Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
How growing demand, fuzzy legal rulings and plain old stubbornness have turned Kinney County into a hotbed of water politics.
Unless you frequently travel U.S. Highway 90 between San Antonio and Del Rio, you probably don’t know where Kinney County is. Depending who you talk with, the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District is either the poster child for how not to manage groundwater, or the last best defense for rural areas fighting big cities that covet their water.
The sparsely populated county is located in that transition zone between the Edwards Plateau and the South Texas Brush Country on the edge of the Chihuahuan desert. Brackettville, the county seat and largest town, with a population just shy of 2,000, is directly across the highway from one of Kinney County’s natural treasures, Las Moras Springs, the ninth-largest group of springs in Texas, which discharge about 160 gallons of water a second. Fort Clark, which was built around the springs by the U.S. Army in 1852, thrives today as a gated residential community.
In 1959, Brackettville became famous as the location where the major motion picture, The Alamo starring John Wayne, was filmed. The movie set was preserved by landowner Happy Shahan and promoted as a tourist attraction called Alamo Village. But a couple of years before the movie was filmed, something more significant happened in Kinney County. While drilling an exploratory well northwest of town in search of oil, drillers hit water. So much water that when Senate Bill 1 — the landmark water legislation mandating that all regions of Texas secure water supplies for the next 50 years — was passed in 1997, Kinney County came into play.
The abundance of groundwater, the county’s small population, the growing demands of thirsty cities and Texas water law have made Kinney County ground zero in Texas’ water wars, as water marketers, legislators, attorneys and lobbyists grapple with the new local groundwater district over how much, if any, water can be pumped and sold outside the county without impacting water supplies, springs, creeks and streams inside the county.
From all outward appearances, the February 22, 2005, meeting of the board of directors of the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District at the Kinney County Courthouse in Brackettville is perfunctorily bureaucratic — board members and the general manager gather around a table to discuss audits, groundwater availability models, recharge numbers, well violations, management zones and a newsletter. The language bandied about is as complex as the aquifers the board is charged with overseeing — the Kinney County portion of the Edwards Aquifer, the Edwards-Trinity zone and the Austin Chalk zone — all of which lack definite boundaries separating one aquifer from the other.
But that only partially explains the tension in the room, which emanates from 11 people sitting in the gallery separated from the board by a railing. They represent the interests of those in Kinney County who want to sell their water. One holds an audio recorder, another a video camera to record the proceedings. From the comments overheard in the hallway during a break, they are a frustrated bunch. They felt that the board was ignoring allocations recommended by Steve Walthour, the hydrologist hired by the board to advise them on pumping permits. Board member Christopher Ring’s family corporation got more water than Walthour recommended; almost everyone else got far less than what they asked for. Allocations were based on land acreage, not on hydrology. They said board members had spread fear among voters that the county’s water was going to be stolen, in order to assure election of five of six board members opposed to moving water out of the county. The board refused the offer by WaterTexas, which most of the folks in the gallery were aligned with, to pay for a study of available groundwater. They even alleged that General Manager Darlene Shahan was working with her husband, Tully Shahan, the county attorney, to thwart their interests.
After the meeting, I head east to Hugh and Dennette Coates’ place in the Anacacho Mountains, where Hugh Coates loads me up with legal briefs and talks about the Pinto Valley farmland he bought in 1988. “We have big water there, shoots straight to the ground. Never has been a pump that’s sucked air in that valley,” he says. And yet, the groundwater district just allotted him less than one third of what the board’s consultant recommended. “It’s like coming to your house and saying, ‘You can have one bath a month,’ ” Coates complains.
Some of the other folks attending the groundwater district board meeting show up at the Coates’, too: Jewel Robinson, the publisher of The Brackett News and a Pinto Valley landowner who has applied for a pumping permit not to sell water, she says, but to assure flow in the creek that “means so much to me”; her son Wesley; Beth Ann Smith, the groundwater district board member who typically casts the lone dissenting vote in board matters; her husband, Richard Smith; Tony Frerich, the co-owner of Kinney County Wool & Mohair; Jennifer McDaniel, who works at the wool house, and her husband, Jim McDaniel, the last cotton farmer in the county.
Over a sumptuous spread of real South Texas Mexican food, they detail the unpleasantness that’s been visited upon them since the city of Eagle Pass first approached several of them eight years ago to see if they’d be interested in selling their water. Their willingness to sell has run headfirst into a board that they say is unwilling to compromise but keeps changing the rules anyway. The pumping caps set by the board are arbitrary, they say. Allocation of such measly percentages amounts to a property rights “taking” (in a legal context, “taking” refers to a government action assuming ownership of real property by eminent domain). They believe that anyone on Pinto Creek downstream from the Shahans and the Rings is getting shorted. Jim McDaniel, the farmer, got 41 percent of what he asked for and will have to go back to the board in July for more water in order to finish his crop. Still, he admits, if he ever gets the permitted amount he seeks, he’s inclined to sell his water and get out of farming altogether. Things have gotten so ugly, Dennette Coates relates, “They’re telling us not to eat in a particular restaurant; they’ll spit in your food.”
I’d heard a whole other story earlier in the day in Tully Shahan’s law office across the street from the county courthouse. Tully Shahan is the county attorney. His wife, Darlene Shahan, is the general manager of the groundwater district. Both have been instrumental in forming the groundwater district and leading the fight against exporting water from the county. The way the Shahans tell it, approximately two-thirds of permit applicants were trying to thwart the will of the county’s voters who elected the groundwater district members. Every sitting board member was reelected despite opposition, they point out. By going to state legislators and lobbyists, filing lawsuits and seeking to have the district dissolved, a tyranny of the few was destroying the board’s good work, or at least bankrupting it through costly legal fees.
“Eight tenths of one percent of county property is irrigated,” Tully Shahan says, “and the irrigators are trying to tell us what to do with 100 percent of the water.”
The water purveyors have lobbyists, they say. The district can’t afford one. “We have the highest tax rate and lowest budget of anyone out there,” says Darlene Shahan. “We are very limited in what we can do as a district. More than two-thirds of the current budget is being absorbed by legal and consulting fees.”
Tully Shahan produces an interim report by Senator Ken Armbrister, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Water Policy, issued before the Legislature convened last January. It proposes dissolving the Kinney County Groundwater District and bringing the county under the jurisdiction of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. the legislation introduced to accomplish this goal is HB 3571 (sponsored by Rep. Robert Puente) and SB 1857 (sponsored by Sen. Frank Madla). The move would leave the county without representation and cost the town of Brackettville at least $24,000 a year for water it is now getting for free, Tully Shahan contends. He pulls out another newspaper clipping that quotes Armbrister as saying the 1904 State Supreme Court decision on Rule of Capture is not in the Texas Constitution.
Darlene Shahan insists the district is doing what the Legislature intended — protecting existing water supplies and users before allocating pumping permits. “Why did we enter into hearings in August, spend money on technical studies, give people an open forum and due process?” she asks. “One hearing was 13 hours. [Water sellers are] saying that we were going to rubber stamp the hydrologist’s findings. If that was the case, the board wouldn’t have sat through those hearings. The water sellers just don’t like how the board is interpreting the rules. The board is doing their best to protect the water according to Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code and the local rules. We’re being as conservative as we can.”
To illustrate why the board is taking the cautious approach, Tully Shahan drives me out of town to the family ranch, a 16,000-acre spread just north of Brackettville, where the headwaters of Pinto Creek are located. He takes a modified golf cart through a pasture down to the rough creek bottom where the creek emerges out of a rocky outcropping and runs pure and shallow through the oak scrub. The cart scoots up over and around limestone gravel shoals to a perch overlooking a small tributary of the creek. A few stone skips away, bubbles float to the surface marking the main spring. The creek bottom, fully visible, shimmers with a pale blue tinge of purity.
Shahan then drives to another spot near a fence line. On the other side are wells that were drilled in the early 1960s that immediately dried up six wells on his family’s land, forcing him to drill new wells at considerable expense. The direct cause-and-effect have given him pause ever since, he says.
A little after eight the next morning, I meet Zack Davis at the Davis Hardware Store and Ranch Supply in downtown Brackettville. Davis, a tall, jut-jawed Kinney County native like Tully Shahan, is taking me to his farm in the Pinto Valley, about 5 miles northwest of town and about 20 creek miles upstream of the Rio Grande. Like most folks in the county, Davis wears many hats — veterinarian, farmer, rancher, former small businessman (after 26 years, he sold his store), husband of a pharmacist, father to six kids.
Pinto Valley is a small 4-mile-by-1-mile basin along Pinto Creek that is locally known as the “honey hole,” Davis explains, an exceptionally abundant source of recharged groundwater where most of the county’s irrigated farming occurs, marked by an almost straight line of artesian wells that run down the valley. Land within a mile yields no water at all. “I had a hydrologist out here once who’d studied this area,” he says. “He told me this solved a mystery — now he knew where all the runoff in Edwards and Real counties up on the Edwards Plateau went.”
After the bounty of water below was discovered in 1957, the Pinto Valley was intensively farmed for vegetables over the next 25 years. Buildings that once housed packing sheds and loading docks speak of that brief period when one-third of the nation’s cabbage and a good chunk of America’s onions were raised in Pinto Valley. But by the 1980s, economics prompted farmers to switch to livestock feed crops such as sorghum, oats, millet, Bermuda grass and alfalfa.
Even with more than enough water, farming and ranching are dicey propositions, acknowledges Davis. “There’s five to 10 percent of the livestock that there was in 1978. If we didn’t have hunting in this county, you could turn the lights out.” In fact, the hunting economy in Kinney County generates more dollars today than farming and ranching combined.
He drives his truck over a fresh field of oats, scanning the sheep and cattle grazing on the bright green cover to spot any legs sticking out of the furrows. Some sheep fall asleep while grazing and fall into a furrow and can’t get up, Davis explains. He finds several and puts them upright.
He stops to demonstrate just how much water there is in the honey hole. Using a large wrench to open a valve in a tangle of pipes, he unleashes a torrent of cool, clear water that shoots out of the pipe with enough force to knock a person down. That sort of abundance, along with queries from Eagle Pass, then Laredo, prompted Davis to organize farmers interested in selling water rather than using it to farm. His search eventually led to WaterTexas, an Austin-based company hired to represent the sellers’ interests. Ironically, one of the first things WaterTexas’ Dan Pearson told Davis was that Kinney County needed a groundwater district before exportation could begin.
Selling water is a higher, better use of the resource, Davis says. “If City X comes in and says they’ll pay me more than what I’m making on this, what am I going to do?” Davis asks. “Over in Uvalde, they built a Wal-Mart on prime farmland. This water is no different. It’s taking a different value than if we farm it. This water getting valuable isn’t my idea. It’s something that happened. It still has to be a managed, regulated resource.”
He still believes in the concept of groundwater districts, just as he believes in the Rule of Capture. “The Edwards Aquifer Authority scares me like it did 12 years ago [when the county successfully petitioned to be left out of the EAA’s jurisdiction]. At the same time, it can’t be any worse than what we have now.”
Davis sat on the groundwater district board until he resigned out of frustration and still sits on the board of the Plateau Region J regional water planning group along with Tully Shahan; the group oversees water planning in a zone that runs roughly between Del Rio and Kerrville. He views the Shahans and the Rings as co-conspirators bent on pressuring smaller landowners downstream like himself. “We feel like they’re trying to choke us out financially. They want to make it so we’ll have to go to them for their allotment if we want to sell water. But we’re fortunate. We don’t have to depend on the farm as our sole source of income. They’re not going to get my farm.”
Davis pulls his vehicle over by the banks of Pinto Creek. “I’ve seen it go bone-dry while the artesian wells are flowing,” he says, gazing over the spread of low oaks and mesquite and blindingly green, lush fields of oats and alfalfa that are fed by the artesian wells. He drives back to Brackettville, heads north to the other side of the Shahan and Ring properties all the way to Nueces Canyon, a stunning sliver of lost Hill Country scenery on the west fork of the Nueces River. Davis grew up on this land and has maintained the family homestead here. He gazes proudly over the rugged hills and fertile bottomland and says, “There’s not enough money in this world to dry up springs. You’ve lost touch with reality if money means more to you than something like this.”
Despite the effect of artesian well pumping on Pinto Creek, Zack Davis believes there’s plenty of water to give and relates the story about when Las Moras Springs went dry in 1964 (due to drought and heavy pumping for irrigated farming, according to many accounts), Brown & Root, which had bought Fort Clark after it was decommissioned, sent tanker trucks to fill up on water from an artesian well in the valley and drove the water to Brackettville.
The prospect of the groundwater district being dissolved and water speculators taking over groundwater in the next county prompted Jay J. Johnson, the owner of a bed & breakfast in Del Rio, to organize the West Texas Springs Alliance in March 2005, joining other groups throughout central Texas in the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance who are fighting water marketers. “Kinney County is a test case. If a fast one can be pulled on the naive citizens here, the same fast one can be pulled on any other board in any other county that is rich with water,” says Johnson. “I maintain that the true farmer or rancher should be allotted and receive the water that they need to conduct the agricultural business on their land. On the other hand, I’m totally opposed to anyone who would exploit and siphon from our aquifers so that water can be exported to the metro areas,” he says.
Kinney County Judge Herb Senne points out that the commissioners court, as well as the city councils of Brackettville and Spofford, passed resolutions supporting the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District and opposing its dissolution by the Texas Legislature.
“The voters of their county were given a choice whether to put a district in place. Seventy-eight percent of the people who voted in the elections said yes. That same ballot had the option of how to fund the district and 65 percent of those who voted chose to fund it with an ad valorem tax. If that doesn’t show the district is clearly the choice of the voters in Kinney County, I’ll eat my hat.”
Anecdotal evidence on both sides of the issue fails to address other lingering questions: Exactly what constitutes a private property taking? What constitutes degradation of a natural resource like a spring? Who pays for the degradation? Is there a right of guaranteed stream flow? How connected are the headwaters of Pinto Creek to the artesian wells in Pinto Valley? If the Legislature dissolves the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District, what does that say about groundwater districts being the state’s preferred means of locally controlling groundwater use, and what does it say about preserving the Rule of Capture?
No matter what legislators, lawyers, lobbyists, judges, entrepreneurs or bureaucrats say or do, springs are vital to the environmental and economic health of Kinney County, just as they are everywhere else in Texas.
Though the feuding has spilled over into churches, schools, businesses and all over the county, each and every one of the folks I visited with has more in common with each other than they’d care to admit: They are passionate about protecting their land, guided by a deep and abiding love for its beauty, which in the respective cases of the Shahans, Coates and Davises is directly tied to the water.
Politics aside, Kinney County has some of the best water anywhere in Texas. The riparian corridor along Las Moras Creek below the headwaters was as alive with wildlife as anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley river brush just after sunrise one morning. The sight of artesian water gushing out of well pipes, pure, clean, cool, pushed as high as 20 feet in the air by underground pressure, is downright miraculous.
Some of the hows and whys of that miracle are answered by Gary Garrett at the Heart of the Hills Fisheries Science Center near Ingram. Garrett is a TPWD biologist who has studied the springs and creeks of Kinney County extensively. He wastes no time explaining their delicate condition.
“The headwaters of Pinto Creek are biologically unique. It’s one of only four places on earth where the Devils River minnow exists. It’s a natural lab scientists hardly ever see. Pinto is really two creeks. North of Highway 90, it’s quite a healthy system. That’s where the Devils River minnow thrives. South of the highway, the level of sulphur in the water is higher [writer’s note: and emits quite an odor], salinity goes up, ammonia goes up, turbidity goes up. The Devils River minnow is no longer found. Instead it’s the red shiner, which does well in a polluted environment.
“The value of rare, unique species is that they are biological indicators,” Garrett explains. “If there’s no value other than that, it is extremely important. I don’t mind water leaving the county if it doesn’t affect the flow of the springs and streams. The question is, how much? When they irrigate, some of the springs stop flowing. Those springs need to flow, that creek needs to flow. The death of an aquatic system ultimately affects humans. Keeping them healthy is healthy for all of us.”
A century after the Texas Supreme Court decision upheld the Rule of Capture by declaring groundwater too “mysterious and occult” to regulate, the mystery remains, in Kinney County at least.
- blog Kinney Water Wars
- Top 10 Swimming Holes A springs fanatic picks his 10 favorites (plus a few honorable mentions). [Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, July 2005]
The Ultimate Big Bend Hike
Texas Parks and Wildlfe magazine
By Joe Nick Patoski
Photography by Laurence Parent
Six days and 70 miles of aching backs, oozing blisters, lost toenails, lightning storms and unimaginable beauty.
There are hikes, and there are blister-popping, back-breaking, toe-throbbing, mind-bending hikes. Hiking across the Big Bend falls into the latter category. That became clear once five other reasonably sane, able and physically fit adults and I set a course across 70 miles of empty desert, rugged mountains and steep canyons, carrying our tents, sleeping bags, food and water on our backs for six days and five nights.
Only a handful of people have attempted to transect the bend where the Rio Grande makes its grand detour through three majestic canyons in extreme Southwest Texas on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. One of those people, Craig Pedersen, told me about his solo trek. When Laurence Parent, the photographer with whom I collaborated on the book Texas Mountains, proposed it, I couldn’t resist. We both thought we knew Big Bend pretty well, having hiked the South Rim and the desert and floated its canyons.
But walk across it?
