Sunny San Leon Picks Up the Pieces After Hurricane Ike

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Photos by Daniel Kramer / Click here for a slideshow

There’s always someone unluckier than you. In the wake of Hurricane Ike, such people were easy to find in the devastated Galveston Bay town of San Leon, as Press photographer Dan Kramer and I found out when we crossed a police checkpoint to enter the stricken community yesterday. (Kramer also shot some video – you can find it here.)

The Topwater Grill, a restaurant famed in Houston, was lifted by the surging gulf waters and delivered to a spot some ten blocks away. It is said to be a total loss.

The Sunset Lounge, a bar on one of the town’s many points overlooking the saltwater, and the launching point for the town’s many boozy golf cart parades, is no more.

The Buccaneer, another bar, is lying catty-wampus on it side. The Blue Marlin, a retired Bolivar ferry now refitted as a bar, broke loose from its moorings during the storm with four people aboard and raked through several fishing piers before coming to rest against the rocky shore. (We found one of the four people aboard and have his tale of survival.)

Shrimp and oyster boats and pleasure craft are scattered in yards all over town – that is, those that did not sink in place. Trailer homes are split in half, overturned, smashed to pieces.

But perhaps nobody was harder hit than Brenda Watts and her 14-year-old son. Even without Ike, this had already been a horrendous 30 days for the fortysomething single mother and her boy. Watts had been laid off from her job in League City in August, and a couple of days before Ike came ashore, her son’s father passed away.

She and her son evacuated to her daughter’s house in northwest Houston and returned to their home on 3 K’s Road in San Leon to find a total loss. Although her home was humble, you could still see that she had a green thumb and had lovingly crafted a shady, well-tended refuge on the saltgrass prairie.

Now, the yard is full of tidal wrack and her home is a soggy disaster. “There was a propane tank here,” says Watts. “I don’t know where it is, but now I have my neighbor’s. But I didn’t get a boat,” she laughs. “Everybody around here got a boat but me.”

The dining set that had been passed down through generations in her family was warped by floodwaters that went to the ceiling. Her four-foot TV was ruined. Her refrigerator was sucked by the receding waters through the kitchen window. Her 55-gallon fish tank was dark, its little denizens dead and rotting somewhere in the house. Her car was flooded-out. “We wouldn’t have lived if we had stayed here,” says Watts.

As her son picked what he could salvage out of his room – DVDs, video games, his BB gun, the model airplanes he built in happier times, the hard drive from the family laptop -- his mother faced a bleak future.

“We’re not poor crackhead slobs, but that’s how the government is treating us,” she says. “They came over here and said the most we could get to rebuild is $28,000. And FEMA is giving motel room vouchers to people in League City just because they lost power. We’ve been chasing FEMA for four days and every time we get there, they’re gone. They won’t come out here to help us. Me and my son are sleeping in a truck here. FEMA are going to all the wrong places.”

Watts thinks developers are eyeing her land. “They want us out of here so they can come in and put a high-rise here or something like that,” she says. “I’ve got news for those people. I’ll bulldoze this place, but I will hold on to my property. They’ll never get it.”

“This used to be a really beautiful place,” she adds. “All the neighbors are really nice. We were like a little pocket away from everything else.”

Elsewhere in San Leon, the streets are fill of spray-painted boards saying things like “We shoot looters” and “The Red Cross will return at 5 PM with dinner.” Piles of belongings – toys, furniture, ruined appliances – lined the roads, and Coast Guard choppers were still hovering overhead.

And yet even despite the devastation, there are signs of optimism. Again and again, as people pick through the ruin of their lives in the town residents call “Sunny San Leon,” people just grin and say “This is the price you pay to live in paradise.”

Hillman’s Seafood was spared the worst ravages of the storm and co-owner Mary Smith says the company will be offering up shrimp again in two weeks. “Carla was worse for us than this one,” she says. “We lost all the buildings in Carla. This time we only lost half.”

Photos by Daniel Kramer / Click here for a slideshow

On 2nd Street, hard by the bay, one couple stationed a male blow-up doll in a chair in their driveway – he had a rifle in his lap and a can of beer. “A San Leon security guard,” homeowner LeAnne Matthews explained with a smile.

