Islanders who insisted on staying died in Ike

The final hours brought the awful realization to victims of Hurricane Ike that they had waited too long. This storm wasn’t like the others, the ones that left nothing worse than a harrowing tale to tell.

George Helmond, a hardy Galveston salt, watched the water rise and told a buddy: I was born on this island and I’ll die on this island.

Gail Ettenger, a free spirit who adopted the Bolivar Peninsula as her home 15 years ago, told a friend in a last phone call: I really messed up this time.

Within hours, the old salt and the free spirit were gone as the powerful Category 2 hurricane wracked the Texas Gulf Coast on Sept. 13, flattening houses, obliterating entire towns and claiming at least 33 lives.

The dead — as young as 4, as old as 79 — included lifelong Galvestonians firmly rooted on the island and transplants drawn by the quiet of coastal living.

Seven people drowned in a storm surge that moved in earlier and with more ferocity than expected. Nine others died in the grimy, sweaty aftermath, when lack of power and medicine exacted its toll. Eleven people were poisoned by carbon monoxide or killed in fires from the generators they used in their own attempts to survive.

Hundreds of people remain missing three weeks after Ike’s assault on Texas. Local and city officials are no longer keeping their own count of missing residents, and the estimate varies wildly from one agency to another.

According to the nonprofit Laura Recovery Center, about 300 people are missing. Of those, about 200 from Galveston. However, the number “goes up and down by the minute” as people call in to remove or add names, cautioned executive director Bob Walcutt.

Some vanished during the evacuation of towns in the storm’s path. Many were last heard in desperate, last-ditch calls for help.

Immediately after the hurricane, Galveston officials conducted door-to-door searches for survivors and possible victims. But the city is no longer taking an active role in the search, city spokeswoman Alicia Cahill said.

Instead, search teams of sheriff’s deputies, volunteer firefighters and special K-9 search and recovery units have been using airboats and all-terrain vehicles to sift through debris fields, tangled and fetid marshlands, and the rubble left behind by Ike.

Bodies could have been tossed anywhere in the marshes, where thickets of trees are littered with the contents of houses. Refrigerators, office chairs, and television sets are scattered everywhere __ in the mud, in bushes, on treetops.

“We are definitely looking and are going to do anything we can to find them, but there may not be any answers to be given,” said Galveston County emergency management spokesman Colin Rizzo. “There are definitely going to be people from Hurricane Ike that are never found.”


Gail Ettenger stumbled upon her house in Gilchrist by accident. But once she saw the site on the bay side of Bolivar Peninsula, she knew she would never leave.

Ettenger, a native of New Jersey, instilled the house with her own energy and style. The 58-year-old’s garden bloomed with vibrant birds-of-paradise.

And Reba, an 11-year-old Great Dane hobbled by arthritis, was her baby. Ettenger loved to treat the dog to dinners of chicken and roast beef, recalled JoAnne Burks, Ettenger’s neighbor and close friend.

Ettenger, a chemist at ExxonMobil, didn’t evacuate, reasoning that her house had weathered Hurricane Rita in 2005 without a problem. She also did not want to leave Reba, who could no longer climb into Ettenger’s Jeep.

Burks and her husband pleaded with Ettenger to change her mind. But she insisted.

Hours before Ike made landfall, Ettenger knew she had made the wrong choice. She called Burks and described the water pushing up under her feet, the propane tanks and other household items drifting by her windows, and wondered which would float better: her Jeep or her house.

Her voice was shaky with fear, Burks said.

Burks spent the next 10 days searching for her friend, calling local, county and state officials without success. She tried the American Red Cross, FEMA, even private investigators.

“I didn’t want her to wind up like the victims of Katrina, who were never found or identified,” Burks said.

Ettenger’s body was found Sept. 23, tossed on a debris field in a Chambers County marsh about 10 miles from her house.

Amid the muck and remnants of homes, Burks found a pink leather collar. The name Reba was spelled out in rhinestones.


At 72, George Helmond had ridden out many storms and thought he could take on Ike, too, neighbor Don Hanson said. “A lot of old Galvestonians are like that.”

Helmond had been one of the first residents of Sydnor Lane, which overlooks a bayou on one side and a golf course on the other. A retired electrician, Helmond was a die-hard fisherman, a dove hunter and straight-shooter intensely proud of his Galveston roots.

Around 10 a.m., Helmond called Hanson, who had already left, to say the water had already slipped over the road and toward his house. The street — the only way out of the neighborhood — was already impassable.

