In the jaws of the storm
On the 13th day of September, in 2008, the Texas-Louisiana coastline, Galveston and westward, was churned in the wake of one of the worst hurricanes to strike the area in over 100 years. Hurricane Ike was a terrible storm with horrid consequences for most of southern Orange County.
On the edge of Sabine Lake and surrounded by the Neches River, Intracoastal Canal, Cow Bayou and the Sabine River the entire city of Bridge City lay underwater as the sun rose Saturday. Historic Orange and the surrounding communities were the same. First Responders waded through neighborhoods calling out for survivors. By daybreak they had already rescued over 100 residents from rooftops and mud filled homes.
Tropical storm winds continued to blow most of the day as dying redfish flopped along the streets in Cove. In Bridge City there where perch and bass. Coconuts, snakes and dead cows lay in the cane and black mud washed from the Gulf through the marshlands in the power of the storm.
The morning after was surreal in Bridge City for residents who’d decided to stay. Wild winds had roared throughout the night. By first light only the rooftops distinguished it between a lake and a city. The often predicted but unimaginable had inevitably happened. Unprotected by levees and open to the Gulf, Bridge City lay under 10 feet of water in some places, not as high in others. Some homes were blown apart and washed away. Little remaining appeared livable. The water quietly began to recede.
Just two weeks earlier Hurricane Gustav had delivered Orange County a mere glancing blow. Hurricane Ike was not so merciful. As it spun toward the Gulf of Mexico it reached Category 4 status before clipping through Cuba and reached the Texas coast as a strong Category 2. It made landfall at 2:10 a.m. near Galveston Bay. Orange County lay within the dangerous circulation of the storm’s massive eye wall.
“We’ve been here through several bad storms. I just never believed that something like this would happen,” said retired pipefitter Harry Risher, 81, of Bridge City. Risher and his wife Edith stayed through the storm in their home on Farm Road where they’ve lived since 1957.
Risher was having breakfast about 5 a.m. the morning the storm made landfall when water began coming in the front door and rose to about two feet in the house and four feet in the yard. “We were running out of time,” said Risher. The elderly couple escaped the rising water by going into a shelter they had prepared in a storage area over the garage.
“Fish, or something, was tearing into bags of dog food below us,” Risher says, “I don’t know what it was.”
“We lost everything. It’s like having a death in the family,” he said. “It’s like this is not real.” Risher said he would evacuate next time.
Despite warnings from the National Weather Service advisory of “certain death” on Sept. 11 many residents decided to stay. Some evacuated at the last minute and others tried to get out too late. Steve Bison and his wife were able to reach the corner of Interstate 10 and Texas 62 before their vehicle stalled out. They stayed under the overpass during the storm and remained there for two days.
In the teeth of the storm Robert and Betty Vail of Bridge City weathered Ike on Susan Street near hard-hit Dugas Edition.
Preoccupied with the death of his mother two days earlier, Vail decided to wait out the storm. Staying with the Vails that night were his father, 87-year-old Woody Vail and an invalid, Elizabeth Evans. The four adults watched the storm by flashlight when they were contacted by a friend, Mike Chatagnier, about half a mile away where Sabine Street dead ends on the edge of the marsh. Chatagnier reported water was rising in his house. The Vails insisted he get out and come to higher ground.
Chatagnier arrived with his daughter Kim and her boyfriend John. According to Vail by 1:30 a.m. the seven adults watched the water begin rising in the yard “like an incoming tide.”
The water reached the second rung of the three steps to the front porch. A former fishing guide, he trounced into two feet of water to plug his boat and floated it off the trailer to his porch.
“About the time the water reached the top of the porch it began coming through the back door,” he said.
Through the darkness and ripping winds of the storm another family in the neighborhood, Robert Schuff, his girlfriend and five children where wading toward the Vail home. The children were dried, put on the counter tops and given life vests. Now 15 people were crowded in the modest Vail residence as the water continued to rise around them.
By flashlight he marked the water level on his wall and determined that the water was rising faster. “About a foot every thirty minutes. It was waist deep in the house. Along with the water came every kind of insect you can imagine.” The insects clung to the people to escape the water. “It was hideous,” Vail said.
“We tried to stay calm for the children. We were all scared. You could hear trees breaking and parts of homes floating down the road.” It was a long night. Vail said the worst of Ike’s winds were between 2:30 a.m until after daylight.
When the winds subsided the adults decided that it was time to abandon the house. The elderly Vail and invalid Evans were loaded in the boat with the youngest children. Chatagnier and Vail ferried the first load of two loads of hurricane dizzy passengers through the neighborhood to the garage apartment of John Stewart about a half-mile away. Betty Vail stayed with the teenagers until the two men returned for them.
“The water was about neck deep at it’s highest,” Vail said. The sun was beginning to rise when all 15 people and a few dogs were secure on the Stewart upper porch with Stewart and several other dogs.
“About 10 a.m. the water began receding,” Vail said, “Shortly afterward a First Responder team from San Diego arrived in a military vehicle with Bobby Woods, a neighbor from Jones Street.” The older Vail and Evans were taken to Saint Elizabeth Hospital. Schuff and the children were able to wade to a friend’s home nearby.
Chatagnier returned to find his home and that of former Orange County Sheriff Huel Fontenot and his wife Mary totally destroyed and blown away. The Fontenots had evacuated. Glen Vail, Robert’s son, drove in and brought his parents to Port Acres to Robert Jr‘s. home.
“I felt stupid for staying,” Vail says, “But at the same time, who knows? Maybe there was a reason. I keep thinking about what might have happened if we hadn’t been there. Those people had nowhere else to go.”
Vail’s mother, Doris, was buried 13 days later on Sept. 26.
Johnny Montagne of Bridge City evacuated to Mississippi. In the early hours of Sept. 13 he received a cell phone call from a neighbor, John Dishon. Dishon said his home was flooded and he was standing on the kitchen counter and couldn’t get out. Snakes where swimming in the water near the door. Like all the residents of Bridge City, Dishon survived.
After citizens returned to see their homes, the horrific damage to houses and businesses remained shocking nearly three weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.
The body of Greg Walker of Port Neches was found in the Bessie Heights marsh Sunday, Sept. 28. He was last heard from in a 911 call from his stranded vehicle in rising water on Texas 87 between Bridge City and the Rainbow Bridge. It was impossible for first responders to get to him. He left behind a wife and three children.
Currently it is believed that Ike is responsible for almost 150 deaths in the Gulf Coast region. Reportedly, law enforcement in Galveston County and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department began gutting alligators this week searching for human remains.