Thursday, October 25, 2007

Memories and Thoughts

Yesterday, as I watched the news of the wildfires in California and FEMA coming to the rescue, I was reminded of my own experience with FEMA about five years or so ago. At the time my husband and I had just moved to a place called Canyon Lake, Texas, nestled in the Hill Country north of San Antonio and south of Austin. It's a nice place, really, where people go to retire or have summer vacation homes to escape city life. It's a tourist place without all the usual trappings of a tourist town and, at least when we lived there, there were very few chain restaurants or businesses. A traffic jam was more than three cars waiting at one of the few lights around the lake.

It's the kind of place where, if you are driving down the road and come up on someone who is going slower than you, the slower driver will pull over onto the shoulder and let you pass, waving as you go by. Life is different there. In the summer time the tourists come out to camp along the Guadalupe River downstream from the dam, rent inner tubes, and float down the river all day long. Young and old alike do this and enjoy the heck out of themselves. People come out to the lake with their boats and swim, fish and just relax.

Maxx and I moved there to escape the city life and to open a business of our own building custom cabinetry, hoping to get in on all the new home construction and some of the remodeling of the older homes in the area. There was a whole lot of that going on, though you wouldn't see it just on a drive through of the area. You really have to get off the main roads to find the new home construction or homes of any kind. We had opened the doors to our business in May and were having some success, though it was slow. We had expected that much and were prepared for it.

Then in July it started raining. It rained for days on end dumping at least three feet of rain in the region, most of it upstream from the dam, which could not hold the water. The water eventually went over the spillway creating a whole new gorge, destroyed hundreds of homes, and flooded the Guadalupe River downstream. On CNN we watched houses floating down the river as they were torn from their foundations. Almost all of the roads going in and out of Canyone Lake were flooded and the bridges were washed out.

Thank goodness we were safe, though it was close. We had flood water within one hundred feet of our shop, located on River Road near the river and just a mile from the canyon. The day the water went over the spillway, the volunteer emergency crews evacuated their little building in Sattler, which is the nearest town to the dam, saying they knew the water was going to go over the spillway and did not have any idea if it would flood the town or not, so they were getting out. That was pretty scary.

Everything we had was in that business we had opened. All of Maxx's equipment was in our little shop right there by the river. We had invested everything in this business and now it was in danger. We spent all day on the 4th of July, with the help of some good friends who lived nearby, moving anything and everything we could find and lift up into the rafters and on top of the office and bathroom in that shop, trying to get it out of the way of the expected flood waters. Then we sat and waited and watched.

Like I said, we did not get flooded, thank goodness. We did not loose anything directly to the flood. But it was the beginning of a nightmare that would last a good long time.

After the flood, FEMA showed up. They were really good about some things. They handed out water and food and blankets to the families left homeless out there. They were excellent at finding the news camera crews and reporters to let them know they were on the scene. The National Guard came out as well, to keep people out of the most severely flooded neighborhoods until the water resided.

After the emergency was over and the water started to recede, they told the business owners in the area that we could apply for loans and grants to help maintain our businesses and keep them going. We applied for a loan and grants to help us and were turned down because we did not have any money sitting in the bank as collateral, as were many, many other business owners out there who eventually just closed up shop, like us, and moved on.

Now you would think that with all those flooded homes there would have been many opportunities for us to get work and help out. But that was not the case. FEMA had a list of "approved" contractors -- most of whom did not even come from the area or even Texas at all -- for people to use. We were not among their "approved" contractors and they would not give information as to how to be added to that list. Also, many of the homes there were underinsured, but that didn't matter, either. As long as the homeowners had some kind of insurance, no matter how much or how little, they were not helped. That means that many homeowners did not have the money to rebuild or to restore their homes. The work was just not available.

The tourist season was gone for that year because of the severe flooding along the river, and that is the mainstay for the local economy out there. No tourists, no money and no economy. The roads and bridges that were flooded out had to be rebuilt and repaired. For many months afterwards, on drives around the area where the flooding had occurred, we saw strange things high up in the trees, like the pink hot tub hanging from one tree about 30 feet up in the air. There were clothes and ironing boards, dog houses and whole sections of fencing hanging from the trees. It was all very surreal.

We eventually lost our apartment, sold what we could in garage sales just to get money for food, and moved into our little shop. There was no hot water, no shower, no kitchen. We did have a sink and a toilet with running water. We used the water hose out back to wash our hair in the summer. The work trickled in, slowly, but there wasn't much. Jobs were scarce unless we wanted and could make the 40 mile drive one way into town, which was not feasible. We lost one of our vehicles, so we were down to only the work truck.

There was no money and we went bankrupt. For entertainment, we would sit in folding chairs in front of our shop at night and watch the bats flying around in the sky. The skies were gorgeous!

And, after a year and a half in Canyon Lake, we closed up shop and moved back to Houston using the money from a tax return and a job I was finally able to get that paid $7.50 an hour.

I hope FEMA is doing a better job and is helping people better now. I don't have much faith in that, though, after watching their response to Katrina. But I don't know... I have not had any contact with them since we left Canyon Lake, thank goodness.