That was a new one. Maybe that’s because the Chihuahuan desert isn’t the most user-friendly terrain on earth, limiting long hikes to winter months, and only with considerable planning, support and desire.
With a combined million and a half acres of public lands among Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, the Big Bend is the only region of Texas where you can actually contemplate a journey like this. I’d witnessed as Laurence scaled Mount Livermore and scooted around the Chinatis like a mountain goat while carrying 60 pounds of equipment on his back, so I knew he could do it. I figured I could, too. Six years ago I completed an eight-day, three-canyon crossing in Mexico’s Copper Canyon complex, though Tarahumara Indian porters and several burros accompanied us on that hike.
Laurence plotted a 70-mile route from Rio Grande Village, near the terminus of the paved road in the southeastern part of the national park, to Lajitas, the gated resort at the national park’s western boundary. We each rounded up two friends to accompany us, and hired Desert Sports, the Terlingua outfitter, to provide shuttles and water drops.
The night before departing, we met Raymond Skiles, a national park wildlife biologist, who’d hiked from Adams Ranch, east of the national park, to Lajitas solo, only he hiked over the Chisos Mountains instead of skirting the range, as we were planning. He offered advice on where to camp on the Dodson Trail and climb the Mesa de Anguila and plenty of encouragement. At least he didn’t think we were crazy like everyone else seemed to.
On March 2, Laurence, Shelly Seymour and Jeff Whittington, my two friends from Dallas, and I hit the trail under the cottonwoods of Rio Grande Village around 11 a.m., carrying small day packs for 3 miles to the Hot Springs, where our shuttle driver, Rick Willing, met us with our big backpacks. From there we bushwhacked across the desert towards Glenn Springs. Everyone was able; conditions were perfect, though Laurence complained he was coming down with a cold. The sun stayed behind a cover of high clouds most of the day, keeping daytime temperatures in the 70s, and it didn’t rain.
No rain was important. Several long miles were through bentonite, a spongy, absorbent clay formed from volcanic ash that turns to mush when wet. It hadn’t rained in a couple weeks, but I was certain if it had rained one day more recently than it actually had, we would have gotten bogged down in the soil.
We didn’t see another soul after Hot Springs, though we did cross a well-worn path of footprints northbound from San Vicente, Mexico. But there was still plenty to see. The low desert was in early spring bloom, awash with tiny white and pink bicolor mustard, yellow composites among the prickly pear, ocotillo, dagger, pitaya and candelilla, with bursts of Big Bend bluebonnets that perfumed the air.
The foothills of the Chisos and familiar landmarks such as Mule Ears Peak and Elephant Tusk appeared to be another world away.
Geographic weirdness was everywhere. Grasslands alternated with expanses of nothing but rock, sand and gravel. Fist-chunks of burnt wood littered one quarter-mile, as if a pit cooker had just tumped over, only this wood was petrified. Some ridges were so devoid of vegetation and so violently uplifted by geological forces that their tilted layers resembled marble swirls. Wildlife sighting was limited to Jeff spooking a giant jackrabbit, Laurence spotting a coyote, Shelly tracking a hawk and a swarm of bees buzzing past. No black bear or mountain lion. I kept focusing on Rick’s advice: “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. A gallon a day, minimum.” I kept drinking even when I wasn’t thirsty.
We finally reached Glenn Springs just after sunset, almost making camp in a cemetery until Shelly recognized the crude wooden crosses and cairns – remnants from the early 20th-century village that was raided by bandits in 1916. We ate and talked, Jeff admitting he almost “bonked” that afternoon. “I would’ve thrown up while we were resting on that big rock, but all I had in my stomach was Starbursts.” That prompted me to eat all my freeze-dried dinner to carb up, even if I wasn’t that hungry. Falling asleep was easy.
The second day’s hike was 12 miles with a 2,000-foot gain in elevation. After following the Glenn Springs and Juniper Canyon Trail dirt roads into the grasslands, we met Rick, who delivered water, and Keri Thomas and Elizabeth Comer, two friends of Laurence’s. Keri had climbed Pico de Orizaba, the 18,000-foot volcano in Mexico, with Laurence the previous year. Elizabeth ran marathons. Like Jeff, they were both 34. Unlike Jeff and the rest of us, neither had been to Big Bend.
Progress slowed on the Dodson Trail, part of the Outer Mountain Loop, due to the steep ascent. By late afternoon, we passed behind Elephant Tusk, the landmark peak that appeared so achingly distant the day before.
We stumbled into camp by Fresno Creek in Fresno Canyon, a tiny trickle in a tight crevice in the sparse woodlands beneath the South Rim of the Chisos, less than an hour before sunset. We enjoyed supper within earshot of running water and gazed upon stars like nowhere else. Elizabeth lost one of her big toenails. Laurence complained of blisters. Carrying all that photo gear was having an effect. I developed saddle sores on my hipbones. My clothes were getting funky and my hair matted, but I slept so well that I was busted the next morning, along with Shelly, for snoring.
Day Three began with sunlight playing off the South Rim and the dulcet tones of Elizabeth’s voice, “Yea, it’s fresh underwear day.”
We started late in the morning with a steep, 500-foot ascent to the highest point of our trip, a mile above sea level. Jeff sprinted ahead of the rest of us so he could pause in solitude and get what he calls “epiphanies.” So far, he’d had one and a half, he reported.
At the saddle of the Chisos, we could see where we’d been and where we were going, from the Del Carmens to the Mesa de Anguila. It was difficult comprehending how far we’d already walked. Near its end, we veered off Blue Creek Trail and bushwhacked through high desert. We were an hour late to Ross Maxwell Drive, the paved road where Rick Willing waited with another water, food and underwear swap, and the weather forecast – 20 percent chance of rain today, 50 percent tomorrow, which explained the overcast skies and refreshingly cool breezes.
Fresno Creek had been a camper’s delight. The lunar surface beneath the Chimneys, the landmark cluster of small pointed pinnacles where we made camp on day three, was creepy. No breeze, an impenetrable darkness brought on by thick cloud cover, the way wolf spiders’ eyes glowed when a flashlight shined their way, the story Jeff told during dinner about camel spiders in the Sahara that ate their victims’ flesh and the sounds of little things scurrying around my sleeping bag prompted me to crawl into Shelly’s tent, until I crawled out again minutes later because my nose was so stuffed up from a lingering cold. Somewhere near dawn, I crawled back in after the rain started.
The flesh on two of Laurence’s toes had become infected and oozed pus. My lower back and right hip throbbed. Elizabeth’s toes were getting torn up too. Jeff said he had picked up my lingering head cold. Now it was raining. Did we dare go back? No way. We donned rain ponchos and pressed on. The rain was enough to draw the fresh scent from creosote – the perfume of the Chihuahuan desert – but ceased within the hour.
As we left camp, Laurence pointed out some petroglyphs near the base of the southernmost pinnacle. The first 5 miles below the Chimneys was a pleasant stroll through low desert, including several washes thick with Big Bend bluebonnets. The last 5 miles were mostly along Old Maverick Road, the dirt road shortcut to Santa Elena Canyon from the park’s west entrance.
We made a final water/food/underwear/socks/trash exchange at Shelly’s SUV parked by Terlingua Abaja, and made camp on a grassy bank of Terlingua Creek. Santa Elena Canyon was behind us, less than 2 miles away. Its 1,500-foot vertical west wall was the one we were supposed to climb the next day.
Day Five: The flesh on the bottom of three of Laurence’s toes had been rubbed raw. There was a 30 percent chance of rain. I wondered about Keri and Elizabeth’s resolve, especially after observing Keri shave her legs the night before. We could declare victory, celebrate what we achieved, and ride back to Terlingua in Shelly’s SUV.
“What’s the prognosis?” I asked Laurence, who was staring at his feet.
“Go for it.”
He was hurting, but he was too proud to bag it now.
We skirted the base of the mesa for 3 miles, picking our way through grassy plains and around ridges of bentonite, looking for an old, unused pack route up the canyon wall that Raymond Skiles told us about. Keri was nearing heat exhaustion to the point that Laurence proposed blowing off climbing the mesa and cutting across the flats towards Terlingua until Shelly spotted a cairn that marked the way up.
It took a little under an hour to scale the front wall, with considerable difficulty. On top, we discovered several more walls beyond. It was a terribly long slog. Almost every day of the trip someone would ask late in the afternoon, “How much farther?” The reply was always, “Oh, ’bout a mile, mile and a half.” This time it wasn’t funny.
“Today’s been a bitch, y’all,” Laurence declared as we finally dropped backpacks on a rolling plain near Tinaja Lujan. We’d covered 8 miles in seven and a half hours.
“I was getting demoralized,” Shelly admitted. “I’m freaking exhausted and want to get it over with,” Jeff said. Elizabeth was busy applying moleskin to her feet. Keri was exhausted. I didn’t move for 30 minutes after I dropped my pack, I was so tired.
Thunderstorms lit up the night sky as I fell asleep. When I heard a loud clap, I dragged my sleeping bag into Shelly’s tent. Lightning flashed, thunder cracked and rain came down hard for close to an hour.
At daybreak, the air had a pristine scent. “I’m glad we’re alive,” Laurence muttered as he emerged from his tent. “That lightning was less than a mile away. We’d pitched our tents close enough to each other that if one had been hit, all of us would have fried, with no one left to do CPR.” Elizabeth said she had a dream that we’d taken too much water from the tinaja and were being punished by the storms.
We were exhilarated. The views from the top were stunning. We could see the Sentinel marking the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon, the Rio Grande, the village of San Carlos 12 miles into Mexico, mountains in every direction. The walk down the mesa was positively chatty.
We paused at the last, great sweeping vista before our final 1,000-foot descent to Lajitas. The end of the trail was a golf course. The unnatural green of heavily irrigated grasses prompted grumbles and proposals to turn around. A golf course resort was no place to end a rugged adventure. “I’m feeling post-partum,” Shelly said on our final few hundred yards towards the course maintenance building. I saw a Coke can tossed among the creosote. This time I didn’t bother picking it up.
Jim Carrico, the former superintendent of Big Bend National Park and project manager of planning for Big Bend Ranch State Park, picked us up. In his four and a half years as national park super, he said he knew of only two parties who’d hiked across the Big Bend like we did. As for the golf course, he laughed. “People like you and me just don’t understand golf and jets.”
Somewhere on the drive back to Desert Sports, I saw myself in a mirror for the first time. The greasy hair and stubbly beard were not a pretty sight.
I fetched my car and drove Jeff back to his vehicle at Rio Grande Village, our starting point. The hour drive gave us time to ruminate on what we’d done, punctuated with several “We did that?” epiphanies, along with a full view of Santa Elena and the Mesa de Anguila sloping towards Lajitas. From the road, it looked as flat and smooth as a baby’s bottom. We knew better.
The shower back in Terlingua was delicious. For the rest of the evening, I took great pleasure in answering Terlingua friends and acquaintances when they inevitably asked, “What are you doing out here?”
Laurence’s feet finally healed, though he had a head cold for two more weeks. Jeff said he had flu-like symptoms for three weeks once he got home. Elizabeth, Keri and Shelly had their complaints. My lower back required some manipulation to get right and still acts up now and then. Despite all that, we’ve all said we’d do it again. Walking across the Big Bend will do that, to a few souls at least.
- Have you been to Big Bend Ranch State Park? Blog Joe Nick about your adventures.
- Did you hear Joe Nick talk about his hike on the Glenn Mitchell Radio Show?
- Texas Mountains
University of Texas Press
In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas. Buy Now from UT PRESS
Top 10 Swimming Holes
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
A springs fanatic picks his 10 favorites (plus a few honorable mentions).
Of all the features that define natural Texas, nothing speaks to the soul quite like springs do. As the source of water in its purest, most pristine form, springs are the basic building block of life. They present themselves in a manner as miraculous as birth itself, gestating in the womblike darkness of an aquifer deep underground until pressure percolates, pushes, and forces the water up through cracks, fissures, and faults in the limestone cap until it bubbles, seeps or sometimes even gushes, to the surface, magically turning everything around it lush and green. Springs feed creeks, streams and rivers, and nourish plant and animal life. Springs are why Texas has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years.
As far as I’m concerned, though, the greatest thing about springs is that they create swimming holes, which are the very best place to be in Texas in the summer. The greatest concentration are clustered in the Hill Country, where human activity around San Marcos Springs, the second largest springs in Texas, has been traced back more than 12,000 years. Like me, the ancients must have figured out that immersing in cool artesian spring water was a pretty smart way to survive a hot day in August.
I endure the heat gladly when I’m close to a spring-fed swimming hole. The endless string of broiling days and sweltering nights that wear down the spirit and sap the want-to and can-do in even the hardiest of souls — that’s my favorite time of the year. Springs are why.
The great spring-fed swimming holes of Texas run the gamut from wild and unsullied to tamed and civilized. All of them promise a shady place to cool off, cool down and cultivate the lazy streak that resides within us all. The swimming hole is my church, a holy place to splash in water clean and clear enough not to have to worry, with at least one big rock to lie out on and jump off of, and ideally a rope swing hanging from a tree limb. Settings like that are compelling evidence there is a higher power.
I have written about swimming holes on numerous occasions for several publications. I live where I live for the swimming hole, which all of my family enjoys in the summer. I plan road trips around swimming holes. I’m always on the prowl to find new ones.
There are literally hundreds of these liquid jewels scattered across Texas, many of them known, some secret, all defying the logic of geography, geology, climate and progress. Without springs, I would not be here. Without springs, I don’t think Texas would be here, either.
Having to select my 10 favorite swimming holes is not unlike having to choose among your children, knowing I’m leaving out sweet spots like Mankin’s Crossing on the San Gabriel, Tonkawa Falls in Crawford, the state parks at Colorado Bend, McKinney Falls, and on the Guadalupe River near Boerne, the entire Medina River, Burger’s Lake in Fort Worth, the Paluxy River in Glen Rose, Possum Kingdom Lake west of Mineral Wells, Tule Canyon Lake near Silverton, Chain-O-Lakes near Cleveland, Hancock Springs in Lampasas, Las Moras Springs at Fort Clark in Brackettville, the Slab in Llano and the 7A Crossing in Wimberley, just to name a few. The following 10 are chosen at my own personal peril and risk, because they’re just my opinion. You likely have your own top 10. Either way, we should all quit arguing and jump in, feet first, eyes closed. Biggest cannonball splash wins.
1. Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale
Back in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps lined the banks of San Solomon Springs, the biggest springs in West Texas, with native stone and built a classic bathhouse to provide easier access to 78-degree water that is Caribbean-clear and brimming with pupfish, tetras, catfish and turtles. Those features and its picturesque location in the Chihuahuan Desert with the Davis Mountains on the horizon conspire to create the finest natural swimming experience on earth.
2. Barton Springs, Austin
As development has sprawled beyond the pool and the creek upstream all the way to its headwaters some 30 miles away in Hays County, Barton Springs is more remarkable than ever. There are times when the water is so clear it’s as if nothing has changed in the last 100 years. I derive a great deal of pleasure watching friends get hooked the same way I did at Barton’s more than 30 years ago. Two recent converts I know begin their day at 5 a.m. in the springs, with downtown skyscrapers and the moon providing all the illumination they need to navigate the dark waters. That’s a little too extreme for me, but they know like I know there is no better urban swimming hole on Earth. Period.
(512) 476-9044 www.ci.austin.tx.us/parks/bartonsprings.htm
3. Landa Park, New Braunfels
The 1.5 million-gallon, spring-fed pool at the Landa Park Aquatic Complex on the Comal River in New Braunfels is a compact version of Barton Springs without the crowds, fed by the biggest springs in Texas. A few hundred yards downstream on the Comal River is the Prince Solms Tube Chute, a cheap thrill ride that inspired the nearby Schlitterbahn, consistently rated as the best waterpark in America. Thanks to the constant 73-degree water temperature, snorkelers and divers can do the entire mile-long stretch of the river year-round.
(830) 608-2160; www.ci.new-braunfels.tx.us/parks/Landa%20Park.htm
4. Krause Springs, Spicewood
This sublimely picturesque natural swimming environment consists of several pools on Little Cypress Creek, fed by a small waterfall tumbling from springs on the exquisitely manicured bluff above. Krause Springs is privately owned, but overnight camping is permitted. (830) 693-4181.
5. Sewell Park, City Park, Rio Vista Park,
San Marcos River, San Marcos
The San Marcos River begins at the bottom of Spring Lake, an impoundment where the second biggest complex of springs in Texas pumps out thousands of gallons of pure water, spilling over two small dams before winding swift, crystal-clear and cool (70 degrees year-round) on a short, two-mile run as a semi-tropical waterway ideal for tubing, snorkeling or wading. The flow in some spots is so strong, you can point upstream and swim in place, getting a good workout among the turtles and fishes in the wild rice without going anywhere. There’s even a small dam to slide down to keep things interesting.
Sewell Park (on Texas State University Campus): (512) 245-2004.
City Park, Rio Vista Park: (512) 393-8400. www.ci.san-marcos.tx.us/departments/parks/ParksFacilities.html
6. Schumacher’s Crossing, Guadalupe River, Hunt
This storied hole on Highway 39 was popular long before Hunt became a favorite Hill Country destination for wealthy families from Houston and San Antonio in the early 20th century.
