'They are small, but their voices are loud'

Marina Riker By Marina Riker

Nov. 25, 2017 at 9:42 p.m.
Updated Nov. 27, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Mary Canales, the mayor of Austwell, stands in front of an old tractor housing area that has been turned into their water donation storage.

Mary Canales, the mayor of Austwell, stands in front of an old tractor housing area that has been turned into their water donation storage.   Olivia Vanni for The Victoria Advocate

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.

The school

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."

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 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 (w/video)

Day 10: The Long Road Ahead (w/video)

Day 11: Residents rely on families to rebuild

Day 12: For some, normal still far away

Day 13: Church offers refuge for devastated town

Day 14: Victims find hardship, opportunity (w/video)

Day 15: FEMA frustrates Harvey victims

Day 16: Displaced and in disarray

Day 17: Disaster for humans means catastrophe for pets

Day 18: Nature interrupted (w/video)

Day 19: 'It was like we had been bombed'

Day 20: Students returning to school feel weight of Harvey

Day 21: International Crane Foundation loses office after hurricane

Day 22: Ranching structures, cotton mostly damaged by Harvey

Day 23: Port Lavaca struggles back after Harvey

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Day 25: Nonprofit leaves people lost after Harvey

Day 26: 'We are human beings like everyone else'

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Day 37: Expectant family struggles after Harvey (w/video)

Day 38: Woodsboro pulls together after Harvey

Day 39: Housing options slim for displaced families

Day 40: SBA approves more than $500M in disaster loans

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Day 44: Goliad baby born as hurricane swirled toward Crossroads

Day 45: Mother recalls 'scary' birth during Harvey

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Day 47: Officials have no details on housing relief

Day 48: Harvey impacts couple's 2 Victoria businesses, Rockport home

Day 49: Crews begin repair work on historic McFaddin church

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Day 57: Tenants sue after Harvey eviction

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Day 59: VISD applies for waivers to reduce Harvey burden

Day 60: Victoria's relief efforts lacked coordination, leadership

Day 61: Popular restaurant battles back from Harvey

Day 62: City looks to buy sprinkler controls for $160K

Day 63: Housing after Harvey (w/video)

Day 64: City looks to help with hefty water bills

Day 65: Men's shelter, soup kitchen closed because of Harvey

Day 66: Watt routes almost $1M to Crossroads' hungry

Day 67: Recovery group seeks members, community leaders

Day 68: Habitat volunteers help Harvey victims rebuild

Day 69: Lawmakers, counties to discuss Harvey response

Day 70: Oyster season opens after Harvey; new rules adopted

Day 71: Crossroads leaders talk storm damage to lawmakers

Day 72: Symphony to open concert season after Harvey delay

Day 73: Harvey recovery group works to measure unmet needs

Day 74: City considers ways to shore up water system

Day 75: County officials: Mobile homes need more oversight

Day 76: Recipient of state honor persists despite Harvey setbacks

Day 77: Heroes, lessons emerge in Harvey's wake

Day 78: Harvey, budget shortfalls challenge local leaders

Day 79: Salvation Army traditional holiday meal to continue

Day 80: City water had no bacteria despite Harvey outage

Day 81: Leaders still don't have Harvey recovery details

Day 82: Devereux officials remain hopeful despite hurricane damage

Day 83: Bloomington students, district still feel impact of Harvey

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Day 86: Zoo to spread its wings again

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Helpful information

Where to get water, gas and other supplies

Helpful information after the storm

Updates on city services



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