I penned these thoughts back in June, not long after a huge flood swept through Wimberly, Texas (between Austin and San Antonio), and swept my uncle’s house clear off its foundation. It felt too soon to post it then. Now that time has passed, I thought I’d share it, and Thanksgiving seems an appropriate time. We all read about disasters that happen around the world. They’re terrible. We feel badly when they happen. But we carry on with our lives. Well, this disaster struck personally and really illustrated that you just don’t know what could happen to you in a given instant.
I don’t really know how to write about the last few days, but I know I need to before the immediacy is gone. I booked my trip to Texas before the flood, not having any idea what was to come. I had just emailed with Uncle Gary days before mother nature changed the course of his life forever.
I am so, so glad I was able to be there, physically, to help. If you boil it down, I didn’t even really do all that much, but just being there to spend time with Gary and Sabrina was really cathartic. I feel this way every time I go to Texas, and this time maybe even more. Life isn’t really about the stuff you have; it’s about the people you build relationships with.
My family has always been at the core of who I am. Sure, jobs and career success are important, and all the material stuff in my life plays a role, too, but when you boil it down, for me it’s about the people. And the highlight without a doubt was just spending time with Snookie and Gary and Sabrina. Just really listening and being present. No phones, no social media. Just conversation. Lots and lots of it. And stories.
And so speaking of stories, here is “the escape” as told to me by both Sabrina and Gary. I hope one day they take the time to write down their firsthand account of things and of everything that’s followed. But in case they don’t, I can at least record what they shared with me.
They had both gone to sleep. Gary had had surgery a week or so before to remove a bone spur in his nose and so had to wake to take another round of medication. It was a little before 10pm. He walked into the bathroom and water was spitting and flying out of the toilet, almost like the toilet was upchucking all on its own. The toilet in the other bathroom was doing the same thing.
Gary woke Sabrina up and they both knew they had to get out. They could see water just feet from the back of the house. They both had bug-out bags that were packed and sitting by the door for just such an emergency. They grabbed those, an extra pair of shoes and their dog, Duchess.
By the time they tried to open the front door the pressure was so strong they could hardly do it. Gary actually got a bad bruise along his forearm from fighting with the front door.
By the time they got out the water was up to at least their knees. As they waded through it they made split second decisions. They considered trying to get in a car and drive out, but ultimately one of their neighbors was also evacuating and they were able to climb in the back of his pickup. They made the journey down the road and toward higher ground – or at least farther from the water.
One of the ranchers down the way had opened his home to people evacuating. So many people showed up that he called his neighbor, who was out of town, and got permission to house additional people there for the night. That’s where Gary and Sabrina ended up. As they walked in, it was pitch black (since the electricity was out). Sabrina bumped right into something hard at hip height. Turns out it was the family’s pet deer! They had domesticated it so much it had become a pet (its name was Venny – ha). How about that for surprise, after everything they had just gone through.
Of course, it’s impossible to know what would’ve happened had Gary and Sabrina stayed in the house even another minute – whether they would’ve gotten out. Ultimately the water surged so high that it reached the height of the flood light on the outside of their garage, probably 15 feet off the ground [see picture below]. Official estimates are that the river itself surged to over 70 feet; flood stage was 33. So to say it was quite massive is an understatement.
Gary and Sabrina’s house was washed clean off its foundation. The house next door (Rem’s old house – his name was still on a sign at the end of the driveway even though he apparently passed away a few years ago and had sold the house) was badly damaged. As Sabrina says, the new owners “took a bath on it.”
Just the day before I arrived (the two days prior, actually), a team of 40-50 volunteers, many of them military, had come out and dismantled what remained of the house, by hand. Sabrina estimates that the cost of having brought in equipment to do that might’ve been as much as $20,000. They piled all the structural house debris by the end of the driveway.
Before we headed to the “house” on Saturday Gary and Sabrina and I drove into Wimberly to get supplies and gift cards from volunteers at the high school and junior high. There are so many donations that have come in – everything from clothing and shoes to bath towels, laundry detergent and trash bags. At this point Gary and Sabrina are still in cleanup mode. They don’t have any need for “stuff”; instead, what they need are trash bags and towels – things to help with the cleanup effort.
One of the things I noticed was that, while there were a lot of donations and a lot of organizations that had volunteers and representatives physically present, there wasn’t a lot of coordination/communication between them. I can see how that would be/is one of the bigger challenges in providing disaster relief. It’s one thing to gather supplies and manpower; it’s another thing to coordinate it all and communicate its availability to the people who need it.
