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Inside the Fire Zone: LSS Disaster Response, Texas Wildfires

Fallen tree in Bastrop - Reuters photo

It is hard to believe that we are now on day 11 since the wildfires ignited in Central Texas … and the Bastrop Complex Fire continues to burn. The good news is that the fire is now 70% contained. The bad news today was that the winds were forecast to pick up somewhat again, making further containment challenging for the firefighters and elevating fears of new and growing fires. All of Central Texas – actually all of Texas – remains on edge as this historical, devastating drought continues.

Mark Minick, who oversees our Disaster Response efforts, and I had an opportunity to visit Bastrop earlier this week, to meet with our partner agencies, which are doing incredible emergency and early response work, and to see the devastation firsthand. When you drive into Bastrop from Austin on Highway 71, everything looked parched from the drought, but there were no initial signs of the wildfires.

Support Network In Place

As we drove further into town, we began noticing insurance adjuster RVs parked throughout the area, camped out ready to assist their clients. We drove by a Ford dealership with piles, actually mounds, of donated clothing in a far edge of the parking lot. Driving into historical downtown Bastrop, the evidence of the disaster grows, as we passed the FEMA mobile Disaster Recovery Center on our way to the Bastrop Convention Center which is serving as the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for the wildfires. There were emergency vehicles and mobile command posts from Bastrop, Round Rock, Austin, and many other communities throughout the State. Mark and I were fortunate to be able to spend some time in the EOC, talking with FEMA, the State, our friends at Austin Disaster Relief Network and others, as we all work to piece together support for survivors during these early relief phases.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the EOC is the seemingly endless lists of addresses and maps taped to the front windows, letting evacuees know the current status of their homes … or what used to be their homes. My stomach churned as I observed survivors approaching the windows, running their fingers down the list to see if their addresses were included as among those lost. The authorities are permitting evacuees to re-enter the affected neighborhoods throughout this week, one neighborhood at a time. This doesn’t mean they get to return home if their homes are still standing; no utilities will be functioning for one, two, three weeks or more. Some will return to a house standing in a neighborhood of loss, elated that their home is still there, yet mourning the changes around them. Others will return to ash and rubble.

The Damage: Random and Remarkable

One thing that struck me as we drove east of Bastrop on Highway 71 entering the fire zone, was how endless the damage seemed to be, yet how randomly it spared certain parcels of land and pieces of property. Just east of the city, as the Lost Pines area begins, it is blatantly obvious that the fires swept across the highway. Nearly every blade of grass in the median is charred black, and the pine trees on either side show various stages of destruction. Some areas look like the grass burned, but not the trees. Then, other areas, as you drive up and down the beautiful rolling hills, look like a moonscape with giant, scorched twigs jutting up from the barren land. In these areas you can look back through what was once a thick pine forest and see blankets of ash, smoking ground, melted homes, shells of vehicles, and no sign of life. And then, all of a sudden, there will be a house standing, untouched, in the middle of the devastation. It is haunting and remarkable.

Hurricane Ike – 3-Year Anniversary

Mark and I then drove on to Galveston, Texas, to mark the third anniversary of Hurricane Ike, which made landfall on September 13, 2008. We spent the morning of the anniversary at a local event celebrating the collective accomplishments of the recovery and recognizing the work that still needs to be done. Through LSSDR’s work alone, we helped provide disaster case management to over 8,100 households through our Recovery for Ike Survivors Enterprise (RISE) case management program, connecting survivors to nearly $30 million in recovery services. Our rebuild and volunteer coordination staff has helped contribute directly to the rebuilding of nearly 250 homes, and we continue that work. LSSDR’s work is one example of the incredible work accomplished by countless nonprofit and community-based agencies in Galveston County that have come together, pooled resources, advocated for survivors, and pieced together a robust local long-term recovery effort, touching the lives of tens of thousands of survivors. It is amazing what can be accomplished through collaboration and cooperation.

Two Disasters, Common Goals

As we drove back through Bastrop on the anniversary of Hurricane Ike, it was interesting to contrast and compare the two disasters. Hurricane Ike was one of the most devastating storms to ever hit the Texas Coast. The Bastrop fire is one of the most devastating fires to wreak havoc on the Texas landscape. Thousands of citizens lost or experienced significant damage to their homes, in both the hurricane and the wildfires. Both disasters will take years to recover from and the communities will be forever changed because of them. Yet, there is the resilience of the survivors and communities that stands strong.

I remember sitting with nonprofit directors, government officials, and survivors on Galveston Island three years ago, all of us wondering where to begin. We are all doing the same in Bastrop now. The answer is, you just begin. You work together, you collaborate, you advocate, you cry, you laugh, you find beauty in the small things … and in a few days, a few weeks, a few months, a few years, things will be better.

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