Contact West Kerr County Chamber of Commerce (830) 367-4322 www.wkcc.com
7. Neal’s Lodges, Concan/Garner State Park,
Rio Frio, Leakey
The whole stretch of the Rio Frio between Leakey and Concan is made for tubing and splashing. But these two historic spots dating back to the 1920s on the banks of turquoise-tinted Frio, one of the most gin-clear bodies of water in the Southwest, are a cut above the rest when it comes to swimming and floating among the cypresses. (830) 232-6118
8. Hamilton Pool, Hamilton Pool Nature Preserve,
Thirty miles southwest of downtown Austin, Hamilton Creek transforms into a 50-foot waterfall that tumbles into a steep canyon shaded by a near-perfect cave overhang with a nice sandy beach at the opposite end of the natural pool. Access to this idyllic grotto is limited.
(512) 264-2740 www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr/parks/hamilton_pool.asp
Blanco River State Park, Blanco (tie)
A sentimental pick, mainly for the sweet pleasure of pulling off the highway just after sunset at the end of Labor Day weekend last year for a swim in the gathering darkness, the park’s hole is created by a low dam spanning the river with a small pool area below the dam for that cement-pond swimming experience. (830) 833-4333; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/blanco/
9. Devil’s Water Hole,
Inks Lake State Park, Burnet (tie)
The red granite cliff, a Highland Lakes landmark, is rife with small falls fed by Spring Creek following heavy rains and offers a 25-foot promontory from which to jump (feet first, of course) into this dammed portion of the Colorado River.
(512) 793-2223; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/blanco/
10. San Felipe Springs, Del Rio
This swimming hole on San Felipe Creek in the small city-owned Horseshoe Park is a welcome oasis on the edge of the desert, even though busy Highway 90 crosses nearby. Flanked by improved banks of native stone, shaded by stately pecan, elm, maple and mulberry trees, lined with a hard limestone bottom, and fed by the fourth largest springs in Texas, the pool is shallow enough near the banks for kids to stand in and long enough to swim short laps.
Horseshoe Park: (830) 774-8454.
Blue Hole, Wimberley
This storied hole should bust back into the Top Ten next year when it reopens as a city park. The hole is in the process of being purchased by the Village of Wimberley, aided in no small part by a $1.9 million grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department after being saved from development by local resident Peter Way.
See Also: Water Wars How growing demand, fuzzy legal rulings and plain old stubbornness have turned Kinney County into a hotbed of water politics. [Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, July 2005]
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
November 4, 2005
“Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight For Seadrift, Texas"
By Diane Wilson
Chelsea Green Publishing Company
400 pages, $27.50
While working on an oral history project called “The Voices of Civil Rights,” I spent a year traveling around the country, collecting dozens of personal stories about a critical period in our nation’s history. The stories I heard were both uplifting and heartbreaking. But they also made me wonder whatever happened to activism and activists, to people who were willing to put their lives on the line to change the world. The movement, it seemed, was a distant subject, something that had happened a long, long time ago before everyone settled into more comfortable lives.
Then I met Diane Wilson. My friend Michael Berryhill was a neighbor of hers in Seadrift, the small fishing community on San Antonio Bay where she grew up. She may have not faced the fire hoses on the Selma bridge or locked arms with nonviolent protestors in Memphis, he told me, but Wilson was a fighter willing to give up everything to fight for her bay and her way of life.
He wasn’t kidding.
Over the course of an afternoon on the front porch of a small purple house fronting the bay, Wilson reeled off the story of her life, how she grew up in a family of outlaw fisherman, worked as a shrimper as her father and her father’s father did before her, ran a fish house (a rarity for a woman on the coast), and came of age in her forties when she learned that she was living in the most toxic county in the United States and decided to take on the largest employer in the county, a Taiwanese-based corporation with friends in Austin and Washington.
She brought the saga into the present, how she’s banned from the Texas Legislature following a series of arrests for demonstrating in front of that august body, how she’s protested the Iraq War in Congress where she and activist Medea Benjamin unfurled a banner in the gallery while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified before a congressional committee. How she kept going back to New York for a hearing that had to do with civil disobedience actions at the United Nations, where she had handcuffed herself to the building in an effort to bring attention to an international campaign for justice for the victims of the 1984 chemical disaster that killed thousands in Bhopal, India. And how, despite arrests and harassment, despite setbacks and disappointment, despite the overwhelming odds she faced in tackling corporate power and its political patrons, she took pride in being what she called an “Unreasonable Woman.”
Later I would learn that the phrase has a special meaning for Wilson. It comes from a favorite quote from George Bernard Shaw: “A reasonable woman adapts to the world. An unreasonable woman makes the world adapt to her.” Wilson, in fact, helped to found an organization called Unreasonable Women for the Earth, a precursor to Code Pink: Women for Peace.
Fittingly, her memoir is titled An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas. It’s the story of Wilson’s transformation from an inherently shy mother of five who preferred the solitude of the shrimpboat into an international environmental activist. She has also written an elegy to the endangered Texas Gulf Coast and an indictment of the chemical-political-industrial complex that has done so much to harm it.
Wilson evokes a visceral love for the water, the Gulf and the bays that define her sense of place. She never hesitates to invoke the ethereal, the mystic, and the spiritual to explain it all. At the same time, she makes clear that fishing, shrimping, crabbing, and living off the water is a way of life fast-disappearing from this part of the world for a number of reasons. No one has done a better job of capturing the challenges that this small, declining subculture deal with day to day. The shrimper, she writes
…was in the wrong century on the wrong path at the wrong place, and his addiction to the water was either gonna drive him crazy or kill him outright. One desperate shrimper lay facedown on the back deck of his boat in the shrimp and the muck and the hardheads and begged the dying shrimp to tell him their secret. Where they went. What they were doing. But that pile of shrimp said nothing and kept their silence to their slow gray breath.
Her own transformation began in 1989, when a shrimper named Bill Bailey, who was suffering from three kinds of cancer, handed Wilson a newspaper and told her to read an article from the Associated Press, a story about a first-ever report on the federal Toxic Release Inventory, which ranked the states on the emissions pouring from their industries. Texas, Wilson learned, was first in most emissions “with Louisiana breathing hard down our necks.”
“Four times our little Calhoun County was mentioned,” she writes. “A piddlin’ little county on the Gulf Coast that was lucky when fifteen thousand people lived and stayed overnight… Besides that first-place prize, Calhoun was third for shipping toxins out, sixth for sticking them down wells, then twenty-first for flinging them in the air.”
Soon after she read the article, Wilson called Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney in Houston, who told her to call a meeting–the first of a seemingly endless series of meetings that turned into a series of one-woman hunger strikes and other “actions.” Wilson taught herself how to navigate the complex bureaucracy of state and federal environmental regulations and how to investigate the byzantine organization of a far-flung global corporation. Those skills, along with the chemistry that she picked up along the way, enabled her to expose the hypocrisy in the law, as she compared the heavy hand that metes justice to gill-net fishermen with the apologetic slap on the wrist delivered to industries that were dumping tons of toxic material into the air and water. Following the paper trail, Wilson outed a sweetheart deal between Formosa and its security firm, which happened to be owned by a Texas state senator (Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria)).
She also traced the fingerprints of former Senator Phil Gramm to the decision to locate Formosa Plastics’ vinyl chloride plant in Calhoun County. After environmental protesters in Taiwan forced the company to forgo construction of the plant on the island, it was Gramm who recruited the plant to the Texas Gulf. He then had his former campaign manager appointed regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency in Dallas, where he regulated Formosa in the manner that Formosa wished to be regulated, i.e., discharging without a permit with the full knowledge of the EPA. As Wilson makes clear, fulltime environmental activism came with a price: Her marriage ended. Her brother went to work for Formosa. And in a bitter break, she parted with Blackburn. After everyone shunned her (somewhere after her first hunger strike), she found support among the Vietnamese shrimpers and crabbers in Seadrift.
Along the way, there are enough metaphors and homilies jammed into the telling to make me wonder if her editors didn’t make her busier’n a one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest to come up with yet more homilies in order to burnish her Erin Brockovich credentials. Although Wilson makes a pretty good case for ecofeminism, the references to goddesses, spirits, and dreams are not always easy to grasp, especially if one reads this as a policy book, which it definitely is. No writer has ever explained the tangled web that is Texas politics and its dealings with environmental issues so succinctly as Diane Wilson.
An Unreasonable Woman ends with Wilson’s attempt to blow up her beloved shrimp boat in the bay–a desperate effort to change, if not the world, then at least her part of the Texas coast. That effort led to some measure of success, as several chemical plants began to take seriously her campaign for zero-discharge.
Zero discharge is doable. So that’s what I say to every nonbelieving chemical plant and what I haven’t gained in sophistication or professional etiquette, I make up for in unreasonable behavior. I am not so well behaved anymore.
Indeed she’s not. In 2002, Wilson was arrested in Calhoun County after she scaled a fence and chained herself to a tower belonging to a Union Carbide plant, an action she undertook on behalf of the victims of Bhopal. For her, this was more than a symbolic act of solidarity: The Toxic Release Inventory–the subject of that long ago AP story that set her down the path of environmental activism–was written into the law by Congress in the wake of the Bhopal disaster. For Wilson, a vision of civil rights that includes global environmental rights is no stretch at all. Of course, that’s not the way local officials–nor officials from Carbide and Dow Chemical, its parent company–see things. Today Wilson is facing a four-month jail sentence as a result of that 2002 Carbide arrest. Currently she’s on book tour and in no hurry to come back to Texas and serve that sentence. As she explains in interviews and talks throughout the country, Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide, has never gone to India to serve time, despite that nation’s repeated efforts to have him extradited from the United States. So why should she go first?
Unreasonable? Maybe. But consider the decades-long tale of environmental destruction that Wilson relates in her book. And consider everything that has happened along the Gulf Coast in the past few months, we can only hope that it starts raining unreasonable women–and men–in this state. Soon.
Paging Dr. Frankendeer
Field & Stream
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
November 30, 2005
A controversy over cloned deer erupts in Texas.
Brutus, a 6-month-old spindly-legged whitetail with two nubs already rising on his forehead, is roaming with five other fawns around several high-fenced acres protected from the outside world by black shade cloth. He and his pals are one of several herds confined to pens scattered around the grounds of Revolution Whitetails, a scientific deer-breeding ranch located 30 miles east of Dallas. Brutus has a dewy-eyed innocence that isn’t surprising considering that he’s been bottle-fed and pampered by Dr. Tim Holt, an equine veterinarian who owns the ranch. That also explains the animal’s fearlessness as he approaches Holt, whose familiar white pickup and lean frame adorned in a blue veterinarian’s scrub shirt and Wranglers usually signal feeding time.
Brutus and the other whitetails grazing around this idyllic woodland prairie are clonesÑliving, breathing examples of a new and controversial chapter in wildlife science. Depending on which side of the philosophical fence one stands, cloned whitetail deer are either the latest innovation in breeding technologyÑpushing the envelope of antler sizesÑor they’re FrankendeerÑscary examples of the domestication of game into livestock and the ultimate insult to fair-chase ethics.
Revolution Whitetails is the first and only private enterprise licensed by the state of Texas to clone deer for commercial gain. The company holds the patent on the process, which is based on research conducted by one of Holt’s partners, Mark Westhusin, an associate professor at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where Dewey, the world’s first whitetail clone, came into being in November 2003. Brutus and about 30 other deer were conceived by replicating fibroblast cells (the basic building blocks of connective tissue) taken from skin samples of bucks with superior genes and implanting that DNA into a host doe’s ovaries. The procedure is complex and expensiveÑabout $75,000 to $100,000 per clone. Still, Brutus looks the same, flicks his tail the same, and acts the same as his counterparts in the wild.
The idea of cloning wild animals upsets many people, but Holt doesn’t think it’s such a big deal when viewed in the context of animal husbandry. "The Texas Deer Association [which represents about 600 breeding-permit holders] was totally against cloning when they first heard about us," Holt says. "They formed an ethics committee to discuss if they were going to allow me to do it. Now they’ve changed their position. All it takes is for one of their big bucks to have an untimely death, because we can preserve those qualities through DNA and re-create the animal."
Still, he understands some of the initial reactions, which he believes were based on a lack of knowledge about how the science of cloning works. "People were against artificial insemination when it first started," he says. "But we’re not in the experimental phase anymore. We’ve done it. We’re in the commercial phase now, which makes people nervous because I’ve got the best genetics in the state." And when it comes to trophy whitetails, genetics are everything.
Plenty of hunters are willing to pay serious money for a chance at supersize whitetail bucks, and that excessive trophy lust fuels the economics of cloning and, for some, its rationale. Look no further than the $450,000 a syndicate paid for Dreambuck, a scientifically bred whitetail that may be the biggest deer in Texas, with antlers measuring 3013/8 inches. Sales of its semen, which will be used to breed more giant bucks, have already paid off handsomely for investors. Bigger deer mean more money for landowners, outfitters, and retailers associated with a state hunting economy that is the nation’s wealthiest, a $3.6 billion industry. So why not clone deer? It’s not illegal. Yet.
Bob Brown, Ph.D., the head of Texas A&M’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Science and vice president of the Wildlife Society, views cloning as unnatural. "I don’t think my faculty could’ve been more upset if they’d cloned a human," Brown says. "I haven’t talked to anyone who wasn’t appalled that wildlife is being treated as livestock. They’re catching does and inseminating them with semen." The result, he says, is "a cloned animal that has been bred and fed and conditioned to come to the feeder. That’s not wildlife."
Gene Riser, a Texas A&M alumnus who runs a scientific breeding operation on his ranch in the South Texas Brush Country and is a founding member of the Texas Deer Association, agrees with Brown that artificially bred deer are the same as livestock, but he argues that deer produced in such breeding operations are privately owned herds that belong to the landowner. He contends that since these animals are not the property of the people of Texas, as all wildlife in the state is designated, the landowner can do anything he wishes to do with them. Riser doesn’t mince words when it comes to the broader implications of cloning.
"I don’t give a s— about fair chase," he says. "When I go hunting, I want to kill something. We all have different attitudesÑhow we go about the hunt and how complicated we make it. Some want to make it hard and use muzzleloaders or bows. As far as making rules for other people about fair chaseÑoh, come on."
On the other side of the debate, the Texas Wildlife Association, which represents private landowners, is so adamant about the negative effects of cloning whitetails that it is lobbying the Texas Legislature to prohibit any cloning of wildlife except in cases involving endangered species.
"I worry that we’re moving toward buying shrink-wrapped antlers from Sammy the Superdeer at the Wal-Mart," says the organization’s executive vice president, Kirby Brown. His predecessor, David K. Langford, who is a seventh-generation Texas rancher and deer hunter, takes a wider view: "The more that artificiality is introduced to hunting, the more the experience is diminished. It’s not much of a leap from cloning to just forgetting all about the heritage of hunting." Both men fear that the process will generate an anti-hunting backlash.
That kind of skepticism prompted Boone and Crockett officials to put cloned deer in the same category as pen-raised deerÑunfit for trophy status.
"Cloning is a step too far," says Jack Ward Thomas, the Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Montana. "A trophy is a symbol, a memory of something achieved. Here’s an animal that’s lived long enough and survived long enough to be a trophy. B&C started the scoring system to honor the trophy. Where’s the honor when you’ve manipulated the genetics, diet, and age?" Thomas, a director emeritus of the U.S. Forest Service, understands that not everyone lives by that code. "Texas is a whole other place," he says. "It’s an entirely different culture with a different attitude toward hunting and wildlife." He should know: He’s also a Texas A&M graduate.
Stacking the Gene Pool
The discovery of a sick and dying trophy buck last November on the grounds of Camp Bullis, a U.S. military reservation near San Antonio, has added an element of intrigue to the cloning saga. That monster buck had antlers measuring 2713/8 B&C points, which is the third highest ever seen in Texas. A skin sample was obtained and forwarded to Revolution Whitetails, where its genetic material has been stored.
"I have samples of genetics of the best deer in Texas," Holt says. "I feel like the next world-record deer is going to be taken. The sights have been lifted so high that we’re shooting for a 300-point deer. If I’m able to provide people the opportunity to shoot a big buck, then that keeps the economy going. Next year we want to raise public awareness about what to do when a large animal is harvested."
Holt believes cloning whitetails is just another chapter in the ongoing evolution of animal domestication. "Horses, cattle, and dogs were all wild at one time," he says. "We’re not doing anything different that hasn’t been done to other species." Those other species, of course, are not game animals.
Perhaps the day isn’t far off when mounted heads will bear tags identifying them as wild or farm-raised, much like organic products and wild seafood are labeled in supermarkets. Whatever the implications of cloning might be, the revolution has already started in Texas. Its impact on hunters and hunting remains to be seen.
The Park That Time Forgot
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Boasting the world’s largest spring-fed pool and a retro-cool motel, Balmorhea State Park is the great oasis of the Chihuahuan Desert.
To most people looking on a map, Balmorhea is just a state park. But intrepid travelers who willingly make pilgrimages across several hundred miles of lonesome highway to this 49-acre spread in Far West Texas know Balmorhea is much more than that.
To them to us, I should say, since I’m one of the longtime true believers Balmorhea is the great oasis of the Chihuahuan Desert, the most scenic gateway into the Big Bend, and a delightful, low-key, and relatively undiscovered retreat off the beaten path in the middle of nowhere, yet still within eyeshot of Interstate 10.