At 9:30 p.m., Helmond and Hanson talked for the last time. By then, the water had pummeled through Helmond’s garage, crushing the doors and submerging his Cadillac. Hanson begged his friend to grab a life vest at his house or to seek shelter there.

But at 2:30 a.m., for reasons no one knows, Helmond got in his pickup truck and drove off at the height of Ike’s fury.

Neighbors found Helmond’s body the next day inside the truck, which had slammed into the white golf course fence. The windshield was shattered.

Helmond’s home suffered little damage. The water had reached above the first-floor garage, but not inside the house.

“If he had stayed home and hadn’t gone out, he’d be OK, but he panicked,” said Hanson, 66. “Life goes on, but I will miss a good friend and I will think about him.”


Even as Ike bore down on Texas, Jim Devine refused to leave his cream-colored house within sight of the bay in San Leon. Devine had moved to the fishing town after retiring and loved the tranquil way of life there, neighbors said.

The 76-year-old Devine drowned when Ike sent water barreling through his house, picking him off the second-story porch and dropping him a block away. Days later, Devine’s empty home still bore the scars of the storm — shattered windows, twisted wood, and his boat, the Seabar, jammed under the front steps.

His daughter left a warning and a memorial in orange spray paint: “Jim Devine. No Trespassing.”


Port Bolivar held special meaning for 79-year-old Marian Violet Arrambide. She met her husband there during World War II. Many years later, he built the beach house where they could retire.

Arrambide, a retired nurse suffering the onset of dementia, lived with her daughter, Magdalena Strickland, and nephew, Shane Williams, in that beach house before Ike struck.

All three have been missing since the morning of Sept. 12, just as Ike began to come ashore.

“My sister said ‘I’m walking out the door in a hurry. Everything’s taken care of, I’ll see you in a few hours.’ That was it,” said son Raul Arrambide, describing a 6:15 a.m. phone call.

Since then, Arrambide has had little luck getting help or information. Instead, Arrambide said, he’s been passed from one agency to another.

“They send you back and forth until you’re worn out,” said Arrambide, his voice showing the strain of the last weeks.

After five days with no word and no answers, Arrambide borrowed a boat to search the area himself, but sheriff’s deputies turned people away. He finally found a local contractor who is helping search for missing residents. That man found his relatives’ vehicles, which had been washed off the road into a tree grove.

“I want to keep the hope that they are still alive, but by not hearing from any of them, that hope is getting smaller and smaller,” he said. “They helped people all their lives. They did not deserve to go this way.”


Ike death toll increases as two bodies found along shore

The death toll from Hurricane Ike reached to at least 31 over the weekend, with the discovery of two unidentified bodies that were found along the Galveston County shore.

“The more people that are out and about going places, the more likely they are to find folks,” said D.J. Florence, chief investigator at the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Both remains are greatly decomposed, but authorities are hoping to find more clues to their identity during autopsies scheduled for today.

Since the storm, more than 530 people have been reported missing, with more than 400 of the cases still unresolved.

As for the latest bodies, the first, believed to be a Caucasian male, was discovered on the rocks Saturday at about 3:15 p.m. by a fisherman two miles west of an area known as Severs Cut.

Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens recovered the body.

The other, believed to be a Caucasian female, was spotted about three hours later in a debris pile by all-terrrain vehicle riders roaming among the flats on the northwest side of Pelican Island, about 300 yards from Pelican Cut.

The ATV riders called Galveston Police.

Some of Ike’s missing may have just washed away

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — The death toll from Hurricane Ike is remarkably low so far, considering that legions of people stayed behind as the storm obliterated row after row of homes along the Texas coast. But officials suspect there are more victims out there and say some might simply have been swept out to sea.

Exactly how many is anybody’s guess, because authorities had no sure way to track those who defied evacuation orders. And the number of people reported missing after the storm, whose death toll stands at 17 in Texas, is fluctuating.

Search-and-rescue crews cleared out Wednesday after plucking survivors from Galveston and the devastated Bolivar Peninsula, and authorities are relying on Red Cross workers and beach patrols to run welfare checks on people named by anxious relatives.

“We don’t know what’s out there in the wilds,” said Galveston County medical examiner Stephen Pustilniks. “Searchers weren’t looking for bodies; they were looking for survivors.”

As the hurricane closed in, authorities in three counties alone estimated 90,000 people ignored evacuation orders. Post-storm rescuers in Galveston and the peninsula removed about 3,500 people, but another 6,000 refused to leave.

Nobody is suggesting that tens of thousands died, but determining what happened to those unaccounted for is a painstaking task that could leave survivors wondering for months or years to come.

