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

Searching for Hurricane Ike Victims

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.


Hurricane Ike victims

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.

FEMA doesn't normally aid in victim-­recovery operations, but made an exception for Ike as it did with Katrina. Galveston County still had to foot 25 percent of the bill.

Santana was criticized because he rejected offers from volunteers to aid in the search. But he remains adamant about using people that he knows have the right training and experience for his searches. He remains equally convinced that FEMA-­certified dogs bring special talents to a search.

In the late '90s, Santana was involved in a search for a murder victim. The killer had buried the body of his roommate somewhere along the San Jacinto River two years previously. The killer had turned himself in, but couldn't remember the location of the body. A dog team assisted in the search but couldn't find anything.

The searchers called in a FEMA-­certified ­cadaver dog team from Florida. The handler arrived in his truck and let his dog out. His dog immediately started barking next to the truck and wouldn't budge.

The killer said that he hadn't buried the body there, and the other dog handler laughed, thinking that this guy had come from Florida for nothing. Undeterred, the FEMA dog handler said that the body was there and everyone needed to move their vehicles. Although doubtful, they agreed. Ten minutes later, they dug up the body.

Today, Bolivar Peninsula is sparsely populated with workers repairing the few remaining homes and with cleanup crews. Homes standing intact are an aberration. For the most part, all that's left are gray slabs of concrete and stilts sticking up like matchsticks. Santana drives past a van that has been gutted. It looks like someone took heavy industrial equipment and ripped it apart. "That was the wind."

Workers have cleared debris and organized piles all around the peninsula — think leaf raking scaled times a million.

The bulk of the wreckage isn't on Bolivar. Ike swept away all that many residents had into piles up to two stories high on Goat Island.

Santana unloads his airboat into the water near the Stingaree restaurant. A sign stuck in the sand says in permanent marker that it's open. Weather-beaten but in good shape considering that the houses nearby were torn off their stilts, the Stingaree has changed its hours to serve the cleanup crews. Hardly anyone stays the night on Bolivar.

The airboat, the same one that came to Santana's rescue his first day on Goat Island, is beat to hell. Six weeks spent ferrying crew members, dogs and equipment left the top-of-the-line airboat pockmarked with dents and scrapes. He navigates the craft across the channel separating Bolivar and Goat Island that's too shallow for regular boats because of the sedimentation dropped in it by Ike.

Crews on barges dredge up sedimentation from the bottom of the channel. These crews had waited until Santana's search operation was over because dredged sediment is heaped on Goat Island. Santana's crew had known that any body missed in their search would be buried under these deposits forever.

Santana is certain that those still missing aren't anywhere on Goat Island or Bolivar Peninsula. FEMA canines had been everywhere. "We left no stone unturned," he says.

After they recovered the remains on December 23, Santana knew he had the right people. Seven days a week the crew met at 4:30 a.m. to take off for Goat Island so they could have their base of operations up by sunrise. Crew members rarely took off days. They fought the terrain and the weather, avoided the wildlife and kicked off boar hunters with high-powered rifles and other "sightseers." (Santana asked one group if they'd heard about the missing Bolivar ATM. After they thought the search crew had left, these people came back with picks and shovels. The ATM had been removed before the storm hit.)

Santana tried to develop a formula by marking down where certain things were before the storm and where they were found afterward. The surge had picked up a house from Surfside and dropped it intact six miles away on Goat Island with its contents strewn about inside, as if the house had been shaken like a snow globe. Frustratingly, Santana realized that there was no pattern to where homes, trailers, cars or bodies had ended up from their points of origin.

The only method was to slog through the island, one end to the other, and rely on the FEMA dogs to detect anything deeply buried in debris. Santana told his crew that after their search was over, no one should walk away with the doubt, "Well, maybe I should've checked there."

Men got nails through their feet every day. The dogs caught nails too. Handlers would quickly fix their paws with superglue so they could get back to work. Any time the dogs picked up a scent, the crew would clear debris using heavy equipment brought in by barge. Observers watched debris being cleared to make sure human remains were not there. Other team members picked through debris cleared by hand to double-check. A hazardous-materials guy with every team made sure debris was moved safely. Paramedics were on hand in case anything did happen. Every precaution had been taken to ensure smooth operation.

The dogs completely ignored animal remains, but the teams did recover a lot of mattresses because the dogs would track the DNA on them. In the thick marsh, the teams burned through all of the machetes available at the Home Depot in Galveston. At the end of the operation, Santana paid for all of the four-wheel and six-wheel ATVs he had rented, because the rough terrain made them unusable by the end of the search.

The teams regrouped each day at 6 p.m. to plan the next day so that at 4:30 a.m., everything would be ready to go. On January 30, after every square inch of Goat Island had been covered, the decision was made to end the search there.

Santana swings the airboat around the other side of Goat Island, a dense marsh facing Galveston Bay. It's about a half mile from the opposite side, but it is still speckled with the occasional upside-down boat, half-­buried four-wheeler or even a car. After looping around, Santana stops on Papa Goat. He disembarks from the boat and trudges up a steep slope of debris. The ground can only be seen where the excavators cleared away paths.

Debris on either side of one path is several feet high, like a mountain that has been cut through to make a straightaway for an interstate. At the end of this path is the spot where Santana's crew recovered the last Ike victim found in Galveston County.

"I made sure it was done with care, dignity and efficiency. I did it the same way I would want my loved ones taken care of. [The search] wasn't just a job. It was personal."

Santana admits that it isn't easy for him being back out here. He loses sleep knowing that more needs to be done. Even more debris from Bolivar — six million cubic yards — was taken past Goat Island, over Galveston Bay and into Chambers County. Roughly 60 percent of this has been searched so far, but not with FEMA dogs. There is a good chance that the vast debris fields in Chambers County contain Bolivar's lost. Unless the county can put together the resources to cover 25 percent of the search cost, that is where they will remain.


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