In my particular case, Balmorhea is underwater nirvana, the finest natural swimming experience on earth. The World’s Largest Spring-fed Swimming Pool, as the park’s 3.5-million-gallon centerpiece is billed, is so big a 200-foot circle around the springs and a large rectangular tangent it takes a good 15 minutes of a steady crawl stroke to circumnavigate its perimeter.
The cottonwood-shaded grounds, crisscrossed with footbridges over the small canals, and the distinctive Spanish colonial white adobe, red-tile-roof bathhouse, lovingly constructed in the 1930s by Company 1856 of the storied Civilian Conservation Corps, are soothing to the eye. So is the backdrop of the Davis Mountains rising majestically from the Madera Valley, the land mass dwarfed by the spacious wide-open western sky that sprawls overhead.
That setting is merely a prelude to the scenery underwater. Pure, pristine, ancient artesian water flows from at least nine springs 25 feet below the surface in the middle of the pool at a rate of more than 20 million gallons a day. The water is a constant 76 degrees year round, refreshingly cool in the summer heat and surprisingly warm in the middle of winter, and so clear, the terms "gin-clear" and "crystal-clear" don’t do it justice. Visibility is 80 feet, farther than one can see underwater in most of the Caribbean Sea.
The clear water and intense, sharp sunlight conspire to zap the waterscape with rays of Technicolor, fairyland light that illuminate thousands of minnow-sized Pecos gambusia and Comanche Springs pupfish both listed as endangered species and tetra, dozens of black catfish hovering near the bottom, and several families of Texas spiny soft-shell and red-eared slider turtles working every corner of the pool. In the winter, coots and bufflehead ducks live on the surface.
Over the past three decades, I’ve managed to go swimming at Balmorhea every month of the calendar year. Many times I’ve had the pool all to myself, like I did two days after Labor Day last year. The solitude, I must admit, was quite a delicious feeling. I felt very privileged to be there at that moment.
Timing is everything. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the pool can be packed on weekend days with as many as 1,500 day trippers from nearby towns such as Fort Davis, Alpine, Marfa, Pecos, Presidio, and as far away as Midland, El Paso and Juarez. Most weekends during the rest of the year, the circular middle of the pool above the springs, and the 18-room white adobe San Solomon Courts cottages and adjacent campgrounds fill up with scuba divers from all across Texas and as far away as New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. The pool is large enough to qualify as open water for scuba certification.
Weekdays, more often than not, it’s all yours.
Regardless of when I come, I’m struck by the wonder that a pool of this magnificence and aquatic abundance can exist in a dry, harsh terrain that annually averages 8-14 inches of rainfall. Dora Ceballos, a 20-something woman from El Paso whom I met on my last visit, affirmed the special nature of the place. "We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses," she explained while watching several friends splash in the shallow area by the main steps. "How can you not believe in the miracles of the Creator, seeing this? I had no idea this was here. Next time, we’re bringing the kids."
She’s right. Water like this belongs in the Texas Hill Country, where most of the other great swimming springs in Texas are located. And sunsets like this are straight out of the American West, Mesilla Valley at the very least, especially when you’re finishing a plate of New Mexico-style stacked green chile enchiladas on the patio of the Cueva de Oso restaurant back in town.
Town, 4 miles from the park entrance on State Highway 17, is the real Balmorhea, population 500, so named for Balcomb, Moore, and Rhea, the three Scottish developers who began irrigated farming operations in the valley in the late 19th century.
The water has been around since before man arrived. Humans have been utilizing it for thousands of years. Indians were farming near the springs when the first Spanish explorers crossed this territory in the 16th century. Today San Solomon Springs sustains 12,000 acres of cultivated cotton, sudan grass and alfalfa.
San Solomon Springs is a cienega, the Spanish word for desert marsh, a very unique and rare environment. Much of the cienega was destroyed when the pool was constructed. The pool and the park were initially under the stewardship of the Reeves County Water District No. 1 and were annexed into the Texas Parks and Wildlife system in 1960. In 1996 the unintended marshland damage was mitigated when TPWD established a three-acre cienega below the motel and adjacent to the campgrounds. Planted cottonwood, cattails and bulrushes have flourished. The pied-billed grebe (not seen since 1937) and the green heron have returned.
The above details came from Tom Johnson, the park manager of Balmorhea. Like the Jehovah’s Witness, he too confirmed Balmorhea is hardly the typical Texas state park.
"People that come out here all the time don’t want anybody else out here. They want it as their own private oasis," he says.
But the numbers don’t lie. The annual visitation count is up to more than 200,000 and rising, ranking Balmorhea one of the top ten most-visited state parks. "For a little park out in the middle of nowhere, those numbers are way up there. We have a busy season, and a busier season."
Dove hunters book up motel rooms in early September. Birders from the eastern United States flock to the park to witness western flyway migrations in the spring and fall.
Cyclists regularly stop to ride the local roads. West Texas and New Mexico motorcycle groups hold rallies in town. Rock hunters drop by while seeking out Balmorhea blue agate. Word of mouth has prompted an increasing number of long distance travelers on Interstate 10 to pull off and spend a night in the comfort and quiet of motel rooms with 18-inch adobe walls before resuming their cross-country trek. Then there’s the growing number of urban refugees "trying to get out of the city and wanting to find an unspoiled place," Johnson says. "They’re coming here. They don’t like the TVs in the room, they don’t want phones, and they don’t want us to make it too nice. They’re happy that the nearest Wal-Mart is 53 miles away."
And why not? With simple retro-cool CCC motel kitchenettes for $60 a night, a dive shop next door that sells air and rents masks and snorkels, nearby restaurants, a cafe/soda fountain, an RV park, and the new Laird Ranch bed & breakfast with private dining facilities, Balmorhea Lake three and a half miles downstream from San Solomon Springs, and endless vistas of wide open spaces no matter where you look, why bother going anywhere?
Johnson fetched a trove of old postcards and photographs of the springs and the park out of his desk to show me the cult of Balmorhea is no new thing. Two photos are of Tom Johnson’s father on a high diving board in the 1940s. His father and mother, residents of Van Horn, 67 miles west, were pool regulars when they were growing up. Many cards identify the pool as the "world’s largest." Comments written on the back politely acknowledge the dusty surroundings and occasionally violent weather: "…the country here is so much different from our part of the state."
"We came here but a tornado broke loose over us. What a night!"
On Johnson’s wall are a couple of publicity photographs. One is the Paladins, a modern greased-up rockabilly band from Los Angeles who stop in whenever they’re going to or from Austin, The handwritten message accompanying the band’s autograph declares: "This is the greatest place in the world."
Another publicity photo on Johnson’s wall is signed by Divin’ Sam Hernandez, the first and only American to win the Acapulco Cliff Diving Championships. "He’s a truck driver now," Johnson said. "His route is from Los Angeles to Dallas, and he says this is the only place between those two cities worth stopping for a swim."
The longer one pauses, the greater the appreciation for the simpler pleasures of Balmorhea. The playground next to the pool has all the swings and slides a kid could ever need. Picnic shelters with small cooking pits may be no big deal in Dallas or San Antonio, but on this part of the desert, the tables and benches, the shade awning, and the grass around them are luxuries. The small network of canals emanating from the springs into the restored cienega provides a subtle, sweetly melodic soundtrack while observing the abundant aquatic life thriving in the see-through water. It’s an elementary, sometimes deeply spiritual exercise comparable to contemplating a tidal pool. (Shorter attention spans will benefit from the window wall viewing area of the San Solomon cienega as well as the adjacent observation deck.) The mere act of sitting on the porch outside a motel room takes on its own appeal. Hang around long enough and you’ll finally make sense out of the older couple who spent at least half of one day reclining in their folding beach chairs by the pool without ever moving.
One February day a couple of years ago, I emerged from the water to encounter a weathered old man gazing onto the scene. He was from California, he told me, and he hadn’t been to Balmorhea since the days shortly after it was constructed. Back then, he said, there were dances staged on the pavilion and a Mexican cafe that operated on the premises. He was passing through and just wanted to see if the old place was still there. He seemed reassured it was. His experience synched with the first impressions two clean-cut gentlemen wearing leather chaps had when they stumbled onto the park last September while riding their motorcycles from Big Bend National Park back home to Kansas. "This is the park that time forgot," one whispered to the other as the ranger checked them into their room for the night.
All kinds of people from all over are Balmorhea fans, I’ve come to find out. From unsuspecting bikers from Kansas to the husband and wife walking in tandem in matching shirts, shorts and knee socks to the peregrine falcon biologist in search of relief from the heat to the displaced bathing beauties in bikinis making like lizards and lying on the concrete wall by the pool to work on their tans.
It’s convinced me that no matter where I go or where I may end up on this earth, sooner or later I, too, will come back to Balmorhea, just to see if it’s still there, just to get that feeling again of being in a park that time forgot in a place that feels like it should be somewhere else. It will be worth the trip, I’m sure.
See also: blog Kinney Water Wars
The Only Honest Lake in Texas
The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Ron Munden
July 8, 2005 (Volume 97, No. 14)
It looks like a winner has emerged in the struggle for Caddo Lake.
A table full of good ol’ boys and good ol’ girls are having a hoot over lunch at Dawn’s, under the bridge where State Highway 43 crosses the western edge of Caddo Lake. One in the crowd claims he’s been seeing blue UN flags popping up all over the lake, hearing folks speaking Esperanto and Ebonics, and observing some lake people engaging in secret handshakesall sure signs the United Nations has taken over Caddo Lake.
"That’ll give the general heart palpitations," one big bubba cackles.
The "general" is retired General Vernon Lewis, the lake resident who co-sponsored a resolution along with Ed Smith, the mayor of nearby Marshall, in the 2004 Texas Republican Party platform condemning the Caddo Lake Institute and, through the institute, its president Dwight Shellman and its cofounder and chief financier Don Henley for aligning with the United Nations.
There it is, Article 10 under Environment, Property Ownership, and Natural Resources: "We oppose conservation easements on our natural resources administered by organizations unaccountable to taxpayers and voters. For example, the efforts of the Caddo Lake Institute to act as a surrogate for the UN in gaining control of water rights of Caddo Lake."
The dig was directed at the institute for its role in having Caddo Lake recognized as a wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (www.ramsar.org) in 1993. Caddo is one of 19 wetland sites in the United States and the only one in Texas to get the designation. The problem with the Republicans’ proclamation is that Ramsar is not a United Nations convention, nor does the "important wetland" designation have squat to do with landowners’ sovereignty rights. (At least the Caddo Lake Institute was in good company. The Texas Republican party platform also opposed affirmative action, statehood for the District of Columbia, the Kyoto Protocol, the Biodiversity Treaty, and buying land for endangered species, while supporting the "rule of capture" of groundwater and abolishment of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.)
On March 24, 2004, several months prior to the platform adoption, Lewis and Smith spoke at an emergency townhall meeting of the Tarrant County Republican Assembly in Fort Worth on "Seven Flags Over Texas (The UN Is the Seventh Flag)." The announcement for the emergency meeting asks, "Why Is the UN in Texas? Why Do They Want Texas Water? Come Here [sic] about the California-ization of Texas and About the Republicans That Are Helping the Wrong Side."
Robby Speight, a burly character sitting at the lunch table at Dawn’s who is president of the Greater Caddo Lake Association, recalls meeting a State Department official at a national lake conference a year ago. The official told him they had a name for people who get their dander up about the United Nations’ support of the Ramsar Convention and are forever paranoid about the world body’s imminent invasion: "the black helicopter crowd." The State Department official allowed that the case of the retired general and Mayor Smith successfully lobbying to get it written into the Texas Republican Party platform was a little more extreme than usual. Obviously, the State Department official doesn’t know Texas.
The lunch crowd at Dawn’s is laughing because, for all the ongoing battles between the lake people and the city of Marshall over water rights to Caddo and the fulminations from the black helicopter crowd, the war on Caddo Lake is over. Battles are still being fought and skirmishes are forever, but when all is said and done, the good ol’ boys and good ol’ girls who live and work on the lake won, and they know it.
Although a last minute state court ruling or political intervention is never out of the question, Caddo Lake as an untapped source for water hustlers is off the table. The water right to 40,000 acre feet that the Army had but never fully utilized when it oversaw an ammunitions plant by the lake, which politicians from the city of Marshall also coveted to sell to an industrial user, is being handed off to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the overseer of the national wildlife refuge being created on the site of the ammo plant, and the Fish & Wildlife Service’s interest in water marketing is less than zero.
Caddo Lake is unlike any other lake in the state. It’s the only lake with an honest history because it is the only honest lake in Texas, having formed naturally sometime during the 19th century. It’s the only Texas lake with its own body of literature, including Love Is A Wild Assault by Elithe Hamilton Kirkland, the twisted, true-to-life romance novel based on the life of Harriet Moore, aka Harriet the Brave and Beautiful and Kishi Woman of Caddo Lake; Caddo Was A Short History of Caddo Lake by Fred Dahmer, the definitive Caddo Lake book; Every Sun That Rises, stories told by Wyatt Moore, another lake sage who was a boatman, fisherman, guide, trapper, raftsman, moonshiner, and roughneck as well as a gifted storyteller; and Jacques D. Bagur’s recent A History of Navigation on Cypress Bayou and the Lakes, the extensively researched history of boat traffic that has debunked several myths about the lake.
Fine as books may be, full appreciation of Caddo Lake is a two-step program. First, one must reach back in the mind’s eye, beyond the printed word, beyond the Great Raft jam on the Red River (most often cited for forming the lake out of the Big Cypress Bayou in the early 1800s), beyond the New Madrid earthquake of 1811, also attributed as the source, and even before to the Caddo Indians and their legend of the chief who had a vision and told his people to move to higher ground in advance of a deadly wall of water that covered their village overnight. Going to Caddo is going all the way back to the beginning of time, when the towering bald cypressTexas’ own redwoodswere common all over the Earth, not just in the few selected nooks and crannies like Caddo Lake where they persist today, bearing witness to the primordial soup that spawned all life.
Next, spray yourself down for mosquitoes, chiggers, and other bugs, walk out on the dock in the back of the cabin you’ve rented, and take it all in. The foreground is defined by a coating of duckweed floating on the water in a surreal electric lime-green swirl. The background is dominated by a wall of bald cypress soaring skyward. In between, herons and cranes pick their way through the muck to stab and grab a small crappie or some other object of desire while a red-shouldered hawk and a green heron play out a quiet drama as the hawk swoops out of high branches of its tree to hassle the heron for infringing on its space by perching on a branch too close. The give-and-take is accompanied by a noisy soundtrack of bullfrogs burping out percussive bass lines to rhythmic ensembles of locusts, cicadas, and crickets buzzing, clicking, and whirring.
Part swamp and consisting of a series of lakes of varying size, shape, and depth, Caddo Lake is roughly 23 miles long and covers 40,000 acres in high water, making it the second biggest natural lake in the South and easily one of the most inspiring, which explains the Ramsar recognition.
Caddo is almost as significant for what it is not: no condos, no high rises, no chain motels or restaurants, no resorts, no gated, planned communities, no margarita bars, no chains, no pretension, none of the trappings of modern Texas Lake Culture. Cell phone service here is as spotty as it is in Big Bend. The Big Bend comparison is intentional. Caddo Lake may be in northeast Texas and relatively close to urban centers in all directions, but for those who get Caddo, it is a natural jewel just as worthy of protection.
Still, it should not be confused for pristine. A lot of bad things have happened here. Almost all the virgin timber was gone more than a century ago. Dam building upstream and downstream along Cypress Creek all but eliminated floods, which rob the riparian forest of much of the soup of rich nutrients deposited on the topsoil in high water. The lake is downwind of several electricity-generating plants powered by cheap but dirty-burning lignite coal containing mercury. Texas Tech toxicology scientist Thomas Rainwater discovered the highest concentration of mercury ever found in a snake while studying a cottonmouth rattlesnake from Caddo Lake. Consumers are warned to eat no more than 8 ounces of bass or drum from the lake per month due to high levels of contaminants. The presence in the water supply of pharmaceuticals from the chicken processing industry is becoming a concern. The highest level of acid rain west of the Mississippi River has been recorded here. And the City of Marshall still wants to utilize part of its right to draw 16,000 acre feet of water a year just upstream of Caddo to attract an industrial user.
Many of those problems aren’t going away soon. It will take time, money, and community consensus to fix them.
This story was originally going to be about Don Henley, Dwight Shellman, and the Caddo Lake Institute they founded together and how the Texas Republican Party came to hate them. Henley is the East Texas musician who spent some of the millions he’s earned with the Eagles, one of the most popular bands of all time, to save Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Henley founded the Walden Woods project, which raised $17 million to protect Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond from development, before turning his sights on his own Walden, Caddo Lake, about 25 miles from Linden, the town where he grew up. In 1993, Henley enlisted Shellman, an attorney and his neighbor in Aspen, Colorado, where he keeps a vacation home, to co-found the Caddo Lake Institute (CLI). Shellman moved part-time to Uncertain, pop. 194, the largest community on the lake and, as president and general counsel for the institute, began showing locals how to use science, education, and the courts to protect the lake and their property.
This story was also going to be about the vendetta waged by retired General Vernon Lewis, the former head of the Cypress Valley Navigation District, which is responsible for maintaining the lake’s boat roads, against Shellman and the CLI. Lewis’ field of battle has largely been the op-ed page of the weekly newspaper he co-publishes, the Lone Star Eagle. When asked about his dispute with Shellman, General Lewis is blunt. "He’s going to go away someday, and when he goes away, this Caddo Lake Institute is going to go away. This is a one-man show and it is all about money and environmental power. They don’t give a shit about Caddo lake."