Authorities concede that at least some of those who haven’t turned up could have been washed out to sea, as at least one woman on the peninsula apparently was, and that other bodies might still be found.

“I’m not Pollyana. I think we will find some,” said Galveston County Judge Jim Yarbrough, the county’s highest-ranking elected official.

Pustilniks’ office brought in two refrigerated tractor-trailers to store bodies until autopsies are performed. One sat in front of the medical examiner’s office Wednesday morning with a sign on the side: “Jesus Christ is Lord not a cuss word.”

By the afternoon, five deaths had been reported in Galveston County: one man who drowned in his pickup, another found inside a motel, two dialysis patients who could not get to their treatment, and a woman with cancer whose oxygen machine shut down.

The stench of rotting animals and livestock polluted the once-picturesque community of Crystal Beach, where about two dozen people stayed behind. One survivor told of seeing a friend wrenched from the rafters by the storm’s fury and swept out to sea.

In evacuation shelters hundreds of miles from the coast, displaced residents — like the loved ones of victims of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — scrolled through address books and blog postings and anxiously dialed relatives, friends and neighbors not heard from.

On an Internet forum where survivors listed notes giving their whereabouts and asking for news of the missing, the messages revealed the growing anxiety and frustration of those desperate for some word about their loved ones.

“Anyone know Rosa who lived on the end towards the bay in gilchrist on Dolphin rd? She didnt have a vehicle and last we heard she was staying?”


In Galveston County, where about 15,000 residents stayed behind, officials did not have an exact number of missing residents. The Red Cross is helping track down the missing by setting up registries at shelters and sending workers on welfare checks, Yarbrough said.

At Galveston’s emergency management center, 12 phone lines rang constantly with calls from people trying to find relatives. As the calls came in, the city’s beach patrol would go to the homes and check.

Sometimes, the searches end in relief. The Red Cross quickly found an elderly Galveston couple reported missing Wednesday morning by relatives in Wyoming, Yarbrough said.

The search echoes the chaos following Katrina in 2005, when bodies were turning up more than a year after the storm as ruined homes were dismantled and families returned after months away. Katrina killed more than 1,600 people.

In that storm, there was no way to track people who left the city. The situation worsened when more than 100,000 New Orleanians who took refuge in Houston had to scatter again a few weeks later for Hurricane Rita.

Authorities opened a center in Baton Rouge, La., to take reports of people who were missing. And just as Ike survivors are doing now, volunteers there turned into amateur detectives — digging through Web sites that sprouted for missing families and calling nursing homes and hospitals.

The center for the missing closed nearly a year after Katrina, when authorities said they had finally exhausted leads.

Brownsville resident Amy Woodside has posted several messages online trying to track down friends who may have succumbed to Ike.

“I’m worried about everybody who is still unaccounted for,” she said. “We may never find some of them.”


Galveston officials begin to restrict media access

GALVESTON — Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas on Monday ordered all city employees not to talk to news reporters. She did not say when that order would be lifted.

Thomas and City Manager Steve LeBlanc will be the only officials allowed to talk to reporters.

City spokeswoman Mary Jo Naschke vehemently denied the city was trying to clamp down on news coverage.

She said emergency personnel and city employees were too busy to talk to reporters. Naschke also said the city had been accommodating news reporters by allowing them access to the island when others weren’t allowed, giving them escorted rides to damaged areas and allowing them to move about outside during a curfew.

But at a noon press conference on Monday, Thomas and LeBlanc talked for less than 30 minutes and refused to answer any more than five questions. Thomas said she would try to hold another press conference Tuesday.

Daily News reporters who tried to speak to city employees at rescue sites were denied information and told no one was authorized to talk to them except for the mayor and city manager.

“It’s the worst thing the city could do. Those who will suffer most are evacuees,” Publisher Dolph Tillotson said in statement via text message from the island. “The media will have to turn to other sources that might be less reliable. I can’t imagine a dumber move under these extreme circumstances.”

Before the press conference started Monday, LeBlanc asked reporters whether he could go off the record. Some television crews agreed and turned their cameras off. LeBlanc then asked news crews to urge their bosses and managers to show more coverage of the island on television because evacuees didn’t care about what was happening in Houston.

All reporters who were staying at the city’s emergency operations center, stationed at the San Luis Hotel, were asked to leave Monday. San Luis hotel owner Tilman Fertitta was housing reporters at the nearby Hilton Hotel, which he also owns.

Reporters would be allowed on the island, but only if they had proper identification, Thomas said. She didn’t clarify what that meant.

Reporters were also forbidden from visiting areas on the far West End of FM 3005, Thomas said. She did not explain why.