It was five years ago this month that Hurricane Ike, the greatest storm to hit this area in a generation, roared ashore near Galveston, devastating the island, destroying a few small coastal towns, and crippling the Bayou City for weeks.
At least 75 Texans died in the 600-mile-wide storm and its aftermath. In addition, Ike caused almost $40 billion in damages in at least five nations.
But along with the tragedy, there were some amazing tales of survival, especially in some of our more—shall we say—rough-and-tumble bayside communities. There were the two Crystal Beach residents, for instance, who endured the collapse of their homes before riding pieces of debris to dry land in Chambers County, 14 miles away. Or the four men who spent a horrific evening aboard the Blue Marlin, a decommissioned car ferry-cum-bar that broke free of its moorings, took on water, and then beached itself in someone’s front yard, where it lay for months at a 45-degree angle to the house before being removed with blow torches.
And then there’s this one, a singularly harrowing account of Ike’s fury and the four souls whose lives it nearly took: a San Leon tow truck driver and garage owner named Sam Adams, his brother-in-law Billy Atkinson, Sam’s white Labrador retriever Houndawg, and an immense orange cat called Meow Meow, all of whom sat waiting in a mobile home raised five feet off the ground. Here is their story, told in Mr. Adams’s own words and captured in his distinctive San Leon patois.
I’d like to preface the story by telling you that I’m a genius.1
I know everything about everything and I knew that we weren’t gonna have any high water as a result of Ike.2
So I’m a genius.3
Carla and Alicia didn’t put water on my property so I was concerned that there would be some circumstances to deal with, but I never imagined that I would have the water to deal with that I did.
I’d already made arrangements for my wife Donna and her kids to go inland. My wife’s brother, Billy, and his two sons were living with me, so my wife’s kids and my nephews—everybody took off, so it was just Billy and myself.
My wrecker was busy right up until the storm hit. Police were callin’ me to get cars off the road and all the other wreckers in the area had pretty well packed up and left. I was just runnin’ the wheels off that thing.
We started gettin’ ready for the storm. I put my van on the back of my rollback wrecker and got a little emergency bag together—just in case somethin’ blew away, we’d have somethin’ to get in and seek shelter. I parked it out in the back of the storage lot away from the power lines and trees and everything, and went in my bedroom to watch a movie.4 We still had satellite TV, we still had power. We’d occasionally go down to the water and look at how high it was, but again, I was confident it wasn’t gonna get in where I was at. The slab on my property is eleven foot above sea level and I was confident we were gonna be okay.
So I’m in my bedroom watchin’ the movie and Billy comes in and says, “Hey, come look at this! There’s water comin’ in under the fence on the Avenue E side of the property!”
I said, “Aw, that side’s low, Billy. Don’t worry about that. We’ll be okay.” Even though we knew it was tidewater and not rainwater, I was still confident we were gonna be okay.
A little while later he comes back and says “Hey, man, it’s up to the back porch! You may wanna come look at your truck. It’s almost up to the bottom of the tow truck!”
So I moved the truck and the van around to the driveway where it was a couple of feet higher. And again I was sure we were okay—we didn’t have anything to worry about.
I went back to watchin’ the movie and then Billy comes back a little while later and says “Man, the water’s up to the bottom of the truck again!”
I said, “Don’t freak out. It’s no big deal, just a little storm surge.”
It was about dark by then and there was no traffic on the roads so I moved my truck out to the center of the highway in front of the house. We’d been cut off since four o’clock so we couldn’t get out if we wanted to. I live there on 9th Street in San Leon, and F.M. 517 went under fairly early in the day, Broadway went under, and before dark, Bayshore became impassible right around 18th Street. But I was still confident everything was gonna be all right.
Then Billy comes back and says “The water’s right up to the doors on the wrecker!!”
So I said, “Well, all right, I know where we can go to get to some higher ground. I’ll get the dog and you get the cat.” I’ve got this huuuuge house cat—looks like a bobcat.5 So we got our little ditty bag and headed on up to where the road goes a little higher there at Ninth and Bayshore.
I said, “See, the water’s not gonna get that bad,” but the water was startin’ to come up pretty good then. I said, “Well look, don’t panic. We’ll go on up Bayshore to Fourth Street. That’s the highest spot down here. We’ll be fine.”
The storm’s blowin’ pretty good by now and we turned down Bayshore and there’s a tree across the road. We couldn’t get to where I wanted to go. And the water’s back up to the bottom of the truck again and the wind’s really pushin’ on us now. We were catchin’ the wind broadside—where we were settin’ it was blowin’ perpendicular to us. The truck almost turned over on us once. We got a couple of strong gusts, and with that van on the back, it was like a parachute.
So I pried Billy and the cat off the headliner and said “Look. Just calm down. The engine’s still runnin’. I’ll back up to that intersection and we’ll just make a stand right there. It’s not gonna get any worse.”
It’s completely dark by now, we’re settin’ there in the truck facin’ the wind, Billy’s calmed down, everything’s good again. The cat’s semi-calm. The dawg’s havin’ a ball. He thinks it’s a water party. He’s never seen this much water and he’s lovin’ it. He’s bouncin’ around in there—it looked like a circus in the cab of that ol’ wrecker.
