Hurricane Ike hit 15 years ago
Last updated 9/12/2023 at 7:04pm
Kirk Roccaforte was Bridge City mayor on September 13, 2008. He and his emergency team from the city were quartered with other county first responders and officials at Mauriceville Elementary School in the north part of the county waiting for Hurricane Ike to come ashore.
Though the worse part of the storm hit Galveston as a Category 2 hurricane, no one here could have predicted what happened in Orange County. Ike was the "perfect storm" that sent a storm surge straight from the Gulf of Mexico up to Sabine Lake and into the rivers and bayous.
Roccaforte's hometown by dawn looked like it was part of the gulf, with whitecaps blowing on Texas Avenue. People were holding belongings in plastic garbage bags as they sat on their roofs where they had climbed to escape drowning in their houses.
Roccaforte, who is now Precinct 3 county commissioner, recalls that he first learned about the devastation from State Senator Tommy Williams, who represented the county. The senator called him to say "We understand the city is wiped out." But the state leader assured him help was on the way as soon as possible.
However, rescue crews could not go anywhere in the dark with strong winds still blowing.
Roccaforte was in for a shocking view. However, he could compete with Orange Mayor Brown Claybar for the most shocking views. The southern part of Orange was flooded by the surge, which also came up the Sabine River, along with Adams and Cow bayous.
At early dawn, Claybar was riding in a reconnaissance boat along what was Simmons Drive. Dozens of coffins were floating everywhere.
The strong surge had washed up the concrete lids of burial vaults at the historic Hollywood Cemetery. The coffins inside the vault floated around the area. The coffin of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown had floated out, but it was later revealed he "never left the cemetery." His coffin had been stopped by a fence from traveling far.
Brown had died at the age of 81 in Orange on September 10, 2005, at a relative's house. The Grammy-winning singer-musician who was raised in Orange, had evacuated from his Slidell, Louisiana, home for Hurricane Katrina. His funeral was held at Hollywood Cemetery on September 17, a week before Hurricane Rita hit Orange.
Roccaforte remembers going out before daylight Saturday along Highway 62 to meet deputies from the Orange County Sheriff's Office and others at a convenience store at the intersection of 62 and HIghway 87 by the Cow Bayou Bridge into Bridge City. He got into a giant truck, "its ties were about eight-feet tall," he said, and driving over the slope of the bridge. They got to the top and looked out.
"All you could see was water," he said.
They drove carefully through town toward city hall. Roccafforte passed his own house, flooded. Water was still in city hall, but had started receding. But water still covered much of the town. Rescues had started.
Other towns affected by the surge included the south part of West Orange, most of Orange south of Park Avenue, Rose City, and parts of Vidor. Industrial plants on Chemical Row, of FM 1006, were also under water.
People in Orange County had learned first-hand about hurricanes. They saw the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina wipe out parts of Louisiana. They then housed, fed, and clothed the people who had escaped there. Then a couple of weeks later, Category 3 Hurricane Rita went straight through Orange County with winds strong enough to blow over tens of thousands of trees.
So when an evacuation was called for Hurricane Gustave in August 2008, people left, but the storm went out of the area. Two weeks later, came an order to evacuate for Ike. More people than normal stayed for Ike because they were tired of another evacuation or they didn't have enough money for another evacuation.
One man in Bridge City who didn't leave tied a boat up to a big tree in his front yard in case of a flood. As the water rose, he went out to the boat and laid down to get out of the wind. The boat remained tethered, but the winds and waves jolted it so much the man was bruised all over his body.
A family in West Orange with a young child and a baby gathered diapers and baby food, tossed them on the upper bunk in the children's room, and climbed up the bunk before a boat rescued them.
Several people in the flooded areas recall climbing on top of their dining room tables in the middle of the night as the waters rose. Others climbed to the roofs of their houses. Some had to fight off snakes in the dark as the reptiles, too, were seeking high ground.
When the waters dropped, not only was devastation left, but thousands of dead fish had washed along the streets and bayou banks. Many would have been prized saltwater catches if they had not been left dead in the heat.
The Orange Fire Department's Central Station in downtown flooded and personnel found a dead redfish in a desk drawer. For a short time, the fire station moved to the Orange Public Library.
For months, grapple trucks moved through Bridge City and the other towns. Residents had moved all their wet and molding belongings, including furniture, to the sides of their streets for pickup and disposal.
Nearly everyone rebuilt. "We are a resilient community," Roccaforte said.