The Ike Experience


Ike, not Ike as in Eisenhower, but Ike the Hurricane.  It was the most massive storm, nearly the size of Texas itself, which inundated most of the Texas coast fronting the Gulf of Mexico.  Every summer, tropical depressions spawn hurricanes, inflicting major damages in Jamaica, Cuba or Haiti before landfalls along the Gulf Coast.  We were spared by Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Gustav just a month ago.   Incidentally, Rita came three weeks after Katrina and was projected to hit Houston as late as 9/23/05 night.  It caused the largest urban evacuation in USA history.  Fortunately, Rita took a sudden right turn on 9/24/05 morning and hit Orange-Beaumont area.  We caught the clean-side (explained below) of Rita.  In fact, I was somewhat disappointed because my house was battle-ready for the hurricane assault.

A hurricane is a tropical cyclone with closed circulation around a center of low pressure that is fueled when moist air rises, condenses and releases heat.  It circulates counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere about its center, the eye.  In simple imagery, divide the hurricane into two halves and four quadrants:  the east is the dirty side and the west is the clean side.  The lower right quadrant has the second most surge, rain and wind gusting from the southwest; the front right quadrant will have the peak wind and maximum surge delivering the most damage t with winds coming from northeast; the front left quadrant will have lesser effects of the previous two quadrants as the water-laden winds have already deposited most of the moisture with wind predominantly coming from the northwest; the lower left quadrant will be least affected, relatively, with wind blowing from the northwest.  Understanding this cyclic wind mechanics, one could minimize the damages, particularly in determining what directions to board up windows with plywood, which was acutely short of supply at Home Depot.  Had Ike made a landfall at Freeport, 50+ miles directly south of my subdivision, my house in southwest Houston would have borne the blunt of the worst quadrant.  Ike did make a direct hit at Galveston, 50+ miles south-south-east.  Thus, my house would be in the lower left quadrant.  That’s why I delayed my plywood boarding until late Friday (9/12/08) evening.  Whatever I cut up for my front windows in anticipation for Rita three years ago fit like a jigsaw-puzzle.  Ike was so huge and wide, there would no miracle making a right turn this time.

I put up all the hanging plants and garden furniture and disassembled the gazebos.  In addition to stocking up food, batteries, portable air pumps, water, filling my bathtub and gassing all my cars, I even cooked a huge slab of corn-beef in a crockpot.  Sue Ann did all the laundries.  I will explain these activities later on.  I fed my koi and bade them good luck.  We had a good dinner and washed all the dishes.  It was typically the calm before the storm.  We crouched around to watch the direct telecast of the imminent storm. 

Galveston was under mandatory evacuation order.  Yet, 47% of the 57,000 residents elected to ride out the storm.  Police and fire departments would not respond to any emergency calls, even facing life-threatening situations, during the storm surge, the mound of water pushed ashore by the storm wind.  Galveston built a 17-foot high seawall after 6,000+ perished in the 1900 storm.  The storm surge was expected to be 22 feet along with the 3:00 am high tide.  That means the whole island would be under water.  Houston is listed as 43 feet above sea level and is 50+ miles inland of the Gulf Coast.  It, nevertheless, is crisscrossed by many bayous which drain into the Ship Channel, Galveston Bay and thence Gulf of Mexico.  By 11 pm, Galveston began to flood because of the incoming storm surge, even before a drop of rain.  The surge began to push northwards into coastal communities such as Kemah, Seabrook, La Port, etc. along the Galveston and Trinity Bay.  By 12 midnight, the Houston bayous began to backup from the surge, which would spell disaster when the rain came—water has no way to drain but to flood in the low lying areas.  At the height of the Ike, manhole covers were reported to pop up from storm drains to create geysers, a unique sight. 

Not as many Houstonians fled to Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and northern cities this time because of skeptical perceptions: cry-wolf, false-alarm, and close-calls during the last three years since Rita.  These evacuees headed north without much traffic congestion.  The city and county officials were quite proud of their revised evacuation routes—an absolutely 180˚ turn around compared to the mass exodus of Rita evacuation in 2005.  Most of these evacuees did not stock up food or supplies at home thinking their brief sojourn would be just a perfunctory exercise.  Just wait until what happened when they returned.  That was another story.  

Ike made landfall on Galveston and Bolivar Peninsular at 2:10 am (9/13/08).  At 110 mph, it missed by only 1 mph to be classified as Category 3.  Houston experienced two recent direct hits: Category 5 Carla in 1961 and Category 3 Alicia in 1983, or once every 25 years or so. Ike did pack a Category 4 surge so severe that it obliterated the entire City of Gilchrist.

The gust reached Houston around 3:00 am and the electricity promptly went down.  In total darkness, I heard the ripping of the sidings, the flapping of the shingles, the whistling of the windows, the falling of the trees and the pounding of rain outside.  Amazingly, I dozed off because I was so physically drained all day preparing for the storm.  However, I was dying to see the outside as soon as it was light. 