And we’re lookin’ out through the lights there and it’s rainin’ a little bit and the wind’s really blowin’. It was like settin’ out on the beach, but settin’ out on a sandbar, you know, water was splashin’ up on the hood of the truck, but the engine was still runnin’.
And then I said, “Billy, what is that floatin’ out there? What is that comin’ at us through there? It kinda looks like a submarine.”
He said, “I don’t know, but it’s gettin’ closer!”
And as we put our spotlights on it, we could see it was an enormous telephone pole, comin’ across the bay. It was porpoisin’ through the water, bouncing up and down, and it was movin’ pretty good. It had some speed to it, and it hit that truck right dead center in the middle of the bumper. Just taco’d the bumper, threw us back about ten feet, and then went right under the truck. You could feel it bouncin’ around, movin’ up and down.
And now the dog’s not havin’ fun no more, the cat’s gone crazy, and Billy lost his mind.
I’m tryin’ to calm everybody down, sayin’ “Don’t panic! It’s just a telephone pole. We’ll pull back up in that high spot and we’ll be okay. The water’s not gonna get any higher.”
And as I was saying that, the water came up into the seats and the engine died on the truck, the fuel tank was waterlogged. The dog’s still not havin’ any fun—he’s startin’ to get worried too. The cat and Billy are just nuts. And Billy said, “What’re we gonna do now?”
And I said, “Well, hell, Billy go ahead and panic now, ’cause I don’t have any idea. I was obviously wrong about the level of this water, so we’re gonna have to swim over to this bar.” There’s this two-story bar there called Wayno’s that’s been there forever so we started wadin’ over there.6
The street’s a lot higher than their parkin’ lot so we ended up swimmin’ over to Wayno’s. My big lab—I’m tryin’ to hold on to him, and my cat’s wrapped around Billy’s head like a fur hat. That cat just about ate Billy alive during that event. He didn’t have front claws but he had some good ones on the rear and he was hangin’ on for dear life.
Unfortunately the dawg wanted to go a different direction. He wanted to go back to the house. He was back into the havin’-a-good-time deal. Once he was back out in the water he was in his element. He was happy again. The cat was not happy, and Billy’s still freakin’ out and we’re all tryin’ to swim against the wind, and there’s chest-high deep freezers floatin’ around, a shippin’ container went by, just all kinds of debris in the water. Fortunately, it was pitch-black and you couldn’t see what-all was in there or we would have been even more worried than we were.
But we made it over to Wayno’s and we made it up the stairs, and the wind was just about to blow us over. We climbed up the stairs and Billy said “What’ll we do?”
And I said “Just hold on. These are some big ol’ pilings here. Just hold on to one.” I started knockin’ on the door, then beatin’ and kickin’ at the door and I was pretty confident there was no one inside. And finally I can hear a voice inside. It’s Mike Cook, a boat captain down here, and he says “Hey, who is it? I gotta gun!”
And I say, “It’s Sam Adams, and I got a big wet dawg.”
So he said “Y’all wait, I’ll let you in.”
So he unbarred the door and let me and Billy and the dawg and the cat in. We laid on the bar all night. I’m not gonna say I slept any that night.
I thought that building was gonna go at a couple of points. It was leanin’ pretty good toward Gilhooley’s parkin’ lot at one point. The eye of the storm come over and it calmed down and we went outside to see what we could see. We couldn’t see anything—it was just total black. I called my buddy over at the fire station and asked him if they had any vehicles up and runnin’.
He said, “Naw, man, we’re holed up here in the elementary school and we’re stayin’ here ‘til daylight.”
And I said “Well, me and Billy and Mike Cook were last seen at Wayno’s, if y’all wanna get out tomorrow and come lookin’ for us.”
And he said “Y’all need to write your social security numbers on your arms or somewhere we can find ’em.”
So we got a Marks-A-Lot and everybody wrote their names and socials on their arms.
We just held on. The back half of that storm pushed the building back the other way—straightened it back up. So we were still there the next mornin’. My truck was still out in the intersection.7 It was fortunate that we stayed. We did have some problems with people tryin’ to come on the property. I did have to run one guy off at gunpoint.8
- Mr. Adams is being facetious. ↵
- Again, facetious. ↵
- Ditto. ↵
- He does not recall the film’s name, but believes it was a “chick flick.” ↵
- That would be Meow Meow. ↵
- Adams estimates that the bar, which is at 901 East Bayshore, was about 200 yards away. Adams fixed a spotlight on the bar to mark their target. ↵
- And with that, the most terrifying ordeal of Sam Adams’ life was over. Almost. The next afternoon, he stepped on a wayward plank and a drywall screw impaled his foot clean through. Knowing he needed to act quickly, Adams approached the owner of a League City feed store, persuading him to sell Adams a bottle of penicillin and some syringes by claiming it was for an injured horse. ↵
- And thus began San Leon’s long and ongoing road to recovery. ↵