Searching for Hurricane Ike Victims

Some may never be found.

The airboat's engine burned out while ferrying members of J.R. Santana's crew back to Bolivar. Since that flat-­bottomed craft propelled by a giant fan was the only method of transportation to and from Goat Island, Santana and half of his search crew found themselves stranded on their first day.

It was December 15 and they had just finished a sweep of Bolivar Peninsula for the nine residents still reported missing from the area since Hurricane Ike. Finding no one, they had shifted their attention to Goat Island, Bolivar's uninhabited neighbor half a mile to the north, with renewed determination. Now they were stuck on what Santana had dubbed Papa Goat, the largest of three landmasses that make up Goat Island.

With daylight slipping away, Santana wasn't sure what they were going to do. They had set up a base of operations at dawn, but it wasn't adequate for an overnight stay. Ike had swept hundreds of homes off Bolivar and turned them into mountains of debris carpeting Papa Goat's marshlands. Wood planks covered in nails, roof tiles and insulation made for excellent hiding spots for snakes and even alligators. Javelinas, aggressive wild boars with straight, sharp tusks, roamed the high grass. Santana hoped he wouldn't be spending the night.

The crew pulled a body out from under ten feet of debris and wrapped it in a Texas flag.
Courtesy J.R. Santana
The crew pulled a body out from under ten feet of debris and wrapped it in a Texas flag.

The airboat was the second one to fail that day. The first one hadn't even been able to keep out water, despite the quality assurances of the guys from Louisiana who had brought it over. He had sent them away in disgust. Now he was ordering a third that the crew members back on Bolivar could pick up. He didn't know how long that would take. It was windy out, and the temperature was dropping. Around midnight, he phoned the Coast Guard.

Coast Guard officials refused to pick the team up because, they said, the group was on land and in no imminent danger. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, the third airboat made it. Cold and exhausted, Santana and the rest of his crew hopped on and got off the island, so they could get some rest and be back at 6 a.m.

A week later, just two days before Christmas, his crew remained motivated and energetic, but Santana worried over whether he'd made mistakes and not put together the right team. As a funeral director who has taken contracts as a cadaver search team leader for the past 20 years, he knows that things go wrong all the time. "You could search a lifetime searching through the piles of debris [on Goat Island]," he says. They didn't know if the people they were looking for were even there.

Split into three teams each with a cadaver dog certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the crew picked through Papa Goat. The dogs ran loose, always obedient to the commands of their handlers. One of the teams approached a site where a body had been discovered on the surface more than a month before. Immediately, the dog sprinted up ten feet of debris in a beeline to a spot about 150 yards from where the body had been found. Barking persistently, the dog stayed put despite calls from his handler.

Santana heard "Gatorade" come through his shortwave radio — it's the crew's code word for body. He joined the team and had excavators brought in by barge. After the machinery tunneled through the ruins, the team sifted through the remainder of the debris by hand.

There, under ten feet of debris, they discovered a body. Somberly, they wrapped it in the Texas flag.

Eight people are still missing from the Bolivar area. Meanwhile, over at the Galveston County Medical Examiner's office, there are still five unidentified bodies. That the families of those missing don't have closure resonates deeply with Santana. Years ago, one of his relatives went missing. She had been abducted and killed, and his family had no hope for peace until her body was found.

Santana, president of Santana Funeral Directors of Baytown, headed his first major search operation ten years ago. An explosion had resulted in eight deaths in an industrial accident. Since then he's taken many contracts as search coordinator after natural disasters, accidents and murders. Small in stature, he speaks softly and enunciates every syllable clearly and slowly as if speaking at a funeral service.

"You can rebuild a house, a business, even a whole community," he says, "but you can never buy peace of mind for a family who still don't have an answer to what happened to their loved ones."

It angers him that it was three months after Ike before the first organized search was put together.

Santana was contracted by the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management to coordinate the second search operation on Bolivar Peninsula — but his was really the first professionally organized search. Volunteer crews with canine teams had covered the area from the tip of the peninsula to High Island. Without heavy equipment, they were unable to get to the bottom of several dense debris fields.

Santana's teams started their search on Bolivar on December 2. They retraced the steps of the volunteer dog teams. Where the volunteer teams' dogs had picked up a scent near heavy debris, the teams had tagged the location as an area of interest. Santana's crew revisited these spots, covered in bright fluorescent tape. His crew's dogs picked up nothing. Santana had heavy equipment clear the debris anyway. At each location, they found only the remains of birds or domestic animals.

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