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The Bastrop County Complex wildfires, which started September 4, consumed 1,649 homes and more than 34,000 acres of the Lost Pines ecosystem, an isolated region of loblollies and hardwoods. I was one of many who helped oversee the Smithville Distribution Center—created the day after the fires broke out and overseen by city officials—which provided Bastrop County evacuees with the essentials they were forced to leave behind, such as toothbrushes, shampoo and pillows.
Over a three-week period, we gave a helping hand to more than 4,000 Bastrop County residents, some of whom learned they had lost their homes; some whose houses were smoke-damaged to the extent that they remained uninhabitable for quite some time; and some who were able to return to intact houses. That’s near the number of people (about 5,000) who live in my hometown of Smithville, three miles from the edge of the fires. For me, this puts this disaster—our Katrina—truly in perspective.
During the weeks at the distribution center, I noticed folks experiencing emotions in phases associated with where we stood in the face of the disaster. During that first phase, the displaced held the title of “evacuee” and felt the restlessness that came with not knowing the state of their homes. I overheard more than one person say something to this effect: “Someone said they thought they saw my house still standing two days ago, but I’m not sure it was my house they were talking about because the neighborhood doesn’t look the same anymore.”
The not knowing—mixed with the exhaustion of sleeping on cots in evacuation centers, on couches in friends’ living rooms and in tents at community parks—took its toll. But, throughout, a strong need to pull together grew ever stronger. Even in the face of exhaustion, tempers stayed in check, and folks remembered simple kindnesses, like opening doors for one another. Often, those coming to get supplies would end up helping us volunteers unload shipments of donations. A spirit of “we” rather than “me” filled the air.
The net knit tighter so we could catch one another when the not knowing morphed into bad news for so many. Once it did, emotions ran the gamut. One man told me that simply knowing his home had burned set him free. Now he could move forward and deal with the consequences. For others, knowing hit harder. Sometimes while looking for necessities, folks fell, trancelike, into silent tears. I once had an entire “normal” conversation with a woman as tears slowly traveled down her cheeks. I suspect she didn’t even know she wept.
About 10 days in, we hit the ash-culling phase as residents started sifting through the remains of their homes. As people came in for supplies, we loaded them up on peroxide, Neosporin, nasal spray and eye drops, all generously donated. Some had ugly rashes on their legs, possibly from contact with what local authorities described as toxins in the soil; burns from hidden ash pits; and infections resulting from where they’d been cut by buried glass.
But they went forth with purpose, for who knew what hidden treasures awaited them in the debris where their houses once stood?
They uncovered precious finds: a grandmother’s wedding rings, a son’s Boy Scout medals, pieces of old china, morphed and molten but now prized more than ever before. Folks brought these cherished possessions into the center and shared them with us, beaming in wonder.
I watched joy gradually ease its way onto faces, painting itself especially brightly onto one woman’s smile when she said, “I’ve discovered this isn’t about what I’ve lost. It’s about what I’m getting back.” My own smile grew brighter at that.
All the while, hope for the future grew as folks showed us new house plans and talked of planting trees. Hope grew, thanks in large part to a beautiful sense of community and love that poured in from every corner of Texas and from around the nation. This support pulled people forward. It told them that it mattered not only to those of us here in Smithville, but to so many others that they make it through this with their dignity intact.
To prove it, first-rate items sent with obvious care arrived, items like the bright orange makeup bag I saw quickly snatched up by a teenage girl. Showing it to her mother, she proclaimed, “Look how cute, Mom! It’s so much prettier than the one I had before the fire! Awesome!” I could hear the rainbow in her voice.
Day after day, fellow Texans showed up, paying to rent U-Hauls filled with household items, pet food, toiletries and whatever else we had on our “needs” list at the time and drive them down from North Texas or up from Corpus Christi. And folks from Monahans trekked eight hours (that’s just one way!) from West Texas to make sure our livestock had hay. One man, after having driven from Fort Worth in one long shot, stood and cried with me on the sidewalk as he took in the endless traffic of donations heading into the center. Another day, a gentleman showed up from Galveston with a Toyota pickup full of rakes and shovels because he’d been through Hurricane Ike and knew the needs of a disaster zone.
Then there was the woman who called from Mississippi with a pep talk. Assuring me they’d made it through Hurricane Katrina so we’d make it through this, she called me “girlfriend” throughout the conversation with her deep southern twang. And there was the FedEx package from a Missouri family who didn’t know a single person in all of Bastrop County but, nevertheless, sent an entire box full of “hugs” with a note reading: “We can only hope that during these frightening times these stuffed animals will bring comfort to those children affected.”
We arranged the stuffed animals near the door at child-eye level, and within minutes a little boy found a black and yellow teddy “bee.” Oh, how the smile took over his chubby face as he alternately hugged it, kissed it and “buzzed” his mother with it while she looked for supplies!
Other heroes gave of their time like the volunteers who came back every day, often working 12-hour shifts so our center could keep its doors open. Or the 22-year-old single mother who magically appeared, angel-like, with her full-sized pickup (desperately needed to transport goods from the warehouses to our distribution center) from San Antonio just when we needed her most. We found out later through a slip of the tongue that she’d had to borrow gas money to get to Smithville.
And then there were those who gave back. The motorcycle ride “thank-you” gift I was offered by a man who had nothing left but his motorcycle. The artist who’d built his home from scratch and lost it all, but wrote beautiful prose to thank us for what we’d done for him. The man who played a Willie Nelson song for us on the guitar he’d thrown in his truck as he outran the flames at Circle D. And the little girl who bestowed the warmest hugs each time she said goodbye.
Being displaced and needing to rely so much on others added other difficult dimension to this tragedy. I learned the depth of this from an elderly woman I assisted. As we sorted through bottles of eye drops, she suddenly turned to me and took my hand. As she looked into my eyes, her own brimmed with tears. “I’ve never had to accept help before,” she said. “I’ve always been the one to give it. This is so hard.”
I didn’t lose my home in the fire, so I can’t say that I’ve walked in those shoes. I only felt the experience through the pain of others. But after watching how gracious and dignified those affected by the fires have been in accepting generosity, I can say that when my turn comes to need a helping hand, swallowing my pride and reaching for it will come much easier now.
Mary O. Parker, frequent contributor