In a perfect world, everyone in Ike’s path would have evacuated; but, the world is far from perfect as the story of Margaret Winters illustrates – although those on a “high horse” about people like Ms. Winter are riding too far above reality to see the imperfect world some couldn’t escape in spite of the warning to evacuate. (emphasis added)
After Hurricane Ike plunged Galveston into darkness Friday night, the residents of a small retirement community on 61st Street used flashlights to signal to each other across their small courtyard.
Ed Raymond started to worry when he didn’t see an answering blink from his neighbor, Margaret Winters, 79. She uses a wheelchair and lives alone with her cat in a first-floor apartment…
Winters, on the other hand, had tried everything to get out before Ike hit. The native Galvestonian has been registered for special assistance for the last five years, she said, but no one came to the retirement community on 61st to help her and her cat escape.
Increasingly desperate as forecasters and government officials warned of certain death for coastal residents who remained in Ike’s path, Winters spent the last few days on the phone, trying to find someone who could help her out of her first-floor apartment. She called 311, 211, 911 and the number for the city’s Emergency Management Center. But she was still waiting at 8 p.m. Friday, when all rescue attempts ceased…
Winters parked herself in front of the TV, switching between three networks and the Weather Channel until the power went out. Then she turned on her battery-powered radio and went to the bedroom to lie down. She woke up later with water trickling on her toes.
“I put my feet on the floor, and it was ankle deep in water,” she said. “I got really, really scared and thought about trying to drag myself to the second floor by myself, but I couldn’t get the front door open.”
She tried to call for help but no one heard her. Winters lay back down on the bed.
“I was thinking well, if I go now, I have had 14 months living in this place, and it’s been the happiest place in my memory and if it’s time to go, I’ll go,” she said.
That’s when she heard a knock on the door. It was her neighbors Jeff Martin, 61, and Kerry Fuson, 38. The men had waded across hip-deep waters in the courtyard during the eye of the storm to rescue her…
Fuson, a University of Texas Medical Branch graduate student who was staying in his mother-in-law’s second floor apartment with his wife and her sister…[said]…the family decided to stay after it took them 36 hours to evacuate to The Woodlands during Hurricane Rita.“That evacuation literally almost killed us — my wife ended up in the hospital — so compared to that this isn’t even that bad,” he said.
But as the water rose early Saturday morning, Fuson thought of Winters, disabled and alone in the dark below, and braced himself to plunge into the cold flood.
“I didn’t really want to do it, but I knew the eye wasn’t going to be here much longer,” he said. “I didn’t want her to get trapped.”
When he and Martin forced open Winters’ door, Fuson said she was pretty much floating on her bed.
The men grabbed Winters’ bags and snagged the cat carrier as it drifted by on the water. They couldn’t coax the jittery feline inside, so Winters had them put him on the bed with her so she could calm him. “I snuggled up next to him and shoved,” she said.
Next came the hard part. Fuson said her wheelchair wasn’t an option.
He found her walker, and the trio ventured back out into the eerie calm of the eye, sloshing slowly back across the courtyard. They just had to make it about 25 yards and upstairs to a spare second-floor apartment that sheltered other first-floor residents who’d been washed.
“I never dreamed I could walk that far,” Winters said.
When she got to the steps, the men helped her up, one at a time. One, two, three, they’d count, and heave.
Winters’ friend, Ed Raymond, stood at the top, rooting her on. Martin and Fuson had had to stop him from trying to rescue Winters himself after he had worn himself out getting everyone in the complex ready for the storm the last few days.
“He was just falling down tired, and he stood at the top of the stairs and every step I made, he’d say, ‘You go girl!’ ” Winters recalled.
When she finally got to the top of the landing, everyone cheered. Fuson and Martin took one more trip down the stairs to retrieve another elderly woman in a first-floor apartment who had been so frightened of the storm she’d taken a sleeping pill. They managed to bring her upstairs, disoriented and wet, but safe.
Everyone in the complex survived the storm uninjured.
By Saturday afternoon, the waters had receded, leaving the courtyard strewn with dead palm fronds, broken branches, and heaps of bricks that Ike had ripped from the complex’s walls.
Winters sat near the open door of the strange second-floor apartment and wondered how she’d have the strength to get down again. Never mind how she found the strength to climb up in the first place. She knows that came from her neighbors.
“Everyone’s been so kind and so sweet, and I just love them all so much,” Winters said.
“Aw, that’s just what we do for family,” Raymond said.
Raymond swore never to evacuate again after spending 17 hours on the road to Houston during Rita. He thought Ike would be another dud.
He doesn’t regret staying, though, even now.
“I would do it all over again,” he said. “There’s no way I would leave people behind. No way in God’s creation. How in the hell can I go when my family’s here?”
All would do well to remember Winters and what she said about her neighbors after the storm.
“I told ’em they were going to have so many stars in their crowns, they wouldn’t be able to hold up their heads,” said a relieved Winters Saturday afternoon after escaping the flood that destroyed her home and most of her belongings.
None of those riding high horses and looking down on Mildred Winters and others who did not evacuate are wearing such a crown. It’s not too late, however, to offer help – even if all you can do is change your attitude.