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After Ike, Bridge City Residents Await Return Home

September 17, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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Despite ongoing hurricane relief efforts in Bridge City, Texas, residents remain barred from returning to their homes. Tom Bearden reports on the destruction and the latest developments.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, the story of a small town hit hard by Hurricane Ike. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports from Bridge City, Texas.

HURRICANE VICTIM: Oh, my gosh.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: This is what the main street of Bridge City, Texas, looked like right after Hurricane Ike passed over. A volunteer fireman shot this footage as he and his colleagues returned to the city early Saturday morning after the eye of the storm had passed.

And this is what it looks like now. The water has receded, only to uncover widespread devastation.

Bridge City is one of a string of small towns that line up along the Texas-Louisiana border about 20 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. From the air, it’s quickly apparent that the neighborhoods closest to waterways were inundated by anywhere from two to eight feet of water.

Block-by-block damage assessments are just now getting under way in most Gulf Coast communities, so no one can accurately quantify how much damage there actually has been, but indications are that Bridge City has been hit much harder than most.

The walls of some houses were simply stripped away, oddly leaving the roof intact but completely trashing the interior. That’s what happened to John and Sheila Wheeler’s house.

Friends and relatives were helping them recover what they could. They were being careful. A neighbor’s pit bull had taken up residence in the kitchen.

JOHN WHEELER: I’m still in shock, kind of, so I haven’t really thought about it. And I’ll sit down in a couple of days, and I’ll try to go back to work.

TOM BEARDEN: What’s all this stuff in the yard?

SHEILA WHEELER: This is swamp grass, moss weed.

TOM BEARDEN: Sheila Wheeler was very close to tears as she surveyed the damage.

SHEILA WHEELER: When we first drove up on the side, that the brick was OK, and I thought, “OK, well, it’s going to be OK.” And I really expected it just to be wet inside and the bricks would still be standing. And when we drove up and saw all the brick out, it’s kind of shocking.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you want to rebuild here?

SHEILA WHEELER: Yes.

TOM BEARDEN: Why?

SHEILA WHEELER: Well, it’s mine and John’s first home, and we like the view.

TOM BEARDEN: The view is the reason all this stuff is here.

SHEILA WHEELER: Well, you go up further north, and you have tornadoes, and you’ll have that there, too, and just, I mean, there’s just always problems somewhere. You’ve just got to hope for the best.

Thick mud covers everything

TOM BEARDEN: Drowned animals litter the neighborhood. There's a dead pig on this street; the carcass of a cow partially eaten by alligators is just down the block.

Many neighborhoods are coated with several inches of a viscous, smelly, black mud. It's inside the houses, too. This is Tammy Whatley's (ph) home. Her friend and a neighbor stopped by to lend support.

Unlike the Wheelers' house, Whatley (ph) thinks the structure itself might be salvageable, but not the contents.

DARRELL BROWN, Assistant Fire Chief, Denton County: And we've just got crews broke up into the various quadrants of the city.

TOM BEARDEN: Firemen from Denton County, near Dallas, were going door to door in the Whatleys' (ph) neighborhood, turning off utilities and hoping they wouldn't find bodies.

DARRELL BROWN: Just trying to go door-to-door, doing welfare checks, and just see what -- you know, make sure everybody is out and that everybody is safe. I mean, that's the big deal. A lot of people, believe it or not, didn't evacuate.

TOM BEARDEN: How do you feel about those that didn't evacuate?

DARRELL BROWN: That puts us in danger. I mean, we're here to help. I mean, that's our calling; that's what we're doing.

But, you know, don't make my family have to, you know, possibly suffer loss just because you chose not to leave harm's way when you knew it was coming for several days.

TOM BEARDEN: The team from Dallas and several others from around the state were brought in to assist Bridge City's all-volunteer fire department.

Chief Dickie Uzzle, who lost his own home, says his firemen conducted about 500 rescues in the first few days after the storm. He estimates that about 20 percent of the city's 8,000 residents chose to ride out the hurricane.

Why do you think they didn't go?

DICKIE UZZLE, Chief, Bridge County Fire Department: We had a storm several weeks ago. And a lot of people said they couldn't afford to leave, I mean, or else they just chose not to.

TOM BEARDEN: He says some of the rescues were downright surreal.

Any one in particular stand out to you?

DICKIE UZZLE: We had one in an area over there -- we had four people on a house, two adults, two children, a dog, and a monkey. You don't have that every day. Then we had a bull, a bull, a 1,200-pound red brangus.

TOM BEARDEN: The bull wound up in the department's barbecue pit.

Nearly all of the town's 50 firefighters lost their homes, and many are now camped out at the fire station. Chief Uzzle says about 95 percent of the town's structures were under up to eight feet of water.

DICKIE UZZLE: Well, it looks like a giant put them in a shoebox, jumped them up and down, and then dumped them out in a pool of muddy water. It's going to be a while.

Problems with the electrical grid

TOM BEARDEN: Businesses also suffered, like the Bayou Trading Company Antique Shop on the main drag. Owners Byron Buchanan (ph) and Michael Eiden were pulling out merchandise they hoped to salvage.

MICHAEL EIDEN: It seems like a superfluous business at this time, but we've had some people stop by even today. So I think sometimes, when people are recovering like this, they just need a break. They need something to get their mind off of it.

TOM BEARDEN: Most residents are just beginning to trickle back into Orange County. For many, the first stop is a Red Cross distribution center like this one in the town of Orange.

RED CROSS VOLUNTEER: Good afternoon. They are serving hot meals at Old First North Orange Baptist Church.

TOM BEARDEN: Volunteers distribute food and water, as long as supplies hold out each day. They've also distributed thousands of military meal packs, and they hope to have a kitchen up and running soon to provide hot food.

Janie Johnson runs the Orange County Red Cross chapter.

JANIE JOHNSON, American Red Cross, Orange County: Today, we have water, we have sheets, blankets, limited diapers. And the trucks filled with those supplies until those MREs are coming back.

TOM BEARDEN: Johnson says nearly everybody in the community is pitching in.

JANIE JOHNSON: Everyone is ready to help their neighbor, help their family, step up to the plate, and do what needs to be done to get life as close to normal as we're going to have it.

TOM BEARDEN: And it's not going to be normal for a while.

JANIE JOHNSON: No, it's not.

TOM BEARDEN: One of the things that won't be normal for a while is the power system. The electrical grid serving large parts of east Texas and Louisiana has suffered widespread damage, both from Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Gustav nearly three weeks ago.

Entergy, the regional utility that supplied the helicopter we used, says it's going to take a considerable amount of time to restore power. In addition to downed transmission lines, project manager Marlin Mullins says they have to clean up and repair power plants like the Sabine unit.

MARLIN MULLINS, Entergy: The plant sustained about 4.5 foot of water surge volume across the entire site during the actual storm. I don't have a good assessment. As you can see, there were some damage to the cooling towers below, and I'm not sure what their total capacity is right now.

TOM BEARDEN: The emotions of the people we talked to run the gamut from gallows humor to near despair, understandable reactions if there's three feet of damp, smelly swamp grass inside your house and dead animals in the yard.

Some say they're going to rebuild immediately; others say they'll have to think about it. A few say, if it happens again, they'll leave for good.