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Beeville man helps search and rescue efforts after Hurricane Ike
by Gary Kent
Oct 08, 2008 | 447 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A flooded neighborhood near Beaumont after Hurricane Ike struck last month.
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When Beeville City Councilman Jimmy “Jimbo” Martinez drove down Interstate Highway 45 from Houston to Galveston last month, he could not believe his eyes.

As he got closer to Galveston, he started seeing piles of debris and boats, big ones, pushed up in rows along the side of the highway.

It was just a hint of what he would see during the next few days as he and a team of fellow state employees from the Texas General Land Office spread out along the Gulf Coast to determine what kind of environmental damage had been caused by Hurricane Ike.

As the regional director for the South Texas Coastal Zone Oil Spill Prevention and Response Operation for Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Martinez expected to be sent to the area where Ike came ashore on Sept. 13.

But it was Gov. Rick Perry who called on Martinez to “get a team ready” to support the state’s efforts to assist in waterborne and urban search and rescue in the Galveston area.

“I led a team of 19 personnel,” Martinez said. “We took eight boats with us.”

The craft included three airboats for access to shallow water, three 18-foot flat bottom boats, one 24-foot shallow water ATV transport craft and a 19-foot flat bottom boat.

Martinez called upon his friends at the Citgo Refining operation at Corpus Christi and they donated 500 gallons of fuel.

In addition, the team took along a 38-kilowatt generator that they ended up using most of the time because there was no electricity where they were.

Martinez’s team came from the offices he oversees at Brownsville, Corpus Christi and Port Lavaca.

The day after the storm hit, on Sunday, Sept. 14, team members left their offices and met in Victoria for the final leg of the trip to Reliant Stadium in Houston. They arrived a little after noon that day. By that time their mission had changed from urban search and rescue to waterway assessment. Their job was to identify and report obstructions in waterways and provide rescue for anyone they found who needed it.

Their secondary mission was to respond to spills of oil and other hazardous materials. That included finding pollution and reporting incidents to state and federal officials who would make a list of priorities and began cleanup efforts.

The last mission team members had was to identify sunken and abandoned vessels. “That is something they’re going be doing for a long time,” Martinez said.

The thing that touched Martinez the most was that the entire staff of General Land Office employees from the Houston area showed up for work Monday.

“They were all affected by it,” Martinez said of the employees. Some of them had lost much of what they owned and had left homes that had been flooded.

The highest ranking person at the Houston office told the employees to “take care of each other and don’t come back for a couple of days. Tears were shed; they were so grateful.”

But by Wednesday, every single employee had trickled back to the job and they all were working long hours.

Martinez went to Katy to speak to the U.S. Coast Guard commander and to coordinate efforts with him. The commander provided five people to join Martinez’s five boats he still had in the Houston area each day he was there. Martinez sent one of his employees to the Coast Guard detachment to serve as a liaison.

By early Monday afternoon, he was on Interstate 45 on his way from Houston to Galveston.

“I was there pretty quick,” Martinez said. But he had not gone far until he started seeing, firsthand, what Ike had done.

“There were kayaks, boats, anything that would float was pushed off to the side,” Martinez said.

It took a couple of hours to get into the city. Only emergency personnel were being allowed into Galveston.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Martinez said. “It looked like a war zone. You really appreciate the force of Mother Nature.”

Martinez went to the Federal Emergency Management Agency command post at Ball High School in Galveston. All around he saw trash that high water had left in parking lots and on fences.

Later, a huge U.S. Marine Corps helicopter, the kind that carries the president, landed in a parking lot right in front of him. He never learned who was in the helicopter. No one ever got out it.

“There was law enforcement everywhere,” Martinez said. They ranged from the Texas Department of Public Safety to Galveston County deputies and the Galveston Police Department.

“What can we do?” Martinez asked when his team reached the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality headquarters in Galveston.

At that point, the team was split up with some being sent to Houston and some to Port Arthur.

Martinez then urged the people in charge of the Coast Guard and FEMA command posts to establish one command post for federal agencies, which they did.

Later, the state’s agencies established a single command post that now is located in Pasadena.

On Tuesday, Martinez boarded a DPS helicopter out of Houston for a four-hour tour of the area. They left the LaPorte airport at about 1:30 p.m. and flew down to the Freeport and Surfside areas. Although there was not as much damage in those areas, Martinez said they saw lots of damage in restricted air space over Galveston and around High Island.

“I don’t know how to describe the devastation other than horrific,” Martinez said.

He saw where large oil tanks had been displaced. “They just got picked up and moved.” They also flew over cattle that had drowned in the high water.

“There were a lot of stilts where homes used to be. To me, that was the worst. There was hardly anything left.”

Some of Martinez’s team members were in that same area in boats and cars that day and they found a distraught woman who needed help. They made sure she had assistance before they left the area.

One woman said she had water in her house up to 27 feet high. She and her husband had ridden out the storm.

“Some people were very fortunate to have lived through it,” Martinez said. “It’s just amazing the stories that people told.”

Recent news reports have since confirmed one troubling fact that Martinez mentioned after returning from Galveston. He said he feared that many people had simply “disappeared,” possibly washed out into the gulf or buried under debris and had not yet been found.

One report last week put the number of missing people at about 300.

Martinez said he and his team members had anticipated major pollution damage. “When you get the eye of a hurricane coming up the Houston Ship Channel,” Martinez said with a shrug.

The following day Martinez boarded a military Black Hawk helicopter for another tour of the area by air.

That time they went toward the inner harbor up the ship channel toward Trinity Bay, Morgan’s Point and toward Smith Point, Galveston Bay and Clear Lake.

“A lot of boats were on the ground there.”

Martinez returned to his Corpus Christi office after spending almost a week in the Galveston area. At first, he thought he would have to return to the Galveston area.

“Then Ike came to me,” he said.

Much of the debris that was washed into the Gulf of Mexico in the Galveston area has been coming ashore in South Texas.

Martinez said the prevailing current in the Gulf and the tides have been pushing everything down here.

His office is concerned about the situation because some of the material could be hazardous. His people are working with the TCEQ and the Coast Guard to keep track of the problem.

“There are lots of plastics, household items, plastic trash cans, orange escape pods from oil rigs and five-gallon containers with unknown substances,” Martinez said this week.

“Basically, that’s what we’re working on right now.” Local jurisdictions have been cleaning up the debris as quickly as they can and Martinez said they are doing a fantastic job.

There is no way his department can know at this point how much longer the problem will continue but he said his department plans to reduce the number of assessments it does in the Coastal Bend from two a week to only one a week.

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