Bob French's Return to the Bolivar Peninsula

By: Bob French + Jordan Meserole Email
By: Bob French + Jordan Meserole Email

Time and time again, the images have been splashed across television screens nationwide: large trees snapped like toothpicks, boats leaning against houses miles from the beach, and barren land where numerous houses once stood.

For some, it's just another news report about another natural disaster.

For others, it strikes a little closer to home.

Bob French, Chief Meteorologist with KBTX television, has been forecasting the weather for more than 30 years. He's seen the images just like everyone else. And when Bob watched as Hurricane Ike took a direct aim at the northern Texas coast in early September, he was watching for more than just the fact that it was part of his job.

And when he saw the first images from the Bolivar Peninsula, located just a few miles north up the coast from Galveston, Bob knew the house that had been owned by his family for more than 50 years was probably gone.

So just like any other home owner, he had to go back and see for himself.

As the sun began to rise over the horizon, Bob quietly slipped into the driver's seat, focused on his mission ahead of him. It was a long drive to Crystal Beach where his home was, and the entire peninsula was still on lock-down -- everyone had to be vacated from the area by 6 p.m.

About 30 miles from the coast, near the town of Winnie, signs of the true destruction began to show. A few electrical poles had a slight lean to them, and some houses had blue tarps nailed to the roof. And as the drive continued, Bob began to gather how powerful the storm really was.

"See how brown everything is now? That means the salt water got this far inland. And we're still 12 miles from the coast It's pretty amazing to think the gulf got this far inland. Oh! I just saw some debris piled up in the top of a tree," French said, pointing to some small metal pieces tangled high in the limbs of a tree.

A few miles more, and the plants all around the car began to turn a deep brown, as if a deep drought had hit the area. Power poles were now snapped at the base instead of just leaning. Houses still had all their windows boarded up, as if no one had been there since the storm.

"So far all we've seen is the dead vegetation or trees blown down further inland. And now the power line damage. It definitely amazes me that it got this far inland. Because of a category 2 or 3 hurricane, if Ike even were officially considered a [category] 3, I wouldn't have ever pictured the storm surge coming this far inland," French said.

After passing trough the town of High Island, a glimmer of sunlight reflected off the ocean a short distance down the road. The sight was slightly peaceful, and brought Bob back positive memories of drives to the coast with his family, but he also knew it couldn't mean good things being able to see the beach from so far back.

"This is totally different than I was here four weeks before Ike. We used to not be able to see the beach here, there were sand dunes there," French said. "And the beach is all the way up here. I'd say it eroded about 30 or 40 feet inland. The beach is almost all the way up to Highway 87!"

After turning onto the stretch of Highway 87 -- the only road onto and off the Bolivar Peninsula -- Bob saw the first signs of what Ike had done to the area. About a quarter-mile back from the coast in what was once a green marshland, a truck lied sideways.

"Look at that truck! And there's other cars further out in the marsh! My goodness! Can you imagine the force of the water that washed those things out there?" French said.

A few more miles down the road, and the images that had been played over and over again on the national news, suddenly became real.

"You can see how the storm surge got up, and none of these beach cabins survived. There's not much of anything left. There were a few structures that stood..these brand new houses did stand. Still, everything is gone but the new power lines," French said.

The further down the Bolivar Peninsula Bob traveled, the higher the debris piles got. A gas station's sign somehow still stood, while the building itself was shredded beyond repair. The facade of a grocery store and shopping center appeared to have no damage, but the sides of the building had washed away long ago when the surge rolled through. A small red house sat less than 40 feet from the roadway, obviously moved from its original plot of land.

This is the area that offically recorded water as high as 14.5 feet above normal, which can't be taken as an accurate reading since that's also the point when the guage stopped working. Some estimates have the water reaching as high as 20 feet above normal, with waves cresting another four to eight feet above that. Which is why Bob isn't surprised as he sees so much of the damage.

"Hurricanes by nature are water storms. Even though they are driven by wind, the main destructive force and the main killer has been the storm surge -- the water. And Ike showed that even a medium sized hurricane could have a deadly and destructive storm surge," French said.