It was like a battleground.  Nature had vanquished and we were defeated.  The whole city was without power and with it out went the TV, refrigeration, air conditioning, water, mobile and telephone land lines, internet, running water, and all the amenities propelled by electricity.  My handheld battery operated TV informed us that we were to have a tough time ahead.  A tough time, indeed, 90 % humidity and 90˚ F prevailed.  The cooked corn-beef, the good old fashion way of preserving meat centuries ago prior to refrigeration, came in handy.  I barbequed the thawed out chicken wings for dinner.  But the night was unbearably long and boring.  I now can empathize with people of the pioneer days—early to bed and early rise.  I missed my late night shows, midnight snacks and hot cup of coffee with my morning papers.  In fact, no paper was delivered the next few days.  The streets were strewn with uprooted tree trunks and limbs, fence and even crushed cars.  During the first few days, shops were closed; people began to line up and scrounge for gasoline; traffic signals were dangling from the mast arms and not even flashing; and food began to spoil.  FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) began setting up PODs (Point of Distribution) for ice, water and MREs (Meals Ready to Eat); curfews were imposed from 9 pm to 6 am.  Doesn’t that remind you of the real life scenarios in war-torn countries? Isn’t that ironic that Houston, being the oil capital of the world with abundant refineries, was hard pressed with pumping gas because of power outages?  It was either service stations with lots of gas but without power to pump or those with power back on but sold out underground storage supply, while trucks were not able to replenish the fuel because of refinery shutdowns.  A real catch-22 situation, indeed! The annoying noisy humming of electric generators and chain saws was the order of the day.  Luckily, they would only last insofar their supply of gasoline would permit.

I almost forgot the poor koi while clearing debris in the backyard.  The aerator and filter had ceased to function 24 hours ago.  With exceptional understanding, the koi hid underneath the footbridge for shade.  They came up for air and longed to be patted, as I would normally do every morning before feeding.  I cleared the fallen twigs from the water and rigged up portable air pumps, using D-batteries for their survival.  Man, were they ever relieved!

Sunday night was the autumn moon festival.  The moon seemed extraordinary bright and full because of the darkened background of the whole city.  While amusing myself sitting on the deck underneath the battered arbor, the lights came on at precisely 9:20 for about 2 minutes, then went off for half an hour and came back on permanently for good.  Only a handful of blocks in our neighborhood had the power restored.  For whatever reasons, I never bothered to find out, lest somebody would be envious and angry.  As of this writing, 10 days after Ike landfall, some neighbors still do not have power.  For that matter, 38% of the 2.5 million users in the Houston area are still in the dark, so to speak. 

This sudden windfall of electrical power was too much to bear.  We closed all the windows so as to enjoy the air-conditioning and promptly cooked a hearty supper to supplement my corn-beef and cabbage dinner earlier.  We even cut the moon cake to celebrate the occasion.  Our tap water was still at a trickle.  We had to take a shower virtually by drops and flushed the toilet using the water we filled in the bathtub three days earlier.  Because of low pressure, the City advised us to boil water for fear of contamination.  Now, we went back to modern day life style and slept soundly for the night.  I wondered how many millions of Houstonians were still suffering. 

Upon learning that we were the chosen few in these darkened days, friends and relatives began to descend upon us for favors, which we were more than happy to oblige.  They brought their half-melted frozen food items to store in our freezer.  We would make ice for them to take back so as to prolong their dwindling food reserve in their coolers. For a while, our house was much like a quasi take-out food services and Laundromat, as some even brought their soiled underwear and clothing to take advantage of our washer and drier.  Remember, we did dish washing and laundries a few hours before Ike arrived.  

For those who voluntarily evacuated a few days earlier now came back to find out, among other damages, their power had been off all the time.  The musty, un-circulated air inside and the foul odor from spoiled food dampened their welcoming home spirit. Needless to say, they were in a real dilemma—no food and nowhere to buy food; low on fuel and didn’t dare to drive around to search for fuel.  We gave some of them surplus food.  The mandatory returnees from Galveston were treated more harshly even under “Look and Leave” mandate because their whole city was without power, running water and operating sewage system.  I learned a new jargon: U loot, I shoot.  Hurricane Ike did not discriminate.  It inflicted damages across the board—rich and poor.  It was an equalizer.  With power restoration nowhere in sight and without replenishing gasoline, the generators could only perform limited hours.  Sooner or later, food would be spoiled.  Unashamedly, some well-to-doers were seen lining up at FEMA PODs, located even in a more affluent neighborhood (2nd Baptist Church parking lot), for ice, water and MRE.  Why not, federal dollars from your taxes were well spent?

Urban Lumberjack Frank

Urban Lumberjack Frank

For the last seven days, I, with chain-saw and hard hat, reduced the downed branches to manageable size and hauled them out by the curbside.  The pile measured 5’x15’x7’, an impressive buildup, no matter what.  I followed the instructions: tree waste, trash, and wooden fence separately.  An Alabama contractor picked up my big pile and one other big one on our block.  The operator would not pick up the rest because he argued that their piles were too small and that they did not conform to the instructions given by the City of Houston Solid Waste Department.  I guess it pays to follow instructions and that size matters. 

My Poor Neighbor

My Poor Neighbor

For the last 10 days, I worked as a janitor, gardener, urban lumberjack, carpenter and whatever chores, from dawn till dusk, around the house to restore it back to its pre-Ike days.  Direct hit of hurricane occurs once every 25 years.  We don’t have earthquakes as in California, snow storms as in the upstate east-coast, flooding in the Mississippi valleys, or tornados in the Midwest.  For that, I am quite satisfied with living in the Houston area.  In terms of a painful-damage index, I would rank residents of Galveston as 10, those from the dirty side as Baytown, Bayport, Kemah etc. as 7, Kingwood and other heavy treed subdivision as 5, and I (with power back the 2nd day) as 1.  Having survived Alicia (’83), Rita (’05) and Ike (’08) unscathed, I know what to expect and prepare for the next major hurricane.  To all Houston newcomers, please call on me for hurricane experience!

Frank Yu, Houston