Polk County Enterprise - Local News
Stories Added - September 2008
Copyright 2008 - Polk County Publishing Company
Local efforts prevented Ike from being Katrina 2
Polk County Enterprise - September 2008
By Valerie Reddell
It’s been a phenomenal two weeks. Before, during and after Hurricane Ike most of the people of Polk County have shown amazing compassion for their neighbors and have poured a lot of energy as well as money into community recovery efforts. It shows in the tremendous progress we’ve made so far. During the 9/11 terrorist attacks, firefighters emerged as the iconic heroes. In this disaster a new group were an integral part of the rapid progress — the thousands of utility workers. Around 48 hours after Hurricane Ike blasted through, many Polk County residents had reached their limit of patience and endurance. Listening to the scanner was a little scary at that point. Virtually every licensed peace officer in the county was answering calls, which continued to come in faster than they could be answered.
They not only had to try to manage the folks who can’t obey the law under the best of situations, they also answered a flood of requests to check on elderly, handicapped or other residents who hadn’t been able to check in with family and friends after the storm. They handed out many more hugs than citations over the past two weeks. Firefighters from every department were handling all sorts of calls ranging from residents trapped in their homes by storm debris to others who wanted home delivery of ice and meals. Just when it seemed things were beginning to fall completely apart, it got better. The lights started coming back on. You can’t overestimate the impact that had on restoring calm. For all the finger-pointing going on about whether FEMA is fantastic or horrible, having electricity is one of the biggest deterrents to widespread looting and general unrest that can occur in a natural disaster.
Another key piece in the puzzle is communications. Once my family cut our way out of the debris pile in the driveway we found ourselves among hundreds of others who didn’t know how long it would take before life seemed normal again. Police and firefighters were getting swarmed by people with questions when they answered calls, so we hoped a special storm edition would alleviate that a little. On Tuesday, one commissioners court visitor saw fit to waste the court’s time criticizing my headline on a disaster recovery story, but there were some fundamental flaws in FEMA’s response. Just ask County Judge John Thompson or Houston Mayor Bill White. FEMA initially said they would set up ONE distribution site for Polk County.
It was only through Thompson’s persistence that we were able to establish sites at eight area locations. Many local families saw their only transportation crushed by debris or they really couldn’t afford to gas up prior to Ike’s arrival so making a trip from Ace to Livingston for a handful of supplies wasn’t going to be a practical answer. FEMA bragged prior to the storm that they were sending 7 million Meals Ready to Eat to cover the 29- county area Ike targeted. Maybe they forgot, but Texas is a big place. The Greater Houston area has about 2.5 million people and the 12-county Deep East Texas area has another 367,406, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 estimate.
That figures out to about two meals each, and doesn’t include the Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange area. Many people did an excellent job of prestorm preparation, but found themselves still needing help. If your house is flat, it’s hard to reach in and grab your bread, peanut butter and three gallons of water. So go ahead and mount a soapbox and preach that people can’t expect FEMA to take care of them right away, but it’s hard to fathom the logic FEMA used in staging its initial response. We have a large group of folks who live day-to-day, just look under the Choates Creek bridge. As a founder of the Polk County Mission Center said many years ago, “You have to feed the greedy to get the needy.”
There is that element of every community that will take what they want by whatever means necessary. Having them stand in a FEMA line is the least distasteful of the options they’re willing to consider. In less than 72 hours, EOC staff managed to allocate some supplies to each of the eight primary sites. Since the county judge’s initials are JT, not JC, he couldn’t pull off the loaves and fishes trick, but he did divide five truckloads of supplies among 12 counties until we could get another delivery. There are some folks that particularly astonished me with their ability to get things done in the wake of the storm. Chief Corky Cochran and the Livingston VFD amaze me. I don’t know where Corky gets the energy, but I’m firmly convinced he did not sleep for at least three days.
Every fire department in the county turned in an exceptional performance, but the Livingston guys (with instructions from Ann and Jane) are here where I can see them. The regular dispatching duo was supplemented by firefighters who stayed in the station around the clock through the ordeal. LVFD took 800 calls over seven days and worked 1,000 man-hours. Most of those were questions about where to get ice and other supply-related issues. The steady stream of information from police, sheriff’s deputies and county road crews helped LVFD target where to send saw crews to free those trapped by debris. My cohorts in the newsroom get a special thank you for not balking when I broke the news that we were not going to wait for the lights to come back on to go back to work. So to James, Lynn, Gordon, Jenny, and Jennifer — it wouldn’t have happened without your help. The entire Baugh family was so tolerant when we moved into their dining room, most of us didn’t want to leave. Next disaster, we have dibs on Jimmy Baugh to maintain generator operations.
Everyone should have a 3-yearold named Fisher on hand to keep proper perspective when things are rough. Finally, there is one person who has taken a lot of grief over nearly four decades for having a sunny disposition when conditions don’t warrant it — my sister, Debbie Bartlett. For five days she provided meals, shelter and laundry so I could devote all my energy to newspaper operations. I know it was a tough call to let me take up so much refrigerator space with Dr Pepper.
I know there are hundreds of great stories about how Polk County people weathered the storm and we’ll share as many of those as possible. Whether you spent days handing out bottled water or just managed to hold on until the worst was over, thank you.