The car slowed to a sluggish pace as Bob tried to use landmarks to determine which street his house was on. And then he sees it -- a giant piece of plywood spray painted with a street name, telling him he's arrived.

"We're about a quarter of a mile back from the beach....that big blue three story looking thing on the other side of the little pine tree was built just last summer. And that was in the neighborhood over there. Everything from here to the beach that I grew up with is gone. Every single thing," French said, his voice quivering slightly.

After pausing for a moment in silence, Bob slowly drove the car down the street, which was still covered heavily with sand. Trash littered the ground. Cars were flipped up-side-down. Dead trees no longer stood straight towards the sky, but instead now leaned away from the coast.

A few hundred yards from the water, Bob stopped the car and surveyed his old neighborhood. But rather than seeing his grandfather's old home or he and his wife's family vacation home, all he saw were wooden pilings sticking out of the ground that once hoisted the houses into the air.

As Bob stepped out onto the sand that once had green grass, only a light breeze broke up the eerie silence. He carefully navigated around piles of what looked like trash that was once actually someone's belongings.

"That was my in-law's cabin up there. The cabin that my grandfather built is on this next road. And there's absolutely nothing," French said. "But this is literally where the cabin was. Several of the pilings are still here. The pilings from the other end of the cabin are gone. But this was my mother-in-law's hibiscus and her rose bus. I recognize the thorns right there."

Bob continued to move around a small area that was surrounded by the wooden pilings, his eyes focused on the ground. He recognized a few things: a wagon that he used to haul his children to the beach in, a riding lawn mower, and a CD player, but nothing that could be saved.

"The amazing thing is that most of the house, the boards, the roof, the windows, everything else you would think there would be a sign of it somewhere, there's nothing," French said.

On this day, Bob wasn't the only one coming back to check on the damage. As he made his way back towards the elderly couple picking things out of the sand, Bob immediately recognizes them as his neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Stone. The Stones had lived in Crystal Beach for more than 30 years.

Standing together on an exposed concrete slab, the three shared stories from the neighborhood and tried to visualize where other neighbor's houses once stood.

"It's hard to tell whose place you're even in right now. Because everything looks so much different. It doesn't even look like the same place anymore. It looks like where a bomb dropped," said Robert Stone.

Though the Stone's home has also been washed away, they were able to find something to take home with them as a memory. Clutched tightly in Mrs. Stone's hand are a small cup and bowl, the yellow color and painted flowers still slightly covered with sand.

"The houses can go and the furniture can go, but you can't wash away those wonderful times you've had with your family," said Nettie Stone.

Bob moved back up the road towards the beach, where the cabin that his grandfather built once stood. And though his family had sold the home a few years back, Bob described the lot as if it had never left his family -- it was a house he had come to since he was six years old after all.

"There was a house there, and one here, another there and another at the end of the road. And the same on this side. And then the house my grandfather built was over here. And there's absolutely nothing," French said.

All that remained was a concrete slab cracked into four giant pieces and parts of a wooden stairway that went to the deck. Even the eight-foot tall sand dunes that once stood in front of the house were also gone. But there was one thing that had stayed.

"This is the beach I swam in all my life," French said, his eyes scanning the sand and water in front of him. "And the one my kids grew up coming to. And my wife. And my parents. And my grandparents. Everybody. Of course, our houses weren't always here. Now they're gone, the beach is still here."

But there was one thing still noticeably different, that made it feel like a different beach to Bob.

"You're thinking, you're standing on the beach. But yeah, we're on the beach, but you look and see where did the beach stop and the houses start? Literally, right where you see the poles here and all the way up and down the beach, there were houses," French said.

As Bob slowly made his way back to the car, he paused for a moment, looking back at all the destruction in font of him.

"This reaffirms that a hurricane is basically a water storm. Yes, wind and tornadoes that are spawned by hurricanes do cause damage. And rain and flooding do damage. But the most destructive ting of a hurricane is a storm surge. And this is the first time in my adult life I've seen it firsthand. Because we always knew the Bolivar Peninsula was vulnerable to something like this, but to actually see it washed away like this, it just strikes awe in you," French said.