Shellman’s sin was to organize various lake interests and challenge the political status quo. The Caddo Lake Institute’s initial emphasis was on science, research, and school partnerships to define exactly what the lake is. Much of that accumulated data has been put to use. Shellman raised the question of the consequences for the lake if Marshall utilized its full right to 16,000 acre feet of water taken from just upstream of the lake. Caddo Lake interests protested a proposed power plant for American Electric Power that was eventually sited elsewhere. The institute applied for an in-flow water right for the lake and the Cypress Basin. Several lake residents sued power plants in East Texas for emissions causing mercury contamination. When Marshall tried to switch its water right permit from municipal to industrial use, Shellman litigated the city’s ability to do so without a contested hearing all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. (The case was heard in October 2004. At press time, a decision is still pending.)
But Shellman, who is stepping down at the Caddo Lake Institute at the end of the summer, isn’t the story. Neither is the retired general. The longer one lingers on the lake, the clearer it becomes that it’s the people in between who will determine the lake’s future.
Shellman is an Aspen lawyer. Paul Fortune grew up on Caddo Lake in a one-room shack on Pine Island Road on Big Cypress Bayou that his family moved into in 1953 following a house fire. "We had no running water; we had no indoor plumbing," he says, but he did learn a lot about fishing and hunting and paddling. "I’m not very educated," he says. "I graduated high school in a class of 12 and I wasn’t in the top 10. Caddo Lake has been my bread and butter. There’s no other place like it."
A clean-cut, spine-erect go-getter, he followed his father in getting a job at the Lone Star Ammunition Plant, which opened in 1944 and employed as many as 2,400 workers until it ceased operations in 1995. Fortune left the plant in 1980 but never really left the lake, where he builds houses and serves as vice-president of the 700-member Greater Caddo Lake Association. Lately, he’s been hanging around the administration building of the ammo plant again, this time to help transform the property from a $44-million Superfund cleanup site to the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, an 8,500-acre symbol of the lake’s future.
"The first time I met Dwight Shellman was six years ago with a group of local people," Fortune remembers as he shows me around the old administration building, where the refuge will be headquartered and the Caddo Lake Institute will lease offices. "We were told this might be a wildlife refuge if the community wanted it. Don Henley had the connections, but Dwight said Don didn’t want to waste his time and money if the local people don’t want it." Fortune and nine others were flown to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque, courtesy of Henley, and were sold on the idea.
"We had heard of other usesa prison, a chicken processing plant, industrial park," he says. "All of that sounded good for the local economy, but they weren’t compatible with Caddo Lake right here." Fortune credits Shellman for being "so durn persistent" in making the refuge a reality and recognizes that Shellman’s work is almost done.
"For years, Dwight’s been retiring. He’s like my fatherhe can’t quit. But I think Dwight realizes somebody needs to take the helm, if there is somebody. He wants to find that person to do it. To my knowledge, he hasn’t found that person yet."
Shellman could do worse than Fortune. He’s one of several lake people I encountered who are passionate about the lake and projects like the refuge, where planning for public access is underway, including wildlife observation areas for hikers, bikers, and equestrians. There’s hope the refuge’s infrastructure will siphon off some of the $1.2 billion birding and wildlife observation brings into the Texas economy annually, most of it currently being spent along the coast and in the Rio Grande Valley.
Fortune gets almost gaga talking about Harrison Bayou Bottoms, 1,400 acres tucked back in the wildlife refuge that is a rare slice of old-growth hardwood river bottom. The acreage was initially leased from the Army by the Caddo Lake Institute before it was integrated into the national wildlife refuge. "I would like to see a boardwalk into a portion of where it is totally undisturbed, but where people can view this," Fortune says. "Man has altered Caddo Lake something fierce. Places like Harrison Bayou Bottom prove it’s still a salvageable lake."
The refuge purchase complements more than 8,000 acres on the north side of the lake, designated a state wildlife management area in 1992 through land buys by the Texas Nature Conservancy, and the 800-acre Caddo Lake State Park on the other side of the town of Karnack, effectively blocking major development along Caddo’s shoreline.
Tom Walker, the mild-mannered, fifth-generation local, part-time librarian, pro-life Christian, and vacation Bible school teacher who introduced me to Paul Fortune, is the e-mail version of Paul Revere on Caddo Lake, the communicator who keeps a long mailing list apprised of affairs that affect the lake. He’s also a birder, so when I find a wren chick on the front stoop of the cabin where I’m staying, I know to take it to Walker, who conducts bird-banding sessions on his family homestead. A day later, he’s sending photo updates via e-mail.
Walker lives at the family homestead near the lake, where I nibble fat blueberries out of his garden and listen to him bang out three ragtime-influenced compositions about alligators, herons, raccoons, and Caddo Lake on a dusty upright piano before going for a drive along the north shore of Caddo. We’re looking for Buddy Man Andrews, the 85-year-old African-American wise man of the lake, but Buddy Man isn’t home, so we meander over to Goat Island while Walker calls out birds by sound and sightdowny woodpecker, Acadian flycatcher, northern cardinal, summer tanager, juvenile little blue heron, blue jays, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, blue-gray gnat-catcher, pine warbler, eastern phoebe, mockingbird, mourning dove, little egret.
During the drive, his family history rolls out. William P. Watson settled the homestead in the 1850s when he arrived from North Carolina and married Walker’s great-great grandmother. Watson’s father-in-law, Ward Taylor, founded the daily Jefferson Jimplecute in 1848. Watson’s daughter, Molly, married Andrew Jackson Carter, for whom Carter’s Lake, part of Caddo Lake, is named. The county road leading to his house is named after his father, Boots Walker.
We also talk about Christians and the environment. Walker is flustered that evangelicals flail against concepts such as minimal flows and conservation easements. "Those people think man’s dominion over the world means exploiting it," he says. "Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden to take care of it. Noah had a responsibility to care for the animals."
We drive to Jefferson, pop. 2,912, 14 miles west of the lake and the most perfectly restored small town in Texas I’ve ever visited. Once the major steamboat port-of-entry where thousands of new arrivals first set foot on Texas soil, the one-time boomtown spent most of the 20th century as a ghost town thanks to the advent of railroads and highways, but it was rediscovered in time to save most of the historic structures and reinvent the eight-block downtown by the waterfront into a pedestrian-friendly tourism magnet that is packed most weekends with visitors from Dallas, Houston, and beyond.
Walker introduces Dr. Carroll Harrell, the program director of the Jeffersonian Institute, the town’s equivalent of the Caddo Lake Institute, who breathlessly informs us Richard Subia, the great-great-great grandson of the last Caddo chief, is coming to the institute the next day to speak. Harrell’s doctoral dissertation focused on the populations living in Marion County, including the Caddo, who she says maintained a strong presence around the lake even after Chief Tarshar signed a treaty with the white man in 1835 and most of the tribe moved to the Brazos River and later to a reservation in Oklahoma. "They were in a swamp, so nobody knew they were there anyway," she explains. "When [white] settlers moved in, there was a blending together." The Caddo word tejas, from which Texas was derived, means "friend." The Caddo word for African-Americans translates as "kin."
Dr. Harrell knows a few things about the region’s history. "Jay Gould is a myth," she says dismissively of the robber baron who is said to have placed a curse on Jefferson when the town would not accommodate his railroad. And while it’s true that Howard Hughes’ father developed the world’s first offshore oil rig on the lake in 1917, the lake’s permanent weir dam in Mooringsport, Louisiana, wasn’t constructed for that purpose; it had already been in place for several years. And, no, Harrell insists, the Jeffersonian Institute is not just about preservation. "Our challenge at the institute is how do we create a sustainable economy utilizing the history, the culture, and the environment with education as the driver?"
The Jeffersonian Institute’s driver is Jesse M. (Duke) DeWare, who wears many hats around townCity of Jefferson Attorney; Cypress Valley Alliance President; Jeffersonian Institute President; and director of the Marion County Industrial Foundation. After attending the Citadel and law school, he came home and broke into the cabal who ran Jefferson. DeWare purchased the last forest fire lookout tower in Marion County from the Texas Forest Service and reassembled it in downtown Jefferson as a historical artifact while adding a cell phone tower and a WiFi tower on top. He’s been involved with the Army Corps of Engineers in an environmental restoration of the waterfront that will include an amphitheater, walking trails and boardwalks, and an outdoor education component to educate students about wetlands. He’s also promoting nature tourism as a means to link together Jefferson and Caddo Lake in order to bring visitors to the region, rather than to a specific town.
"Here, we believe in economic development," he says with the certainty of one who’s figured it out. "A big key to that is preserving your environment. It goes hand in hand. There is no conflict. You preserve your environment; you will have sustainable economic development. We want to embrace it in every way we can. We want to attract people here to protect it. People we’ve grown up with don’t realize those assets; it’s no big deal. The people moving in are choosing it."
In other words, Jefferson gets it, just like Austin gets it, Terlingua and Marathon get it, and Port Aransas gets it. Towns and cities in close proximity to parks and open space can make money off their location, as has happened to places like Moab, Utah; Bishop, California; and Port Angeles, Washington.
"My biggest challenge is to reinvent the community to keep up with everywhere else," DeWare says. "We want to be the most well-preserved city in Texas, but we also want to be a 21st-century pedestrian community with global technology. There are people who can live anywhere in the world as long as they can communicate. If they can’t communicate like they want to, you’re not going to get those people."
As lush as the lake appears to be to a visitor’s eye, locals point out that, like most of Texas, it is in the throes of drought. "It’s almost down to the top of the spillway," Robby Speight says during a slow cruise around the lake. "If Marshall was pulling its full water right, you’d feel a reverse current," he says. He points out another threat to the lake’s health. "See that purple flower? That’s a hyacinth. It sucks the oxygen out of the water, and fish don’t live underneath it." The Greater Caddo Lake Association is starting their own hyacinth suppression program to augment state efforts. After Speight attended the Flows Conference in Karnack organized by the Caddo Lake Institute in May, he came away supporting a study of controlled flooding of the lake to mimic nature. "They’re not seeing any new growth of cypress," he says, "so scientists are looking at manipulating the flow.
"For a long time, I took this for granted," Speight smiles as he surveys the water around him. "Now, I don’t."
At their next state convention, Texas Republicans might consider calling for the eradication of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The most sought-after bird in North America, thought to be extinct, was last spotted around Caddo Lake in the 1930s. This spring, the first sighting of an ivory-billed in 60 years was confirmed in the Big Woods of southeastern Arkansas, a similarly wooded swampland about 200 miles from Caddo Lakeclose enough, as the bird flies, to make plausible an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting around Caddo Lake. If that happens, they’ll have to build walls around the lake to keep birders out.
Dwight Shellman finally weighed in via e-mail after I’d returned from Caddo. He confirmed he’s leaving as the institute’s chief administrator in September although he says he may take on special projects "until the institutional transaction is accomplished to my and Don’s satisfaction."
The lake people are now armed with the knowledge needed for community stewardship of the lake and its watershed, and to address issues such as mercury contamination, minimal flows, how to work with the Texas Council on Environmental Quality, water districts, and academics, and how to train local people to protect their lake and wetlands.
The National Wildlife Refuge designation is clearly a point of pride. Shellman wrote, "CLI worked for years with the decontamination effort to learn its dimensions, and then used that information to create very difficult technical GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mappingto identify the 7,200 (7/8ths) uncontaminated acres that were ready for immediate refuge purposes and the 1,000 other acres to be taken into the Refugewhen cleaned of contaminants. We then facilitated the transition of that transfer with several federal and state agencies and the community and built them into a team rather than competitors.
"None of this would be possible without Don’s unswerving loyalty to this place and willingness to raise money when the chips are down. He makes locals confident that they will be able to defend; it may also help careless or potential spoilers to be more careful about listening, learning and trying to join our conservation efforts rather than fighting them. There is usually scientific common ground to meet on, with everyone who is prepared and flexible."
This puts Shellman in an uncomfortable position. "I love the place and the people I have come to know so well in 14 years of work and living there," he wrote. "I am torn as to whether I need to get out of the way and be absent so successors can make the program their own, or continue to live there. Living there requires me to learn to keep my opinions to myselfa trait I am not celebrated for. So, it’s not clear I will leaveor just put some burdens down or pass them on to new creative people and stay."
Whatever he does, the lake will still be here, and so will the lake people who have learned to love and fight for Caddo Lake as passionately as Henry David Thoreau felt about his beloved Walden Pond.
Water Foul When the City of Marshall wanted to pump millions of gallons of water out of Caddo Lake and sell them to the highest bidder, the state said, “Sure.” Residents of Karnack, Uncertain, and other tiny northeast Texas towns said, “Hell, no.”
Katrina Mississippi Coast Report
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
posted September 8, 2005
See also – KATRINA PHOTOS
Listen – NPR’s Day to Day (Sept. 12, 2005) "Weathering Katrina at the Log Cabin Bar". Reporter Joe Nick Patoski relates the story of a group of people who holed up in a Mississippi bar to ride out Hurricane Katrina, and then had to make a harrowing escape through the roof and across two makeshift gangplanks to safety at the height of the storm.
Here’s some of the raw reporting I did from the Mississippi coast.
When I got the call Wednesday, I agreed to help cover the hurricane with the stipulation I go to Mississippi. I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR the day before and a caller who had a relative in Waveland complained she’d heard zero coverage about the area, which was in Katrina’s bulls-eye.
Jackson, 160 miles inland, was still reeling from the effects Weds night. Power was out in most place, there was a boil water alert and gas stations were all closed. I’m glad the guy at the rental car agency at the airport recommended I buy a full tank of gas now. The Hilton was full with an exceptional number of guests with dogs, walking them outside in the bushes, around the hallways, and in the elevators.
US 49 from Hattiesburg to the coast was officially closed Thursday morning but I went anyhow, arriving in Hattiesburg only a few hours after the road opened. I drove around Hattiesburg and the damage was as severe as any coastal town I’d seen, even though Hattiesburg is 60 miles inland. Power was out, poles knocked down, property damage severe. Three gas stations had just opened with lines several miles long and highway patrol guarding the stations. I awaited at one station with a short line until I heard that the scheduled fuel delivery was just a rumor.I backtracked to a station where I only had to wait an hour and a half to buy the $20 maximum–eight gallons at $2.49. The pump attendant said he’d waited 5 hours in line that morning and paid $3.99 a gallon. Folks were calm but there was tension in the air. An armed security guard manned the store’s door, allowing only a few folks in at a time. I heard one lady behind the counter say they were about to run out of gas.
Although US 49 was open, there were still trees and power lines on the pavement I had to dodge. The only other vehicles headed south were power company caravans, fire trucks, police, search and rescue teams.
I drove straight to Biloxi to chase a story, the amount of debris and damage growing more intense by the mile, winding around boats in the road, more power lines, trash piles until I reached Mary L Micheal Seventh Grade School which had become a refugee center. The new residents were largely African-American with a strong Vietnamese-American contingent tied to Biloxi’s shrimp fleet and a smattering of Anglo-Americans. Everyone had already staked out a spot to sleep on the hallway floor with huge fans powered by generators blowing a hot, humid breeze down the hall.
No one complained, although no one seemed to know what to do either. Everyone was waiting, and when approached by a stranger were eager to share their personal story of surviving the hurricane and the unprecedented storm surge that came with it. Media and FEMA officials were nowhere in sight. I had to use the rest room which was already overflowing with since there was no water pressure, much less water. These were truly the dispossessed.
Yet no one complained loudly, no one lost their cool.
I spent two nights on the floor of the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport, which had become the emergency management center for the county, finding a spot the first night behind the dais where the Board of Supervisors normally make county decisions. No one seemed to mind. We slept where we could. The funeral home around the corner became the county’s coroner center. Out front in the street, several tractor-trailer trucks idled. Each was full of bodies.
For two days, I took Navy baths with hand wipes. I was glad to get a burger or cheese sandwich from the relief workers who’d come in from Outback Steakhouses in the Texas. I was happy to drink hot coffee, nevermind powdered creamer wasn’t on the menu.. Cell service was spotty, on for a few hours, then off indefinitely, which is why I couldn’t find my shooter, Marc Asnin, the first day. Instead of sticking around Gulfport, he drove 150 miles each night to Pensacola, Florida, where gas was plentiful and the late summer crowds were focused on the beach, not disaster.
Communications, on which we are so reliant in our profession, was next to non-existent. I tried to remember how journalism was done in the old days, before computers, cell phones, and modems.
At one point, I had to borrow a satellite phone from a reporter from the Baltimore Sun to let the bureau know I was OK. No cell service, no internet, having to calculate decisions based on using as little fuel as possible became the norm. Marc was a real pro when we finally did hook up. He’d taken cover under a truck with a fireman when the first tower of the World Trade Center imploded on 9/11. That was bad, he said. This was worse. Especially when we got to where the eye of the hurricane came ashore around Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Lakeshore, just east of the Louisiana line. There, the shock had yet to wear off five days after the fact. While recovery efforts seemed to be making an impact in Gulfport and Biloxi, help was arriving painfully slow in these towns on the western Mississippi coast.
To the person, everyone I approached was glad to talk. Mississippi folks are born storytellers–that’s why there’s such a deep tradition of bluesmen and writers–and every one had quite a story to tell.
