Oak Island residents have the drive to overcome, despite Ike’s devestation
By SARAH MOORE
February, 7, 2009
Take a tiny, storm-wracked Galveston Bay fishing village with a plucky, can-do attitude, trying to dig itself out of a mountain of debris.
Add a pastor with a gift for forming partnerships and galvanizing his community, and a steadfast vision of a stronger, better community rising from the ashes.
Include five circus tents, a gaggle of women who “can’t sit still” and volunteers from across the country.
Throw in pots of homemade wonton noodle soup, biscuits and gravy, gallons of coffee, a stockpile of canned goods, a freezer-truck load of green beans and other assorted food stuffs.
Top it off with a pop music icon so touched by the community’s plight that he pledges the proceeds from his concert merchandise sales to rebuild homes there.
Sounds like the premise for an inspirational made-for-TV movie.
But it’s just life in Oak Island as residents know it, ever since Hurricane Ike turned their village inside out.
Pastor Eddie Shauberger of Oak Island Baptist Church – the community’s only church – has been instrumental in organizing disaster recovery.
From the start, he and other residents met regularly to address their common problems of getting basic necessities like food, water, sanitation and shelter while they worked on the thornier tasks of rebuilding their homes and businesses.
One such meeting was attended by singer-songwriter Neil Diamond, when he was moved to visit the town in a strange twist of fate that started with Anahuac Mayor Guy R. Jackson.
Although Oak Island is not part of his turf, he was sympathetic and wanted to do what he could for it, Jackson said in a telephone interview.
Jackson is a longtime friend of Houston Mayor Bill White and Jackson told him of the community’s heartbreaking devastation.
Coincidentally, White attended Diamond’s Oct. 14 concert in Houston the same night, meeting the musician backstage.
White told him about Oak Island.
“Out of all the stories he could have told, he tells Neil Diamond my story about Oak Island,” Jackson said, marveling at the way it all came together.
Diamond was so moved by what he heard that he cancelled his travel plans so he could visit the community.
Jackson had just 30 minutes notice that Diamond was on his way. He rounded up County Judge Jimmy Sylvia and they met Diamond and his people for a whirlwind tour of Oak Island.
“He was very moved by what he saw,” Jackson said. “First of all, the level of devastation was mind-boggling. People were living in tents in their front yards. He was beside himself on that.”
But the icing on the cake was when the entourage came across a town meeting going on outside the ruined Oak Island Baptist Church.
Diamond asked to stop and went to listen in.
“He listened to the conversation and they were saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do to help ourselves,’ ” Jackson said.
Diamond was impressed by their self sufficiency.
“He was the nicest, most gracious man I have ever met in the entertainment industry,” Jackson said of Diamond
On Friday, Diamond was recognized as this year’s MusiCare’s person of the year, an annual tribute to artists who go above and beyond to give something back.
He appeared on the CBS Early Show on Friday, where he told national correspondent Hattie Kauffman why he was moved to help Oak Island.
“Their homes were wiped away. They were living out of cars and tents. I felt I really had to step in and do whatever I could,” he said, according to the television show’s Web site.
Diamond pledged the proceeds of his concert merchandise sales to Oak Island. Diamond manager Katie McNeil said in an e-mail that he had already raised “well over $1 million” and intended to stay active in helping the community.
Residents will be able to apply for funding to rebuild their homes through Diamond’s foundation.
But Diamond’s generosity will only go so far.
Planning for rebuilding
Shauberger has made it his mission to look for ways to fill the gaps.
“We’re small, so we have to think of more creative ways to get things done,” he said.
Shauberger said he is working with churches that could “adopt” families to help them rebuild.
A Los Angeles synagogue already has adopted one Smith Point couple.
The Jewish volunteers came out for a long weekend in January to help Dave and Bessy Gau. They worked alongside the couple, gutting the interior of their bayside home.
The couple did not get enough from FEMA to properly rebuild, so the synagogue has pledged to raise money to help them, Shauberger said.
One thing Shauberger has learned from this disaster is the power of cooperation.
“We have to take our labels off,” he said, referring to denominational barriers between different sects and religions. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”
Thursday morning in Oak Island, the activity level was subdued, with many residents away at their jobs.
In and around the complex of tents and trailers surrounding the modest Oak Island Baptist Church, a few women bustled, involved in organizing, cleaning and cooking chores.