While he snapped a few pictures for his wife to see, Bob kept scanning the ground. And then, he saw it.

"My wife's not going to believe it!" French shouted in true exuberance as he scooped sand behind him, using his hands like small shovels.

When the sand was removed, Bob carefully held up a large salad bowl, scooping the remaining sand out of the concave part of the bowl. To others, it might have been just a bowl, but to Bob, it was one small family memory that hadn't been broken or washed away by the hurricane.

As the sun starts to tilt towards the western horizon, Bob headed back to the car, knowing that he'd have to be off the peninsula soon. As he passed some American flags sticking out of the ground and some workers installing new electrical lines and poles, Bob realized that the storm may have washed away almost everything, caused billions of dollars in damage, and took numerous lives, but it didn't wash away the people's spirit.

"They're planning to rebuild the peninsula. There's no doom and gloom in this place, there's only optimism," French said. "I guess people knew how precious this place was. And they're going to rebuild. They're not just going to try. It looks like they're going to."

Before Bob French left the peninsula, he ran across another resident from his neighborhood. Her house was one of the few that made it through the storm. But as Bob began to ask her questions, he discovered the not only had her house survived the storm, but so had she. The following is her story in the second part of Bob French's return to the Bolivar Peninsula.

"Right now the house is hardly supported. This piling over here is also torn away," Carole Hamadey said as she pointed at a wooden piling laying on the ground.

Carole knows she's lucky. After Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas coast, not many houses were left standing.

"You see how it took the heater air conditioning out? It ripped the screens out! It's a miracle it didn't break the windows. Look what it did to everything."

This was Carole's livelihood. Once a bustling bed and breakfast for newlyweds and vacationers in Crystal Beach, she now has to rebuild what the hurricane destroyed.

But she knows how fortunate she is to have anything to rebuild.

"From the window to about here, there's still mud on the hardwood floor that I just had put in. And the carpet is ruined on the other side where the water came in."

A little mud doesn't bother Carole though. She feels lucky that her house didn't float away like the others around her.

Because she would have perished with it.

"I don't know how we lived. It was a miracle we lived. And I don't know how. We just prayed and prayed and prayed."

It is a miracle that Carole lived through one of the largest hurricanes to hit the Texas coast in a long time. Bigger than Hurricane Katrina at one point, the storm surge flooded the only roads off of the Bolivar Peninsula before Carole could flee to safety.

"There were no words to express it. The whole gulf was coming in as fast as my hand was moving. The gulf was coming up the road. Like this."

So Carole and two of her neighbors did the only thing they could…they boarded up the windows and waited for the worst to come.

And it came quickly.

"By 12 noon, water was high. By 12 noon, there were washing machines going by me, I couldn't count the toilets, couldn't count the coolers, people's garages were coming down."

One by one, Carole watched as the houses around her succumbed to the 18-foot storm surge, with waves cresting at another 10 feet.

"There's no words to express it." "It's just when the waves came in, and the surge and the winds started, the noise was unbearable. It was just swish swish. Everything was gone. It wasn't like it left pilings of people's belongings there. It was swept clean by the water."

And for a moment, at the height of the storm, as she struggled to keep one of her windows from being torn out, Carole thought her house would be next.

"I was still praying, God please stop, please stop, please stop. Because I knew we couldn't hold on much longer. Because you know, it was such a sucking power, you knew when it sucked the window back out, it was taking the whole thing. Everything was taken out this far. The whole thing would go down. That whole thing was coming out. So I knew that when that came out, we were going to go with it. We were going to go with it. That's all there was. When did we know we were safe? I kept praying to please stop, please."

Eventually, it did stop. But not before it had done its damage.

"The next morning, it was like, you're in shock. You can't believe it. We looked out, and I can only express to you that it looked like being on the moon. With hardly any houses around you."

And even after her horrific experience, Carole is determined to reopen her bed and breakfast.

Because she was one of the lucky few to have something to rebuild.

KBTX-TV Channel 3 4141 E. 29th Street Bryan, TX 77802 Phone: (979) 846-7777 Fax: (979) 846-1490 News Fax: (979) 846-1888
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