The smells are still sharp in my mind. The dead leaves around the courthouse that lent a scent of fall to the scene early in the morning, when the search and rescue teams were preparing to leave. Too often though, the smells were foul, so rotten and vomit-inducing that it transcended sewage and rot. This was far more severe. Marc’s assistant summed it up as we followed some Army engineers clearing a debris strewn street in Waveland as we tiptoed around black muck that stuck to our boots. "That’s the stench of death." He was right.
The resilience of the people gave me hope, considering most had lost everything. Call them crazy, stupid, or ignorant, but these Mississippians have such a strong sense of place, they’re not about to leave. This is their home. At least here, they’re not strangers.
Marc made sure I got back to the real world by giving me five gallons of gas from several cans he’d bought before coming to Mississippi. On the way out Saturday night, Hattiesburg seemed almost civilized, despite the obvious damage. Jackson was a veritable shining city on the hill, a modicum of progress, although what few gas stations were open had long lines and patrolmen just like down south. Every hotel room was booked. I got the next to the last room in Canton, 20 miles up the road. I made it out but what I saw and reported was still with me. The story was following me. The man checking into the hotel ahead of me had driven up from Pearlington, where I had been that day. He cussed FEMA, complaining his town wasn’t even on their disaster map, and no official had shown their face. He told his own story about using a pickaxe to break out of his attic and escape to his roof in order to survive. Like most everyone else, he lost most of his property. But he still had a plenty of heart.
Katrina may have wrecked havoc from Mobile to New Orleans, but nowhere was the destruction so thorough as the remote towns of the western Mississippi coast. While rebuilding efforts were well underway in Gulfport, Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans five days after the storm blew in, the residents of Hancock County including the small towns of Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Pearlington where the eye of the hurricane passed overhead were still in a state of shock. This once-pastoral landscape of lowlands, bays, estuaries, and Piney Woods was clearly ground zero, as if God dumped a box of wooden matches in the sand. No manmade structure escaped damage.
Cars littered the roadside. Boats were tilted in parking lots. Houses were crushed, twisted, and ripped apart. Pine trees were snapped in two and lifted whole out of the ground, their rootballs intact.
Help was coming, but in a slow trickle at best, and the frustration was mounting. At a press conference in a courtroom of the Hancock County Courthouse, which had become the area’s Emergency Operations Center, Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre (yes, he’s a cousin of Brett Favre) told a press conference attended by three local reporters that he understood people breaking into stores and businesses if they needed food, water, or medical supplies. "We have had situations were people have broken into businesses for reasons of survival. I understand that, but not if they’re carrying out televisions or jewelry. Do not go in people’s houses. That will not be tolerated by neither the homeowner nor the officials." One proprietor of a convenience store in Bay Shores was literally giving his store away. As one refugee from Pearlington told me at a motel in Canton, almost two hundred miles north of the coast, "We weren’t even on FEMA’s map."
Any survivors in southern Hancock County who managed to ride out the storm and live had a harrowing personal story to tell.
More Eddie Favre at the press conference attended by three local media people: "Most of our people don’t have transportation and the ability to get there [to shelters]" Favre admitted frustration with the federal government’s reaction. "I don’t think anyone can be satisfied with the response."
But he praised the locals. "We have have had so many people who have lost everything and they still want to help. Our people are taking care of ourselves and taking care of our neighbors."
Desperation had grown to the point that Favre had to issue a health advisory. "Some people are using the bay to clean up. We recommend do not use the bay. The bay is contaminated."
More Favre: "It has totally destroyed any economy we had." Still, he projected optimism. "People may have lost a house, but they still have a home. People will rebuild. There’s going to have to be some things done that have never done before."
"We’re still missing people."We’ve had rumors martial law has been declared. That’s not the case. We still have strict law enforcement to protect people who are still here. The next rumor is we’ll have mandatory evacuation. There is no mandatory evacuation. But we do ask if people can leave, they should do so. Give us a few days, we’ll have water running."
"There are areas along the beachfront where there are no longer houses. The bayous are silted in. We’re not looking for airconditioning or things that make life easier. We’re looking for barebones essentials. None of us have gone through anything like this.
Hancock County EMA director Brian "Hootie" Adam: "Hancock County was in the bulls-eye."
For the first two days, "WQRZ-LP, 103.5 FM, The voice of Bay Saint Louis, Waveland, Diamondhead and the Kiln" was the only communications link to the outside world, hunkered down in the cinderblock building housing the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency. The 100 watt low power FM community station, normally solar-powered, is the brainchild of Brice L. Phillips, 39, a skinny disabled ham radio operator (KB5MPW) on social security, who built the station two years ago in anticipation of a disaster like this, and his girlfriend, Christine Stach, 34, who has MS and constantly clutches their dog, who is the station’s program director.
The station, owned and licensed to Hancock County Amateur Radio Association, serves 17,460 households and more 39,000 individuals along the western Mississippi shore, previously operated at his house near the beach in Bay St. Louis. When he saw the hurricane was headed towards Mississippi on Sunday evening, he climbed the 130 ft tower above his house to remove transmitters and moved the station’s equipment to the courthouse on Highway 90. "I knew we had to come here," Phillips said. The station was off the air for four hours.
"We were back up on the air by five [pm], the night before the storm hit. We stayed on and then we got knocked out about two in the morning when we had that tornado warning before the eye of the hurricane [hit the shore]. We have the only emergency alert system here. That was the important part, to keep it up. That’s why we built the station. We had to temporarily move down here. I brought one of the four antennas from the tower [on the roof of his house], unmounted it, put it up here. We had great SWR [Don’t know radio lingo] because we have the four changers that run on DC power. We have a laptop that controls them and all of our announcements are on it so we were able to put messages on it. The Emergency Alert System was able to run because we’re the first warning for emergency alert.
During the hurricane, Phillips said, "We were broadcasting New Age music during the hurricane, like Enya, a little bit of light folk, a little bit of light rock. So it calms people down. That was the broadcast. Then we brought the amateur equipment, all the ham rigs, too. We didn’t get that communications system set up until the following day [Tuesday] right after the storm.
"We had six repeaters here. They all went down. Harrison County has one radio repeater, we’re still on it. We came online. We were adding antenna after antenna after antenna. For the first two days it was nothing but antenna building. Then once one system got in, we had help from volunteers who came in. It was kind of rough.
"We do all the public bulletins–where food can be found, points of distribution for food, water and ice, shelters, advisories, public notices–‘Don’t drink the water, folks’, if you’re lucky enough to have it. We haven’t had any water here.
"We’re a 501 ( C ) corporation [non profit station], Hancock County Amateur Radio owns the license. WQRZ stands for Who Is Calling Me? in amateur radio lingo. That’s why we chose those call letters.
"The day after, the guy from the only Radio Shack around here wandered in. Of course I have extensive doings with the local Radio Shack store. They had 12 foot of water in that store, in Waveland. He came in. I was so happy to see this guy. I said, ‘I’m commandeering your store.’ We were short on coax-Ns, other things. He told me, ‘Yeah, you can have anything in the store."
"Right now we just finished recording that press conference, 47 minutes. We’ll run it again this evening, run it again tomorrow until another one comes out.
He doesn’t know if he and Christine still have a place to live. He shakes his head and holds back for a second, then says, "Somebody came in yesterday and said it lifted off the stilts it was on and set back down and piles went through the house. There’s 30 ft. of tower left.
"Come look at my van outside [in the parking lot of the courthouse]. We had bad luck. That’s my van." The roof is completed sheared off. The wind flipped the top off and tossed it, "This is what I drove down here with all the stuff [equipment including the antenna beams]. This is my car [a gray ’96 Ford Crown Victoria that was a gift from another ham radio operator]. The water came up and then it caught on fire. I almost killed Killer [his dog] because killer was in the car. We had to get him out. The water rising under the dash started the fire. Christine was freaking out, she went into an MS attack because of the dog. She thought it was dead."
"The water was this deep [waist-high] by the house when we tried to get out of there, about six o’clock that evening. The station was already online here, rolling. I went back to the house to get the van and all the supplies six o’ clock Sunday evening.
"I got all my clothes. Christine didn’t get all her clothes. I have food for a couple days and basically all the radio supplies because you can’t do anything if you don’t have communications." I had to run all these wires and put the antenna up.
Did you feel safe in the emergency center? "It was not cool. Water started coming in the door, three or four feet deep. That’s our safe room. It went under." The roof started coming off the building.
The National Guard and FEMA pulled out, Phillips said, declaring "this building is no longer safe." The only ones remaining were locals.
"We numbered ourselves," Christine Stach says, showing a number scrawled in black ink on her wrist. In case they drowned, recovery teams could ID who the victims were. "Everybody lined up in the room before the water came up and we numbered ourselves," Brice said.
Brice: "Water was coming in and we were in the safe room and the eye of the storm was here. We had no electric. We didn’t have any batteries inside. It wasn’t until the next day we started bringing batteries in and established communications and got our transmitter back up. I tried for a day and a half to turn the wattage up in the transmitter but there was water in the coax where the antenna is."
"He predicted this years and years ago," said Al Showers, 42 the local reporter for WLOX-TV Channel 13 in Biloxi ["I used to have a house near the beach on Cedar Point in Bay St. Louis"] "He definitely saved the day. For the first 48 hours he was Hancock County’s only link to the outside world, the only communications whatsoever. He was it. He works on my computers and scanners and told me, ‘One of these days, we’re going to have a hurricane and I’m going to be the only one with communications. It came to pass because of his ham set up. He stayed up around the clock, doing this. My station was broadcasting, ‘We haven’t heard from our reporter. Anybody, please. We were able to talk with my station through the Civil Defense in Harrison County. That’s the only way they knew their reporter was alive and well, because of Brice’s setup. As soon as Civil Defense activated, he was broadcasting and never left the air."
"He saved the day," said Kenny Daniel, a bald headed ham operator (KD5KWS), 38, who is an MP in the 115th Company of the National Guard in Brandon (sp?), MS ( who came from Jackson Sunday before Katrina hit to help at the station.
[Daniel shows one of the messages the station has received to carry to the outside world: It’s to Sister Claudia Murphy, St Catherine Village, Madison Mississippi, (601-856-9023) It reads: "Pray, know that Rod, Dot, Margaret, and George are okay. We lost Nan, God rest her soul. Pearlington was leveled. Jane and I were in deep water for hours. Rod had lots of water too, haven’t talked with him but we heard. Devastation is surreal. Love you very much. Will call as soon as I can. Pray, Pray, Pray. Love, (signed Jan Murphy, Madison Parish, La Salle St. Tallulah, LA)]
WQRX 103.5 FM 463-1035 http://baystlouis-ms.com/wqrz.htm
From Friday’s New York Times: "On Thursday afternoon, Horace Hodges, another temporary tenant, made the rounds, carrying two buckets and offering to fetch water from a murky, puce-colored swimming pool to fill people’s toilet tanks. In the parking lot, a wharf rat the size of a small dog scurried underfoot as Howard O’Gwin Jr., who was living in one room with nine other family members, two dogs and a bird, unloaded bottled water from a shopping cart."
Here’s the rest of the story:
The parking lot of the Coast Inn and Suites motel on the northwest corner of Highway 603 and Highway 90 overlooks what is normally one of the busiest intersections in Bay St. Louis. For now, though, the lot also accommodates three boats. The two 19 ft Magnum skiffs with Yamaha 90 outboard engines belong to brothers Dan and Howard O’Gwin. The parking lot is where their boats came to rest when the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina finally receded hours after the storm blew through.
Both Dan O’Gwin, 54, and the family of Howard O’Gwin, 50, are living at the motel for now. Dan spends his days sitting under a tent awning next to his skiff in a beach chair, which is where he was sitting alongside Howard Jr when a reporter approached them. Howard Jr. sleeps in his boat to protect some of the last property they have that is still in one piece. The Coast Inn was the destination for several boatloads of survivors the O’Gwins picked up when they abandoned their homes, as Dan and his nephew Howard, Jr. 17, slender, shirtless in a bathing suit, and relaxed if he was out for a day at the beach, explained.
"We came here by boat," Dan O’Gwin said. "That’s how our boats got here. Water come up in our houses, cars went underwater, this whole area was flooded up to the second floor in the middle of the hurricane."
It’s not too surprising. The O’Gwin brothers, Howard Sr and Dan grew up on the water, "we worked on tugboats on the Mississippi River as kids," Dan said.
Dan O’Gwin lived four blocks from the motel next door to his grandmother in a house he’d moved into only a month ago. Howard O’Gwin and his family were riding out the hurricane with friends in a brand new brick house at 702 Edna Street in Waveland, between Highway 90 and the beach. "During the storm, it was fine," Howard Jr. said. "We were watching trees popping and everything. All of a sudden, we noticed the wind was blowing one way, and the water was blowing the other way." The sea and the bay were coming one. "Five minutes later, it came up and started seeping through the walls. Five minutes later it was up to our necks. It was that fast."
Howard, his wife Cathy, 44, Howard, Jr. and his younger brother Ben, 15, got into ther skiff and unwittingly became an impromptu search and rescue team when they abandoned the flooding residence. "We came all the way up Margie Street, up Highway 90. We rescued about 21 people and five dogs. One of them’s still here.
"I was in this boat," Howard Jr. said, "with my dad, mom, and family. We started before him. It was about nine o clock when we started. We came down Margie Street. I had my whistle blowing. We were hollering and screaming in case anybody needed help. We seen flashlights from people needing help. We rescued people all along the way. Some houses, we seen flashlights shining on us."
"I was scared but I didn’t want my wife or my family to see that I was scared," said Howard Sr., a muscular truck driver for an oyster company who used to work offshore on oil rigs. "If they would’ve seen me being scared, they would have panicked too."
"I couldn’t pass them up," Howard Sr said of the people needing rescue. "It’s just in my heart."
More Howard, Jr. "We came here [to the motel] first, dropped all the people off here, then we went over here to my grandma’s house. He [Dan] lives right next to him. Got them, then met up with him," Howard O’Gwin, Jr. said, nodding towards his uncle.
By the time his brother Howard Sr. motored up, Dan O’Gwin said, "I knew it was time to go. I was standing in my doorway, looking behind my house to the east, and I seen a big ol’ building, twirling up in the air like this, I can hear OOOOOOOoooooooooo when I heard that, I looked up to where the sound was coming from and this house was spinning. I went ‘Uh unh’.I got on the floor behind the wall and I heard itÉ.you wouldn’t believe the noise. After it hit, I went and looked out to see where it was, there was stuff everywhere, I mean a whole building everywhere, big steel beams. If it would’ve landed on my house, it would’ve probably smushed us. I’ll never go through that again."
Howard, Jr. said, "By the time we got to him [his uncle, Dan O’Gwin] he was trying to get his boat undone."
"The water was up to my neck," Dan O’Gwin said. "I couldn’t stay there. I had to get out or die. You had to go. It was either there or die. I reached over and grabbed a bird in a cage and put it in a console. I climbed in my boat and come up the highway, but I hit three foot waves, 155 mile an hour winds, spun me around two or three times, shot me back that way," Dan O’Gwin said. "I got behind a building, caught my breath and come on back this way. All them cars you see over there were, they was all under water. I tell you what," Dan O’Gwin says, "I was coming up the highway against that wind. I had it almost half-speed. That’s how had that wind was. Spun me around. I went the other way. These guys were following me. They couldn’t find me at first. They found me behind the Take One Video. I said, ‘Let’s get down the highway or we’ll get killed. So we came down the highway, ended up right here and rode the hurricane right up there."
Dan O’Gwin said they never considered evacuating in advance of Katrina. "Waveland’s been here 150 years and there’s never been water here. We knew we’d catch the wind, but we never thought we’d have water here."
"That black guy, we saved him," Howard Jr. says. "Every time we walk past him, he says, ‘Y’all need anything?”Y’all need something?’ because when we found him, he was in a motel down the street on Highway 90," Howard, Jr. said. "He and his wife were up to their necks in water when we found them."
The black guy is Horace Hodges, 58, who lived at the Burgin [sp] Inn [on Hwy 90] and now resides at the Coast Inn. "I had water up my nose. I was hanging from the rafters and my wife couldn’t swim. I said, ‘Baby, if you’re going down, I’m going down with you. We’re gonna hold each other and go ‘Gnnngh’ [makes a drowning noise].’ This man here [Howard] if I had $180,000, he could have it right now. I’m serious."
What are the O’Gwins going to do now?
"That’s a good question. I don’t know," said Dan O’Gwin, who receives a disability pension [he weighs at least 300 lbs], shaking his head grimly. "We’ve been trying to figure that out for two days. Maybe go back to the house and try to clean something. All our vehicles are under water. We don’t have no gas, no oil to change them out and get them going again. That’s all we got, our boats, and they’re high and dry."
"There ain’t a house left from the railroad tracks down to the beach [about a third of a mile]," Dan said. "Nothing left down there. I mean nuthin’."
But the O’Gwins ain’t leaving. "This is our home. We’re going to stay here as long as we can stay here."
"I just want to rebuild," Howard, Jr. says. "All our jobs got wiped out, Howard Jr. says. "We got knocked strictly off the ladder." But in the short term, their kindness is paying off. "They gave us a hotel room for saving all the people."
Long term, the O’Gwin’s will likely stick it out. "This is some of the best fishing here in the whole world–speckled trout, reds, flounder," Dan O’Gwin says. "I like to fish," Howard, Jr. agreed. "I’m 17 and I bought that boat. I saved a lot. It’s the best investment I ever made."