This makeshift disaster relief headquarters no longer is feeding hundreds of residents per day, but there are still groceries on hand for those in need and meals regularly cooked for whatever volunteers happen to be around. So far, the church has housed 400.
Shauberger was getting ready to head to Houston for a meeting with the faith-based group Somebody Cares America to coordinate summer work camps expected to bring in 700 volunteers.
Shauberger has been working tirelessly to form partnerships with churches and volunteer groups across the nation for help with rebuilding Oak Island.
Besides the wreckage of the homes there, the storm surge dumped tons of debris from Bolivar Peninsula.
About 90 percent of the community’s 350 residences were destroyed.
The Sunday after Hurricane Ike’s ferocious storm surge battered the Gulf Coast, tossing boats, vehicles and even whole houses around like children’s toys, Shauberger led services on the concrete slab next to the shattered sanctuary.
Shauberger will never forget the “shock and devastation” on people’s faces that day, as residents tried to absorb the loss of their homes – some of which were completely swept from their foundations.
One of these residents, Mary McAlpin, recalled her first glimpse of Oak Island after Ike.
Her house was on the curve of the road leading into the village.
When she saw a pile of rubble where her home used to be, she knew the rest of Oak Island was as bad or worse.
McAlpin, 67, had lived in her house for 43 years.
“I’d never experienced anything like this,” she said. “When I saw my house, I thought, ‘No – it’s not?€?’ ”
She doesn’t know how she is going to rebuild her home, but she keeps her spirits up by working and volunteering.
“I just feel that God has blessed me,” she said. “So I just keep trying to give a little back.”
A new and improved Oak Island
On a drive around Oak Island on Thursday, Shauberger points out houses and businesses, telling their stories, celebrating the ones that survived and mourning the losses.
Shauberger seems in his element.
“It’s amazing how it’s all come together,” he said, seeming to discount his own efforts.
“If you ask me to explain how I did it, it’s by the grace of God,” he said.
Paradoxically, it’s the village’s self-sufficiency that has drawn help to it, he said.
“It’s the spirit of the people here, working to help themselves. They’re not sitting around waiting for a handout. That’s why the help continues to come in.”
Shauberger estimates it will take Oak Island about four years to fully recover.
His hope is it will come back even better than it was before the storm, with stronger houses and more thriving businesses.
Shauberger would like to see the development of tourism in the community, which is a rich blend of nationalities with strong Vietnamese and Latino elements.
Fishing and crabbing are common to the region, as evidenced by the neatly stacked crab traps seen in many a front yard.
Tuyet Huynh is the wife of a crabber, and she does her part in the business, repairing damaged traps and so forth.
Huynh, 49, is a tall woman with a shy smile and limited English skills.
She showed up at the recovery headquarters Thursday with a bowl of homemade wontons, which she deftly fried up at the site, putting them in bowls of egg noodles and green onions and ladling broth over them.
Huynh’s home was destroyed and she, her husband and one of her three grown children are living in a FEMA trailer.
The other volunteers said she often brings such gifts of food to share.
In return, they are helping her with her English.
Volunteer Ann Andrisek lives between Oak Island and Anahuac, and the storm surge stopped short of her home.
“When the storm didn’t hit me, I knew it was for a reason,” she said briskly.
The legal nurse consultant who said she “can’t sit still” has been helping out at Oak Island from the beginning, mostly cleaning, organizing and moving around the supplies that are constantly coming in.
Andrisek said it’s been a very rewarding experience.
She has made new friends, such as Huynh.
Nancy Sthram vividly remembers the tears and heartache of returning to find that the storm surge had invaded her home.
For her and others, the grief at the blow dealt their town is still fresh.
Sthram’s home is still standing, but is not livable.
She thinks it will cost as much to repair the existing house as it would to build a new one, but she’s hesitant to tear it down.
The 34-year-old, who lost her business in the storm, does not know how she is going to rebuild.
If she tears the house down, she has nowhere to go when FEMA takes back the trailer where she’s been living with her husband, daughter and two grandchildren.
Sthram, a life-long resident, always knew her community was a caring place, but the support she’s had since Ike surprised even her.
She has gotten assistance, encouragement and shoulders to cry on through the church.
“If it hadn’t been for the church and the pastor and his wife, I don’t think we would have made it,” she said. “We weren’t alone.”