As Ruth Silvia and Steve Wilson winched two boats of unknown origin out of a yard and left them by the side of the road – heavy trash, San Leon post-Ike style – they refused our offer of water or supplies and Wilson said “We’re fine. I just bought a new pick-up truck today.”

But it’s in and around Terry’s Marine Services at the corner of 6th Street and Avenue A, a few feet from the now-calm bay, that you find the essence of San Leon, the saltcrusted little town often described as “a quaint little drinking village with a serious fishing problem.”

The town’s unofficial mascots – imported wild monk parakeets – are busy rebuilding the enormous stick nests in the palm trees and power lines on the waterfront, while beneath them a dead ringer for Gregg Allman is driving a forklift and stacking wooden pylons in an oyster-shell parking lot.

Mechanics are hard at work in the boat garage, nipping on cold beers while a generator-powered boombox plays Gulf Coast blues – specifically, songs like the Albert Collins / Robert Cray / Johnny Copeland collaboration “T-Bone Shuffle.”

Outside, Anita Moody is preparing burgers, chickens, turkeys and sausages for the huge smoker – gifts from a benefactor who lived nearby and made a Wal-Mart run for their neighbors. Moody described them as a “godsend” for in addition, they brought in clothing and even a camp shower.

“That right there is the Buccaneer,” Moody says, pointing across the street to a building listing dangerously close to falling over. “I worked there for two years. And now it’s gone. It’s gone…”

She began to weep. A man came over to comfort her. “I know baby,” he said.

“I haven’t broke since the storm,” Moody cried into the man’s shoulder. “I’ll collect myself in a sec…I’m just tired.”

“Naw, you’re just tired of it,” the man said.

“Those people out there in this country are saying this is not that bad,” Moody said. “They’re sayin’ ‘I don’t see no devastation on the TV.’ Hell, they got it made. This is awful. I lost my car, I don’t have nothing.’ But who cares? I am alive and there are people who are not.” (Moody said a person she did not know who lived near Terry’s Marine Services perished in the storm.)

Out front of Terry’s, at a card table piled with ashtrays, cigarette packs and beer cans, sits Jim Jones, a sixtysomthing retired seafarer originally from New York City, who was one of four who rode out Ike aboard the ferry-turned-restaurant called the Blue Marlin.

“I t’ought it would be da safest place,” he said in an accent that would do Paulie Walnuts proud. Blondie, his mutt with one blue eye and one brown, sits next to him, wagging her tail. She too survived the wreck of the Blue Marlin.

“It weighs what, 17,000 tons?” Jones continued. “It was a zoo on there, especially when it broke loose. Aw, man! Then the engine room started takin’ on water, we started movin’, then the first floor flooded, and we had to move upstairs. We thought we were gonna sink. It was not a pleasant experience. All we had was a prayer. We had no control whatsoever. I’m sure happy we beached.”

Meanwhile, a party atmosphere was taking hold. Once the meat hit the smoker, the mood lifted. A bottle of rum was produced. “This bunch down here all hangs together even if there isn’t a disaster,” says burly, swaggering Tom Dixon, who is known locally as “Tommy D.”

About a month ago, Dixon had gotten in a bad car wreck and split his face open from hairline to chin and laid in a coma for a few days, but today he paid his injury no mind.

“My whole street was outside last night until two-thirty in the mornin’ with a half-gallon of vodka howlin’ at the moon. ‘Til we finally hollered ‘Shut the fuck up.’ It’s bad enough when you got your windows open and that full moon is like a quartz strobe light shinin’ in your window.”

Dixon says the activity all around him – the construction, the cooking, the drinking and socializing, was a sure sign Sunny San Leon had turned one of the darkest corners in its history.

“If you go around the corner to that bar over there, there’s another 20 of ‘em over there all gobbed together, and then this bunch over here, we’re all helpin’ each other,” Dixon says. “There’s a sign over there that says ‘San Leon – Let’s pull together. We can get through this.’

“All we need now,” Tommy D added, “are FEMA trailers and mosquito repellent.”

John Nova Lomax

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