But if another hurricane is headed this way again? Dan O’Gwinn, he didn’t hesitate. "I’m going to the Canadian border. It done made a believer out of us." [Big Howard is 50, his brother Dan (the fat guy) is 54. Son Howard Jr. is 17. Howard Sr. wife Cathy is 44, Son Ben is 15.]
On Roberts Street, a one-lane paved alley off Sears Street in Waveland less than a mile from the beach, bulldozers diligently pushed away debris to clear a narrow path on the pavement among a tangle of wires, metal and wood to accommodate residents trying to find belongings and others looking for family members still missing. The smell of death was palpable. One solider in full military gear, Specialist Fourth Class Tim Brewer, a US Army Specialist E-4 from L Company of the 223d Engineers from Charleston, MS scanned the landscape and shook his head. He’d never seen anything like this.
"Not really. We did a year in Iraq and I don’t think Iraq was this bad. We was all over Iraq. Our main body was in Tikrit."
This was worse than Tikrit?
"I would say so. War is different. They didn’t go in there and bomb everything. They had targets. With a hurricane, it don’t have any targets. It just picks up everything."
At the Log Cabin, a combination bar/liquor store/ and laundry on the south side of US Highway 90 at the corner of Little Bay Road in Waveland, just east of Lake Shore, seven men and two women loiter on the elevated front porch of roadhouse with the rustic log exterior. Inside, there’s what remains of a short, four stool bar, a mud-encrusted pool table and a video dart game flat on the floor next to a wire cage containing six yapping Chihuahua pups. Around the side are what remains of a laundrymat and a liquor store. There’s a half empty quart of tequila under one bench and beer bottles scattered around the porch and in the muddy lot in front. A few of the blue-collar crowd appear to have been drinking in the early afternoon, regardless, or perhaps because of the ruin surrounding them.
"That’s my Lincoln right there," says Micheal Claudel, standing in the lot in front of the porch pointing to the west boundary of the lot. "It was parked over here," he says, pointing fifty feet to the east. Claudel, is none too pleased that his 1992 model Continental was flooded out and no longer runs. He’s not real happy he has no home either. "My house is totally underwater, it’s sideways in the weeds," he says matter-of-factly.
Claudel, a boyish looking blonde haired man who is 40, who speaks with a thick Yat [ie. New Orleanian] accent, knows he should have known better. A native of Tarrytown on the West Bank of the Mississippi River across from New Orleans, he’s been through a few hurricanes. He moved to Shoreline Park near Bay St. Louis six years ago when he gained custody of his son. He tried to ride out the storm with friends including Micheal Cuevas, the owner of the Log Cabin.
"A friend of mine, Micheal Cuevas, owns a bunch of property on this corner," Claudell explained. "We stayed next door in his laundrymat. He stayed in the liquor store with 11 people. Three of us stayed in the laundrymat. I had a place to go but something told me just to stay here. I had a place to go on the other side of I-10, my sister’s house in Pass Christian about 20 minutes from here. I wouldn’t have lost that [his car]. But these are my friends and when I seen themÉ.and it got kinda late, about 9 or 10 [Sunday night] and the storm started up so I stayed here."
That decision cost him his car, but saved a few lives in the process including that of a legally blind man and a pregnant woman past her due date.
"About 7:30 Monday morning, we got two inches of water. Half hour later, we’re standing in three foot of water. It’s coming up pretty damn fast. Real fast. We’re looking at each other, wondering what in the world we’re gonna do? We got on top of the dryers. We saw everybody going out of the liquor store. They had a convoy going out of the liquor store because the water was so high, they couldn’t stay in there no more. So we followed right behind them. When we got right here [at the corner of the elevated porch of the Log Cabin], Gail reached over to the handrail and missed it, and her husband, D.H. grabbed her. It [the water] was rushing like the Colorado raids. The current was unbelievable. I stood right here [on the steps] and swung these boots that were tied around my neck and Gail and D.H. grabbed my boots, friend of mine grabbed my leg, water was all around us, and pulled us all up there. She couldn’t even stand up. He [D.H.] was holding her from there to here, she’s a little short girl, five foot or something, four foot, whatever.
"We all get into the Log Cabin. Water’s still comin’ up. Hour later, it’s higher, so we get on the pool table." Claudell and his friend Bobby McAlister pushed the pool table beneath the attic entryway. "We open up the attic, start putting everybody in the attic [the entrance is directly above the pool table]. We get up in the attic. It’s coming up, coming up, coming up. It took an hour before it rose into the attic. There’s about an inch in the attic. So we didn’t waste no time.
Together with Bobby McAlister, 44, and his brother David Smith, 38, Claudel broke a hole in the attic ceiling. "We said, ‘Now, we gotta break loose,’ Claudel says. "So we busted it loose. I took this right here," he says, holding a table leg, "I took it up in the attic with me. And after we got the vent off we started beating and prying, we got enough room so I could squeeze myself out, then we broke it loose and started transporting the people. Me and Bobby McAlister made a bridge. There was a hole in the roof so we took some boards, one by eight and one by six planks, put two of them together, crossed over the gable of the roof, walked a good 40 feet along the back of the roof [which had blown apart]. We saw the trailer [Michael Cuevas camper adjacent to the Log Cabin] was just getting water on it, so we grabbed two 6x12s and laid them across. The last bridge we made went into the bathroom window on the second floor of another building behind the cabin] Bobby McAlister would take them over the peak and bring them to me. I’d meet them at the bridge and we walked across the bridge, across his camper and across the other bridge and put them in a little bathroom window [on the second floor] the smallest window in that building. [about 24 inches wide]. We got about a foot of water, but we were safe."
Or maybe not so safe. "That was our safety zone, but the building over there was shaking so bad," Bobby McAlister says. "We were just all standing there, waiting for whatever was gonna happen."
"We just tried to stay calm because I knew a bunch of us couldn’t swim," McAlister recalls. "There were dogs. Her dad is blind. She was pregnant full-term. Only thing I can do is try to keep a level head, try to get everybody to safe harbor. It was definitely an experience. That wind sound it was making. Somewhere between supersonic and an almost scary sound, it was constant."
"Now Micheal Cuevas, the owner, is legally blind," Claudel explains. "I’m going over the roof with him" holding and guiding him on the boards. "The wind’s blowin’ a hundred, a hundred twenty five miles an hour, easy."
"We stuck together, me and him," Claudel says of the elderly Cuevas, a short, white haired gentleman. "He listened to every word I said. Got him in the window and everybody was safe."
"We got everybody over there", across the mobile home to the second floor of a back building, "all the pets, how many pets ya’ll got? Six? Six dogs. Two or three birds."
Cuevas, 66, who was raised "in the Kiln" as he calls it, six miles to the north and has lived at the Log Cabin for six years, joins the retelling. Cuevas was in the back room laying down, when his daughter came in and said, ‘Daddy, you got to get up. There’s six inches in here. We got up and come in the liquor store. We stayed a little bit and the water got that deep [belly high]. We all got out of there, got our six Chihuahuas and two birds. We put them in an ice chest and drug them with us to the porch. We stepped into the Log Cabin. When it [the water] come up to the bar, well, then we said we had to get in the attic. Then we put the birds and dogs in the attic and this man Mike and Bobby McAlister and Bobby McAlister’s brothers, knocked that hole in the roof, put these two boards from this building to the trailer, and put two other boards from the house trailer to the two story building and took us one at a time. That man there [Claudel] took me across the bridge that’s about eight inches wide.
"The wind was goin’ 125, 150 miles an hour," says Cuevas. "When you’re going across the roof, you’re like this [Cuevas wobbles like a drunk trying to walk the line.] You slide. It’s a miracle that everybody’s alive. It’s a miracle. We saved six puppies and three birds, and one of the birds got out. We lost one bird. It’s unbelieveable. See all these cars here? There was about six foot of water over these cars. See that two story house over there?" he says, pointing to the group’s final stopping place. "Water got two feet deep up there. Yes, sir, we was gittin’ scared. Lemme tell you another thing, we had a lady who was in a travel trailer over there [in a mobile park behind the Log Cabin] and she tried to climb out of a hole. She couldn’t go. And that woman’s dead. We told the law about it that same day. They waited two days before they went over there." Her head stuck out of the trailer for two days.
"We could see her out this window," Michael Claudel says. "She had a one by one vent at the top of the trailer that she broke out. She stuck her head through it but couldn’t get the rest of her body [out]. So when the water come up, it must have come up over her head. What a horrible death."
"That man [Claudel] and Bobby McAlister saved my life," Cuevas says.
Another man out in front of the Log Cabin calmly mentions he still couldn’t find his 20 year old daughter. He hadn’t lost hope. He was still looking. But he knew the prognosis wasn’t good. As for Claudel, he’s staying in the room where he and Bobby McAlister led the others to safety during the flood. "I lost my car, my home is totaled, it’s just a big mess. But we’re alive, thank God, thank God."
A few miles farther west on Highway 90m west of Bay St. Louis and Waveland and a few miles from the Louisiana line, fifteen full-grown country boys and several dogs mill around a parking lot cluttered with cars, trucks, an RV, portable generators, a tractor, chainsaws, and tools. Two men lean over a generator that’s been flooded out, yanking on the power cord to get it to start. Two others, Todd Shiyou, 35, and his brother, Steve Shiyou, 39, conspicuously wear shoulder holsters with nine millimeter pistols, just in case looters show up. They’re all part of Reggie Barrios’ buddies who saved lives during the hurricane and have been functioning as a freelance emergency management agency ever since. Barrios, 39, owns 15 acres including the lot, the house behind it and the artesian well in back of the house, from which he’s provided cold running water, a precious commodity on the western Mississippi coast since Katrina hit, to one and all.
"This is my home," Barrios said by way of introduction, "and we’ve made it a community camp. Every decision made we discuss and agree on. The current process now is, ‘Stop us now if you’ve got a better idea.’"
A burly gentleman with a tattoo of a cross and Jesus and the phrase "Only He Can Judge" on his right bicep and a tattoo reading "The Renegade" on his left bicep, Barrios rode out the storm because his sister, who lives next door, wouldn’t leave. Instead, she took in about 12 people in her house before Katrina blew in. Reggie had 15 people in his house. "This is high ground most of the time," he said. This is 18 feet above sea level. People come here to run from storms."
If someone had to ride it out with her, it was her brother. Barrios, a mechanical contractor for Southernaire Inc., is a take-charge leader by nature and in this instance, a paragon of Can Do, self-sufficiency, as he explains in his rapid fire, plain-speaking earthy way.
"Late Sunday night it started getting real bad. By Monday morning, we was in the most intense part of the storm. We was watching the trees in the yard. The ground was getting so soaked and loose it [the wind] was blowing them over without breaking ’em. We made it through the brunt of the winds and we got into the eye wall, then the swell came, the storm surge. It come across from these woods [northeast], I watched it come into my house, coming in out of bay. That storm turned counter clockwise and pushed water into the bay and swelled out the bay. Bayou Phillips is right there. It come right over through these woods, which naturally drains in the other direction. It was a reverse pattern. In 15 minutes, the water was deep in my house. Fifteen minutes later, I was out of my house. [about 10 am]
"We was trying to board the building up. We was putting up six inch fence boards. We had a chop saw, a generator, and a nail gun. The water was rising faster than we could board the front door and the side door. When I saw how high, how fast it was coming, I said, ‘Listen, let’s open the doors, cause it’s gonna get blowed out, let the water through and get out. So we got out. We got that Freightliner [truck] running, it [the water] was just about up to the bed. That was the highest thing. It was a diesel. We drove it backwards down the road, and got out of the flood [driving in reverse west]. The water was starting to consume the road at a rate of about 100 yards every ten minutes. So he’s staying ahead of it and we’re all caught up to it, and I knew my sister was in there so we gotta get ’em out."
"We went up to the junkyard [about 100 yards west of his house], there was a boat sitting there. We got it on the trailer, but it wouldn’t start. Got another battery, still couldn’t get it to start. We’re sitting there, before the third battery was in, we got swept off the trailer, so we had to get out of the junkyard. By that time it was rushing across the ditch. We looked back, we saw–I believe it’s the Thomas family, I think it was their son–he had managed to get a boat, wedged the boat ahead of the surge on the road. We got everybody in my house down the road to the Welcome Center [the Mississippi Welcome Center by the state line, in the truck]. The first time we went there, they didn’t want to let us in. The officers that was working said they would lose their jobs. Hello? We’re out here, we made it here. You’re inside. So Red told them, ‘I’ll drive the truck through the door if you don’t.’ They accommodated us with a bathroom corridor, which we were happy to have. [Mark Necaise, 38, one of Barrios’ crew, said, "The security guards said their boss told them to run out the 30-40 people who were already in the Welcome Center"]
"Turned around with the big truck, we come back. We were going to get my family out.
"By the time we got back, I said, ‘Is this your boat?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ I got in. He said, ‘It’s stuck.’ I said, ‘It won’t be for long.’ We started pushing it. The water’s coming. It’s got a big motor. We got it free. Drove it down the highway. Drove down the driveway, over the roofs of the cars, over to my sister’s house. We got on the roof and started stomping on it. We knew, if they weren’t there, they were gone.
"My nephews had popped up. I said, ‘Get em out now.’ Got everybody out, put ’em in the boat, drove back down ahead of the storm surge, wedged it up on the side of the road. Got into the truck and left it [the boat].
"Mark [Necaise, 38, one of the Barrios crew] come back and got a man who was drowning in the ditch out. I don’t know who he was. By the time he was through making the third trip, we’re running out of eye wall. He brought boat back. We left. We got a total of thirty people out of two houses and the ditches."
"We tried to get into Lake Shore to get more people out but there was so many trees down at that water level, it was impassable. You gotta understand, an eyewall is so large, and no more. You got so much time. We’d been watching it on television until around 4 in the morning, my antenna had totally disintegrated before we lost power. 4 we lost information, 4:30 we lost electricity.
"We stood out the blow. That was the thing I was grateful to see, when daylight come, so I could make assessments, see what’s going on outside. We were fortunate trees [pines, some 60 ft high] were blowing away. I was praying, ‘Please go away. Blow the other way.’ Fortunately they did. They [trees] didn’t land on the house. We were beneficial this building is solid block [cinder block] and survived Camille. It’s got two roofs on it, so we knew it had a better chance than any other structure did. But this wasn’t the hurricane to be here in.
"I told my sister at nine o’clock the night before, go to NASA [the Stennis Space Center nearby]. They’ll let you in. She didn’t do it."
But the Barrios crew didn’t stop there. After the storm, Reggie Barrios managed to get ahold of Hancock Bank in Denham Springs and have $1,000 fronted to him on his signature. The crew went to Wal-Mart, spent $600 on shoes, socks, underwear, footpowder, towels, shirts, the basic necessities, and a new well pump. "We didn’t have time to wash. We were still standing in mud," Barrios said. "We brought it back, hooked up it, God willing, it worked."
"I got running water right now." [at a time when ice and bottled water were just beginning to be brought into the county by relief workers].
"I got four of ’em [wells] on my property, one of ’em free flowing if you want to catch water."
Barrios says his motivation to keep helping after the storm passed was simple. "Because they got nowhere to go. And if they stay here without water and sanitation, you’re gonna die," he said bluntly.
"We trying to move our trash away from us. We’ve got water. We have systems in here that don’t require city power–they’re gravity feed septic systems from the old days. They work. They’re getting the water out. We can use the toilet, we can wash our hands."
He escorted a visitor into the front room, whose floor is clean and smells of bleach. "See, this room we took back today. But look at the rest of it," he said, walking into a dark hall way, thick with mud. The rooms on each side are a mangled clutter of furniture, fixtures, wires, metal, and music equipment including drums, speakers, and the Fender jazz bass he’d bought a couple days before Katrina. "I never got to play it," Barrios shrugged. The flood water had risen to the ceiling ("I’ve got standard eight foot ceilings and you see them blowed out. I haven’t found the water line yet."). The damage was complete.
"This is my home. Set aside the monetary damage. Imagine the turmoil if we wouldn’t stayed in it. I found pieces of my sister’s furniture in my house. One of the table chairs from her house was in this hall. It was a very strong version of that tsunami." The comparison was apt and accurate.
"Gangrene, tetanus is our number one jeopardy," he said, walking on board into the backyard toward a pipe spewing clean water. "We’ve got one shower in a camper we’ve been using. We’re going to clean up one of these bathrooms next. I make everybody spray bleach water on the floor before they get in, making them keep their feet dry, put powder on ’em. The last two days we’ve been blessed not to have rain. We’ve put walkways everywhere. The number one most important thing I tell ’em is Keep your feet dry ’cause that’s what’ll put you down."
"It’s a standing order, Anybody wants free-flowing water, can have it," he said while rinsing his hands in the water trickling out the pipe. "We’ve got a washing machine on the way because we have infants, we have mothers who are dependent because they have to maintain these infants.
"Again, what’s gonna happen here is long term issues. We cain’t let children get sick. We don’t have a hospital. They have a piece of a hospital left. I stuck a nail in my foot the day of the storm when I got blowed out in the surge and two days later I had to lance it with a steak knife, get the infection out of it, and pack salve in it until I can get somewhere and get something and keep from ruining my feet ’cause I know what I gotta do to keep them."
