And an afterthought:
Two weeks after Ike, more than 400 are still missing
By LISE OLSEN
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 28, 2008, 1:40AM
Gail Ettenger made her last phone call at 10:10 p.m. She was trapped in her Bolivar Peninsula bungalow with her Great Dane, Reba. A drowning cat cried outside. Her Jeep bobbed in the seawater surging around her home.
Ettenger, 58, told her friend she was reading old love letters by flashlight. "I think I really screwed up this time," she said, according to Monroe Burks, Ettenger's neighbor who had evacuated to Houston.
That was Friday, Sept 12. On Wednesday " 12 days later " her body was found face down by a huge debris pile in a remote mosquito-ridden marsh in Chambers County, about 10 miles inland from where her gray beach house once stood.
Two weeks after Hurricane Ike swept through the Texas coast, 400 people remain missing, mostly from Galveston County, according to an analysis of calls logged to a hot line set up by the nonprofit Laura Recovery Center to assist local authorities.
Until Wednesday, Ettenger was one of them.
About 60 of the missing lived on the Bolivar Peninsula, stripped bare by the storm surge that felled beach houses like a bomb. More than 200 were listed as missing on Galveston Island itself, according to a city-by-city analysis of the data conducted for the Houston Chronicle by Bob Walcutt, executive director of the recovery center in Friendswood.
Hot line and rescue workers hope that many people, especially on Galveston Island, will be reunited with family and friends as hurricane recovery efforts continue. More than 145 already have been located through blogs, media Web sites, Red Cross shelter lists, endless phone calls, welfare checks and sometimes dramatic rescues led by the Galveston County Sheriff's Office and other agencies.
Yet disturbing tales told by survivors from Bolivar communities like Gilchrist, Crystal Beach and Port Bolivar suggest some may never return.
"There's still lots of people who are not accounted for," said Capt. Rod Ousley, of the State Parks & Wildlife Service, which is helping to search for survivors or bodies in remote corners of several coastal counties. "We don't know if they got washed out to sea, or buried in the sand or in debris piles. We just keep looking until they come up ... we're just going to keep trying."
Too late for rescue
Still missing is the grandmother of 16-year-old Jerrith Baird. Baird told the Chronicle that Jennifer Mclemore, 58, refused to abandon her beach house in the village of Gilchrist, despite his pleas that she retreat to High Island, where he lives. Mclemore believed her home, battered and rebuilt after Hurricane Rita, could survive a Category 2 storm.
When the first waves of seawater started to flood Gilchrist early on Sept. 12, Baird called the Coast Guard, begging for her rescue. "They said they were doing the best they could," he said. "But by the time they got around to it, the wind was too high. They couldn't fly."
Flights were suspended after about 100 people were rescued from the peninsula, leaving at least 150 still stranded, according to a Sept. 13 Coast Guard press release.
Mclemore holed up at home with her pit bull Hoodoo. At 8 p.m., her cell phone went dead, her worried grandson on the other end.
The next morning, Baird set out to find her the only way he could: he kayaked with a friend about eight miles through the marshes and debris along the ravaged coastline.
"There's really nothing left of Gilchrist. We were kayaking over our friends' cars that were out there that got washed away. It wasn't fun. I was just in total shock," he said.
Hours later, Baird reached the spot where his grandmother's house had stood. Nothing remained except a few snapped pilings, he said.
The search for survivors is an arduous one, stymied by the size and scope of the storm, which propelled wrecked boats as far south as Padre Island.
A handful of volunteer fire department members have led the search on the peninsula itself. Meanwhile, dozens of sheriff's deputies, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Texas State Parks & Wildlife Department wardens are patrolling vast marshlands and other remote areas, including roadless sections of Chambers County where storm debris fields stretch for miles.
Airboats, four-wheelers, search dogs and helicopters are being used to scour areas where the water and wind blew cars, homes and animals, creating seemingly insurmountable piles of wreckage and waste.
"Some of these debris piles are real, real tall and real real wild areas with nothing but boards and nails and snakes and alligators and mosquitoes," Ousley said. "This is some of the hardest recovery efforts we've ever faced with the storm surge and what all it moved and the debris that moved with it."
Washed off road?
Searchers confirm they've also spotted countless cars in the floodwaters and marshes. It's impossible to tell which were once occupied, though so far no bodies have been reported recovered from vehicles sticking out above water. Submerged vehicles are not being searched.
Raul "Roy" Arrambide last heard from his mother, sister and nephew as the three prepared to evacuate by car from Port Bolivar.
Just after 6 a.m. Sept. 12, his sister, Magdalena Strickland, 51, called from the house to say they were leaving. The family's 2000 white Ford Taurus and 1993 maroon Ford pickup were loaded and idling in the driveway. It was a quick call, since Strickland was eager to go.
His mother, Marion Violet Arrambide, 79, along with Strickland and Arrambide's nephew, Shane Williams, 33, had planned to evacuate to Arrambide's house near Dallas. They had two vehicles but no cell phone. They never arrived.
Roy Arrambide fears they were washed off the road.
After the storm, he hired an airboat to visit the area, where he saw dozens of submerged cars in the floodwaters and marshes along the peninsula's lone low-lying highway. But neither he nor anyone else has found his relatives or their vehicles. The house they left behind was damaged but intact.
Eight people, mostly from the Crystal Beach Volunteer Fire Department, have formed the core of continuing search efforts on the peninsula, though the members of Texas Task Force 2 came to conduct rescues, house-to-house reviews and provide other assistance.
"We have not gotten enough help, we're worn out," said Shawn Hall, a member of the High Island Volunteer Fire Department who said he joined the VFD search team for 12 days straight. "We have not had the resources to do the proper searches that need to done." He said they have relied on airboats provided by out-of-state volunteers.
So far, Galveston County Sheriff's Office officials, busy with searches themselves, have not allowed volunteers from Texas' EquuSearch, a nonprofit that specializes in searches, to respond to requests from families of 18 missing people on the peninsula, according to Tim Miller, its executive director.
Also unaccounted for are several transient beach residents who lived in travel trailers on the waterfront in places like Rollover Pass and San Leon.
'She needed to count'
Relatives and friends of the missing said they will keep pushing authorities to expand searches and to establish reliable and complete lists of missing persons.
"I didn't want the same thing in Galveston as in New Orleans, where they had all these unclaimed people after Hurricane Katrina," said JoAnnBurks, who was Gail Ettenger's neighbor and close friend. "I didn't want that for Gail. She needed to count."
Ettenger, a contract chemist who worked for ExxonMobil in Beaumont, loved living at the beach. She rose before dawn each day to walk with Reba, an aging black and white spotted Great Dane who looked like a Holstein calf.
Outside, Ettenger grew towering birds of paradise. Inside, she filled her bungalow with mementos: a wolfskin from New Mexico, a collection of nautical antiques and endless snapshots of Reba and beach sunsets.
All is lost now. Even Reba.