their homes in Rockport were damaged, he said.
"They leave here after work, they go to Rockport and work on their house until dark," Maldonado said. "And then they go to Corpus Christi and get ready for school the next day."
Nonetheless, daily attendance is high, discipline problems have never been lower and grades are up, Maldonado said. He thinks the hurricane shocked the children, who now have more appreciation for simple things like being able to go to school each day, he said.
But there have been other challenges for the school, particularly financial ones, Maldonado said. The school has received an outpouring of donations and school supplies but is still dealing with budget woes that come with the unexpected costs to repair damage - just as the school planned to build a new high school.
In all of the 19 years Maldonado has worked at the school, this is the first time he's ever looked forward to Fridays, he said.
"I love my job," Maldonado said. "But nowadays, I can't wait for Fridays to come - I'm tired."
'Their voices are loud'
A man parks a truck and flatbed trailer on a narrow street in Austwell, where blue tarps covering homes stick out against the gray water of Hynes Bay.
The man leaves his truck and knocks on doors, asking whether he can haul away broken washing machines and refrigerators that line the street.
Most people are pleased with his offer: They need all the help they can get - whether that be discarding damaged appliances or ripping out soaked drywall.
Three months after the storm, eight homes still don't have power in the town of 146 residents, the town's mayor said.
City Hall doesn't have electricity yet either, Canales said. About 16 inches of rain dumped into the red-and-white building, which looks more like a cottage than a government building.
The city runs on about $70,000 each year - the bulk of which comes from residents' water bills. But that cash has gone especially fast after the water system stopped running and sewer systems backed up after Hurricane Harvey.
Canales hopes the state provide financial help to help fix city facilities, she said. Her situation is similar to her constituents', many of whom are praying charities or disaster recovery programs will continue to help them rebuild, too.
Many of Austwell's residents are elderly and have limited sources of income, including a 104-year-old woman whose house was battered by Harvey, Canales said. Another elderly woman who lives in a brick house nearby is deciding whether to stay or go after water soaked her home.
"I would hate for anyone to leave somewhere they love because they can't financially or physically meet the challenges of the devastation from Harvey " Canales said.
Unlike officials in larger cities who are struggling to tally up damages and figure out how many residents are displaced, Canales knows everyone by name and whether their homes were damaged in the storm. She also knows whether volunteers have come to their aid or whether they still need help.
As of November, 18 people were still displaced from their homes, she said. Three homes were already demolished - the only remains were piles of rubble on the side of the road.
Although those numbers pale in comparison to those in cities that made national headlines, it doesn't mean Austwell residents' needs are any less important, Canales said.
For some people, the small coastal town is all they know. Canales wants the towns to become whole again and plans to fight to get both Austwell and Tivoli the help they need from governments and volunteers.
Canales compares the people in Tivoli and Austwell to those found in Dr. Seuss' Whoville: "They are small, but their voices are loud."
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 10: The Long Road Ahead (w/video)
Day 12: For some, normal still far away
Day 15: FEMA frustrates Harvey victims
Day 16: Displaced and in disarray
Day 18: Nature interrupted (w/video)
Day 19: 'It was like we had been bombed'
Day 42: 'Harvey broke me'
Day 55: Special delivery
Day 63: Housing after Harvey (w/video)
Day 86: Zoo to spread its wings again