Interestingly, both social media and word of mouth have played a huge role in the assistance Sabrina and Gary have received so far. The volunteers from Team Bravo [I think that was the name] are from all over. I met two of them on Saturday; one was from Michigan and the other from Pennsylvania. They found out about the need/opportunity via social media. And, of course, a lot of the immediate physical lending of hands has come from locals right there in the community – people who have ranching equipment and trucks that have been able to help haul stuff away and pick things up.
For example, Gary was having trouble getting the insurance company to come move the cars. A neighbor with the right equipment was able to just come in, pick them up, and move them out of the way. So it’s been a multitude of acts of kindness from many sources. We hadn’t been there long Saturday when a neighbor and her friend just happened to stop by to bring some lunch. It’s one thing for a neighbor to do that in a “normal” neighborhood; it’s another thing entirely where Gary and Sabrina live. First off, it’s way out in the country, and it’s literally inaccessible by the “normal” way in because the bridge at the end of the road was decimated. Secondly, most of their neighbors don’t actually live there full-time like Gary and Sabrina. For many of them, those are their weekend/vacation homes. So it’s really been neat to see how an event like this pulls people together. And, of course, it helps that it’s in Texas, where people are naturally friendly.
At this point, with the structural remains of the house out of the way, the task at hand is to go through the personal effects that remain. And it’s a highly personal process. I was able to help, in part, because I’m family. And even I tossed things that Sabrina went back and rescued out of the garbage bags – in part simply to document for insurance purposes. But also because only she and Gary can really decide what they want to do with some of their things.
It is so random the things that survived. And they’re all jumbled up in big piles under the trees – haphazardly stacked and caked with mud and dirt. Sabrina said it’s been really hard to have your life on display, destroyed as it is, amongst perfect strangers coming to help. I think that’s been one of the hardest parts.
I started sorting like items and placing them in boxes where they could be salvaged. Kitchen equipment, especially Corningware baking dishes, survived perfectly in tact; I simply had to scoop out the mud and stack them up. The Kitchen Aid mixing bowl made it but not the mixer itself. The ceramic crockpot “bowl” survived in tact, but the heating element, while there, was ruined. Tons of canned food survived, even if the labels were mostly gone and some of the cans were pretty dented. Lots of vacuum sealed food and jars of spices were perfectly fine – covered/caked in dirt and mud, mind you, but their internal contents otherwise untouched.
But books and magazines, including Grandad’s collection of Forbes magazines from 1940/1941 that Gary had carted around through move after move were completely destroyed. Picture frames, socks, shoes, shirts, Christmas decorations, 4th of July decorations, and flags were all mixed up together, many of them unsalvageable. Sabrina found a pair of flip flops and was in heaven. She said after working all day every day, particularly in the heat, her feet hurt so much at night that all she wanted was some flip flops.
I found a 1987 Houston Astros divisional playoff ticket. There were Lincoln logs. Some of Gary’s coin collection has been found. Bathroom products, prescription drugs – some are okay and some are not. It’s all just jumbled up together. A bathtub and both bathroom sinks were there, along with one of the toilets. Ironically, I found toilet cleaning supplies not far away. And yet all the big furniture is gone, the electronics (not that they’d be functioning anyway), too.
It was emotional even for me to try to sift through it; I can’t really imagine how Gary and Sabrina are processing this emotionally.
That said, they both looked really good and were in good spirits. They’re understandably exhausted in every way. But they’re taking things day by day. There’s no long-term plan at this point. I don’t think they’ll rebuild, but they’ll probably use the garage as a sort of sophisticated campout structure. The land has lost a lot of its value at this point, so they can’t sell it right now.
It’s weird seeing the foundation just naked/exposed in the sunlight. You can see where the kitchen and bathrooms were; the flooring is sort of still there. You can see the remnants of the fireplace base. You can see where the patio was in the back. And the garage is perfectly fine. In fact, they’ve power washed the inside and you’d never know by looking at it that it was just in a major flood. To save it, though, they’re going to need to pull off the hardiplank siding to expose any trapped moisture so it doesn’t grow mold.
In between sorting personal effects Sabrina and her brother, Raleigh, and I sat in the garage and talked and talked. Mostly I listened to all sorts of stories. It was almost like we were sitting around a campfire, only it was daytime in 95-degree weather with tons of humidity. But the sentiment was one of being around a campfire and it was amazingly relaxing to just be present in the moment.
Click the photos below to see a larger version.