While the nation and the world is focused on the election countdown, time in Chambers County Texas is measured, if it is at all, on a grim time line that began on September 13 when Hurricane Ike roared ashore. Boats, houses, farm implements, cattle and people were pushed from the Bolivar Peninsula like downy feathers upon the wind.
"I don't believe the election crosses anyone's mind right now," says Mark Holmes on the phone, as he loads his dog into a trailer Sunday morning. Our conversation is broken by a bad cell connection and interruptions as he gives orders to his crew while they get ready for another long day in the Texas heat. Holmes and his teams are about to battle alligators, snakes, mosquitoes, and fatigue.
Holmes is a detective and K9 handler for the Port Arthur police department, and he has been working 12 to 14 hour days in the almost five weeks since Ike hit.
"With the amount of damage, loss of life and focus on trying to put lives back together, the election is the last thing anyone is thinking about right now," Holmes said. "I can't even tell you what day it is."
We met the day before on a lonely stretch of Texas highway. Holmes and several human remains detection teams were reconnoitering at a run-down Chevron station on Highway 10 between Beaumont and Winnie. It is no wonder that national politics is far from everyone's mind here, considering the horrific task of recovery they face. The Chambers County Sheriff was gracious but focused as he scrutinized maps spread on the back of a pickup truck. His worn t-shirt had "Sheriff" written across the back and he was wearing waders and suspenders, the uniform of hurricane recovery.
It is obvious that something is still very wrong here, and all it takes is a drive down Interstate 10 with the windows open. The smell of decay permeates the air, debris is everywhere, and brown vegetation outlines patterns of saltwater intrusion.
Eighteen wheel flatbeds burdened with massive generators slow traffic and bloated animal carcasses dot the median strips. An occasional red State Farm Insurance "Catastrophe Services" truck winds around the flatbeds, sheet metal, and blown tires that litter the asphalt. You won't find a campaign sign anywhere.
A woman behind the counter at the Chevron station had a depressed affect, offering that "life was hard" when we tried to make small talk as she gave us change for our cheese sticks and Full Throttle coffee. Gas prices had been dropping daily due to the worldwide market crash, but for the people in south Texas, financial devastation was already old news. Was she worried about the election? No comment was offered--just a quizzical look. All politics is indeed local.
I wished her good luck and Godspeed. She smiled and whispered "yes," as I headed for the door and made my way through the parking area, which was overflowing with search and recovery teams, vehicles, and dogs.
Detective Holmes and the four dog teams he supervises have a grim goal--their job is to clear debris fields of human remains.
"At last count there are somewhere between 50 to 100 people still missing, but we urge anyone in the area who has missing family members to contact the Port Arthur Police Department or the Chambers County Sheriff's Office," Holmes offered.
"At the very least, we would like to collect DNA samples so that if a farmer finds bones three or four years from now, we can help family to put their loved ones to rest."
The task seems all but impossible. Holmes and his crews are working off of satellite maps of debris fields that washed all the way across Galveston bay, stopping only when tree lines and levees slowed the momentum of the fierce waters. NOAA satellite images clearly depict the scope of the damage, but the ground view is beyond imagination.
Holmes described "massive" debris fields that measure two stories high, 200-330 yards wide and 2.5 miles long that remain to be searched. The piles of "debris" were once homes and businesses--the contents of which represent the rhythms and memories of lost lives. Galveston Bay is six miles wide, and that distance measures the force and fury of Ike's storm surge.
"No one is thinking about an election now," Holmes repeated as he explained that in some cases the debris piles have washed 3-7 miles inland.
Holmes has civilian volunteers working with him on the weekends, but during the week he operates alone and with local game wardens. To date, the teams have cleared 20 debris piles and are one third of the way through the massive job. The previous day's search was unsuccessful, or successful, considering that no remains were recovered.
When asked whether he has been able to find anyone, Holmes' tone brightened as he describes an 82-year-old woman and her husband, whom he found in the collapsed rubble of what was once their home--a full two days after Ike hit.
"They were in rough shape, but they are perfectly fine now," Holmes said. "They are being looked after by relatives.
"Perfectly fine" in south Texas, which has been all but abandoned by media focused on a national election feeding frenzy, means being rescued from the collapsed remains of your home after spending several days in a premature wooden tomb.
"We do our best and we will not give up until we find everyone who can be found." Holmes promises.
Then he offered what seems to be a message of comfort. It is everything he has to give.
"We will continue to search until there is nothing left to search," Holmes vowed.
It is now 19 days until the United States demands new leadership--and four weeks since time ran out for people and portions of the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
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