"It was a bad situation, but it’ll get worse. People thinks the worst is over but for the ones living here now, it’s just begun. The shock is all that’s over. The reality is here to stay. I’ve been here since Camille. I know what Camille did to this place. I was standing a hundred yards from here. I was less than four years old and I can tell you, it made an impression on me, but it cain’t scratch this."
"Nonetheless, like I said, this is a blessing from God to have this," he said, glancing at the well water flowing out gently. "Clean, 800 foot deep water. It is potable. They have recommended that we don’t drink it. And that’s because they say of the possibility of bacteria as a precaution because we have enough bottled water to carry us through. But we would if we have no choice, and I would consider it the safest source, save set aside the bottled water. I have been drinking it. I stopped when they told us to, but I will drink it again if we run out [of bottled water]. I pray we don’t."
He’s not stopping here.
"My next concern is we get more tractors mobilized. I got my tractor up as soon as the water receded, my generator obviously, a few electrical tools, salvaged all the hand tools, I got my old winch-driven truck running, which is a ’78. All of the modern vehicles you can forget it. The computers are gone. But the antique stuff, we got it running. The next concern is fuel. If fuel runs out, we’re down to washing and drinking from this well outside. If we can get more generators and more fuel, we can achieve more sanitary levels and more solitude, I believe."
Barrios was beginning to sound like the ideal that FEMA is supposed to be.
"Last year, I shut my business down and went to Florida when Ivan came through and Frances and Jeanie. We stopped in Pensacola where Ivan was. For whatever reason, we would up going to Vero Beach. Having survived several hurricanes, I’ve worked disaster relief, I’ve worked ice storm ’94 in the Delta.
"I do know if you don’t lose heart, you can bust through to the other side.
"I’ve been back to those places a year after it happened and I see, yeah, I can tolerate this. This is family property four generations. I kept it manicured like a park. In fact I was going to make an RV park. We were in the process of making a store out of this," he said, referring to the house "and a park out of that," nodding towards the spacious back yard.
"I’m going to immediately make a store now. People need commerce here. I have money in my pocket, nowhere to spend it, nothing to buy. If there was a store here, anywhere local, we could buy things we need. We need stores now."
"Fuel is our most pressing demand. We have probably 50 gallons of fuel in reserve in that we have several vehicles including my truck which is carrying 30 gallons and other ones we haven’t drawn it out of yet. I’ve drawn money out and we’ve got people going in different directions to get fuel. We’ve sent them north. We’ve sent them to Pascagoula, to Louisiana. Get it now. Money is not our problem. Commerce is."
He peeled off $100 in twenties and gave them to one of his buds, who says he heard the BP in Diamondhead had opened, although it turned out to be nothing but a rumor.
So what can people do?
"Number one, pray. The second thing is, if you think you have anything that can be usable in this situation–generators, fuel, money is a tool, it’s an asset–anything you’re willing to give, get ahold of somebody, get it to them. The government moves a large quantity of stuff at a slower pace. The fast moving organizations are the churches and the individuals and charities that are private. They don’t have bureaucracies to go through. They can pack the car and leave tonight. They don’t have to wait on a signature. And we need them here. Bad."
"Lemme tell you something, south of St. John’s Church, is there no building standing period. Not one. There’s a half ice house and a water tower at the bayou [Bayou Phillip] Where they were building a casino, you can forget seeing that in the next three or four years. It’s gone.
"This is Lake Shore [where Reggie is] We come under a Bay St. Louis mailing address. If you wrote me a letter, you would address it to Bay St. Louis.
My address is 7431 Highway 90, Bay St. Louis. That’s the mailbox out there with the prop marks on it. Mark ran over it with a boat, pulling a man out of the ditch."
"I’ve survived on this hill [18 feet?] two Category Fives. Will I be here for another one? No. You can believe one thing, when it comes to the point I have to make the decision to leave, if my gut and my head, if just one of them says go, I’m gonna take their word."
"I can choose to leave any day," Reggie Barrios said with steely resolve. "But once I’m gone I can’t come back to help them." It’s pretty clear the thought never entered his mind.
Reggie plays many musical instruments and often has jam sessions at his place. He likes “blues, ZZ Top (in that order), all kinds of music, except hip hop” although he allows Christian hip hop is OK.
Captain John Rigolo, leader of eighty troops from Virginia Task Force Two from the Virginia Beach, VA, pauses while his troops rested under the twisted awning of what once was a gas station in Waveland.
"We’re part of the national Urban Search and Rescue teams." He turns to his troops. "Hey, fellas, mill about smartly, they’re going to take some pictures. OK? We got down here Tuesday morning. We came here to do search and rescue, to find live victims, patients if you will, and fatalities. We’re marking fatalities for the teams coming behind us.
"This is a tough one. Our team operated at the Pentagon in the aftermath of 9/11. A number of our guys operated at the World Trade Center. We saw a lot of destruction at both of those, but here the destruction is widespread.
"People who may not have had a lot to start with have even less now. It’s tough."
His team had yet to do a rescue, Rigolo said. "Unfortunately, all we’ve had so far is fatalities. We have done some animal rescues the last couple of days. Most of it has been recovery. A decent amount, yes sir.
"It’s tough. You see a lot of destruction, a lot of widespread loss. People have lost everything The stories we’re hearing about people who’ve ridden out the storm, living in their attics, one guy jumped on a boat, tied a sailboat to a tree, another lady who pushed her children up into it. She hung on to the bottom of a tree when the storm surge came through. Incredible stories of survival.
"We’re just about done with our search of this operation. What we’re doing, we’re hitting every street, every house, every structure. Going through the debris fields looking for any possibility of survivors, fatalities as well, identifying those for closure on that."
"We’re about to move our operation here to another location."
"Our group has a lot of experience. We have deployed a number of times during the last year for hurricanes. We were down in the panhandle of Florida, searching structures there. We’re well trained for this one, unfortunately." Katrina, Rigolo said, is "the worst I’ve ever seen."
Rigolo recalled one particular incident. "A woman found us and asked us to go to her mother’s house. We went by her house and we would see it was damaged very severely, and her mom’s car is visible in the garage, but she [the daughter] couldn’t get into the house because of the debris field. Her mom’s in there and I hope she’s alive. So we’re going to go in and look for her. That wasn’t even in our area. Our area was a couple blocks away. We go in there and start working away and a dog starts barking. The lady said, ‘Oh, that’s Buddy. That’s her dog.’ You can hear Buddy yapping in the background, it was a small Shitzu [SP?] The lady cried a heartfelt, ‘Mom, mom! Buddy, Buddy!’ started yelling out. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God’. All of sudden, in the house, we found her mom. Obviously, the turnout wasn’t good, but the positive side of it was, that we got Buddy. Buddy was actually entrapped in some debris and trees, we extracted him, turned him over to the daughter. She was very teared up. A very sad moment was a very good moment. The dog survived–she got at least a piece of her mom, something very important to her survived the storm. Turn that off now," Rigolo instructed.
He then related how his troops, a very tough bunch, were emotionally moved by the moment.
"Camille was a lady. Katrina is a bitch."
Shorty Necaise, 45, Bay St. Louis, who lost his wife in the storm surge. "Waveland is completely gone. It’s bad when you go down to the beach and you don’t know where you’re at. City hall’s gone. St. Claire’s [Catholic] Church is gone.:
"We’d never thought something like that would happen. This is worse than Camille." Brian ‘Hootie’ Adam, director, Hancock County EMA. "Hancock County was in the bulls-eye."
"This is the price you pay to live in Paradise." Timothy Shiyou, 37, Lake Shore. His two cousins flanking him said Tim was still in a state of shock.
"FEMA didn’t even have Pearlington on its map." Resident of Pearlington checking into a motel in Canton, MS on Saturday night.
- KATRINA PHOTOS
- Post a comment to the matching blog "Mississippi Coast Report"
- "Back from Mississippi" blog
- WQRZ Waveland on MSNBC MSNBC.com will focus its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina recovery on two cities on the hard-hit Mississippi coast.
- Listen – NPR’s Day to Day (Sept. 12, 2005) "Weathering Katrina at the Log Cabin Bar".
Songwriter helps lead the fight against development
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 12, 2003
EL PASO – Tom Russell can lay claim as the “last” singer-songwriter in Texas. That’s because he lives in a historic 70-year-old adobe home on 3 acres within spitting distance of the New Mexico state line.
The Los Angeles native, whose folk songs have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith and K.D. Lang, has lived in many corners of the world – Nigeria in wartime, Austin as it was emerging as a music scene, San Francisco and Brooklyn. But he now lives in the far end of far West Texas by choice.
The rural area is known as the Upper Valley, a swath of green bordering both sides of the Rio Grande for a mile or two as it meanders through the Chihuahuan Desert. The rugged western flank of the Franklin Mountains, the southern end of the Rockies that end in the heart of the city, provides a scenic backdrop.
“This is the last oasis in West Texas,” says Mr. Russell, 55. “It’s a refuge for heron, desert tortoises, egrets, raccoons, skunks, badgers, you name it. I have foxes walking through my yard every day.”
But the days of Mr. Russell’s idyllic retreat may be numbered. Progress in the form of two-story stucco houses built to their lot lines – crammed into subdivisions, five to eight homes per acre – are marching his way at a fast pace, with requests by developers for city zoning variances leading the way.
The first skirmish came last year when Mr. Russell and five of his neighbors managed to reroute massive overhead power lines that were proposed to run directly over their homes.
A controlled access highway completed two years ago to link Interstate 10 with Santa Teresa, N.M., has been a magnet attracting subdivisions, which in turn are attracting commercial developments.
Farming on plots of land less than 100 acres was already in decline in the Upper Valley, as it is everywhere in the United States. The sandy river-bottom soil is certainly productive enough. But the cost of planting, growing and harvesting crops, and increased competition from other countries add up to food and fibers being grown somewhere else.
Factor in what Mr. Russell sees as a city leadership overly supportive of growth and development at the expense of residents, and the Upper Valley becomes vulnerable. It is one of the few green spaces remaining in the metro area.
Yet those who support growth and development say that El Pasoans need housing and that it is being provided under the rules and guidelines set forth.
“Ownership of property is one of our basic rights in America, and it cannot be vulnerable to opposition without good cause,” says Rex Smith, a landowner who purchased Upper Valley property a year ago and immediately sought a zoning variance from the City Planning Commission. “Progress happens, and it cannot be stopped.”
Susan Austin, the City Council member who represents the Upper Valley, pushed for lower-density housing rules after initial protests. But she – along with the majority of the council – also voted to approve Mr. Smith’s application for higher-density housing. That has prompted one of Mr. Russell’s neighbors to mount a recall campaign of Ms. Austin.
Even if she has been the object of much wrath, Ms. Austin calls the activism of Mr. Russell and his neighbors “as passionate as any neighborhood group in my district.”
But she pointedly adds that they should put their money where their mouths are. “A lot of people want to preserve the idea of having a ranch-size homestead without having bought a ranch-size homestead, including Tom Russell, ” Ms. Austin says.
“Some of the people all over me don’t even live in the city. They live in the county” – outside the city limits. “The city can regulate. There are no zoning restrictions at all in the county.”
Mr. Russell came to El Paso seeking the same sort of inspiration that artists such as Tom Lea and Luis Jimenez and writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Benjamin Saenz have mined so well. “He always loved places like this,” says his sister Nan Lazzaretto, a schoolteacher.
Mr. Russell’s home is a hideout of sorts, in the outlaw tradition, tucked behind a wall of trees, high brush and cane that suddenly materializes among the fields of cotton, chili peppers, pecan plantations and pastoral horse farms that define the Upper Valley way of life.
“I love that there is no scene here,” he says as he doffs his cowboy hat to reveal a head of graying, wavy hair. “I don’t have to worry about being seen.”
Unlike Brooklyn, where he lived for almost 20 years before moving here six years ago, “people here are pleasant and neighborly,” he says.
“Downtown El Paso is like a movie set. It’s like things have never changed. I love being close to Mexico. I love the history. The Old Spanish Road up to Santa Fe is right down here. I grew up on Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’ and the tales of gunfighters.” As it happens, Rosa’s Cantina is not too far down the road.
Sometimes friends stop in. Dave Alvin drops by whenever he’s on his way from his home in Los Angeles to gigs in the southern United States. So does Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
A few years back, Mr. Russell hosted a border-town birthday bash for songwriter and visual artist Terry Allen that drew a gaggle of like-minded professional dreamers. Not everyone gets it. The late folk legend Dave Van Ronk, whose last recording was backing up Mr. Russell, likened El Paso’s dry summer heat to being “in a pizza oven.”
Mr. Russell started writing, singing and playing originals more than 30 years ago, inspired by hearing his older brother sing cowboy songs and seeing Bob Dylan perform “Desolation Row” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964.
He taught criminology in Nigeria from 1969-70 during the Biafran war , then followed friends he made in Africa to Vancouver, British Columbia. A band performing Hank Williams songs on Skid Row moved him to think: “That’s the job for me.” He landed in Austin in 1974 during that city’s nascent era as a music scene. Later, he drifted to San Francisco before landing in Brooklyn in the early ’80s.
He shifted his focus to writing (“I’m a frustrated novelist,” he says) and drove cabs to pay the bills. When he sang a song he’d written called “Gallo del Cielo” to one fare – the composer Robert Hunter, who collaborates with the Grateful Dead – he was encouraged to get back on stage.
Life in El Paso has suited him just fine. His adobe hacienda is filled with Mexican pickled-pine furniture and folk art. He just finished an open, Mexican-style patio. He has incorporated the landscape and local history into his work.
The critic John Swenson called Mr. Russell’s ambitious 1999 song cycle The Man From God Knows Where as “close to a Homeric treatment of American history as we’re ever likely to see.” Two years ago, he released Borderland, which includes “When Sinatra Played Juarez,” a song inspired by his ex-girlfriend’s uncle.
The uncle, who found the house Mr. Russell lives in, used to play piano across the border when Juarez was a hotbed for quickie Mexican divorces. The location also satisfies Mr. Russell’s jones for bullfighting and his love of the border, although twice he’s found himself caught in the crossfire of warring drug gangs in Juarez.
Mostly, though, Mr. Russell’s place offers refuge from a steady touring schedule that over the past half-year has taken him to Ireland, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Calgary and Edmonton in western Canada, and across the United States from Oregon to Maine – including an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, backed by Nanci Griffith in support of his latest album, Modern Art.
Mr. Russell and five neighbors have won some small victories in their effort to ward off more developments. Last summer, they successfully lobbied the City Planning Commission to reduce zoning density from R3A zoning, which allows up to eight homes per acre, to R2A, meaning lots can accommodate no more than five homes per acre.
That may be the best outcome possible, says Elma Carreto, the chairwoman of the Planning Commission. She says she sympathizes with Mr. Russell and insists the commission’s goal is to make sure planned developments conform to the existing area.
She says existing infrastructure, including roads, bridges, police, firefighters and schools, are not prepared to handle the traffic that 2,500 new homes bearing families will bring. But she can go only so far, she says.
While Mr. Russell’s songs classify him as a folkie, he is not known for political broadsides. His body of work tends to speak to larger philosophical issues, such as aging and loneliness. That makes his anti-development activism all the more unusual. “I don’t have any political bent,” he explains. “I don’t write protest songs.”
Instead, he has written letters, called the local chapter of the Sierra Club (the voice on the other end of the line urged him to play at a weekly meeting), attended planning commission and council meetings, and spoken out. “This is not a left-wing or right-wing argument – it’s right or wrong,” he says.
“There’s no real plan for this area. They just want to develop here while the interior of the city begs to be redeveloped. The leaders don’t see the big picture. They just want to develop, develop and develop until there isn’t anywhere left. We don’t need another 7-Eleven. There’s a Circle K a quarter-mile down the road. Lowe’s and McDonald’s will be next. The prognosis is pretty sad.
“You don’t do this to farmland. You don’t do this to your children. It’s corrupt thinking.”
His heels are dug in deep. “I’ll take my stand here,” he says. “Maybe import some donkeys and ducks and pigs, and no one will want to live next to me. I’m talking with some folks about buying up some land to keep it in farming. Other than that, I’m planting a lot of trees.”
The dilemma has moved him to also do what he does best. “I’m thinking about writing a song about all this,” he says. “Only it’s going to be from the point of view of a fox.”
Hotwalker – Tom Russell
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Outsider art commands bully pulpit "I’m a frustrated writer," Tom Russell confessed to me a couple years ago. He finally did something about it, using his bully pulpit as a singer-songwriter to explain to listeners about the country, blues, folk, jazz and gospel he was exposed to growing up in Los Angeles and later in New York and how outsiders, notably the poet Charles Bukowski and the circus performer and poet Little Jack Horton, influenced him and his music. Hotwalker is hardly an album in the traditional sense but rather a pastiche of spoken-word readings-including the voices of Russell, Horton, Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Harry Partch, the Reverend Baybie Hoover, Virginia Brown and Lenny Bruce-and atmospheric background music elegantly articulated by Russell’s guitarist sidekick Andrew Hardin, with a few songs sprinkled in between. From the background circus calliope accompanying Horton’s colorful pronouncements (his telling of Bukowski and him driving a locomotive engine is hilarious) to descriptions of Dave Van Ronk’s apartment by Sheridan Square to his primitive paintings that decorate the CD, Hotwalker digs deep into the spirit of Outsider Art as expressed on canvas, as poetry, in books or as a record.