Letter from Galveston: Coping with loss after hurricane Ike
A small business owner writes about returning after the storm
BY SKIP MARTIN — After weaving my way through the maze of road blocks and debris that is Galveston County post-Ike, I finally made it to the Galveston Police checkpoint. It was more than a week before residents would be allowed to return permanently — just two days after the storm ripped through — and officials were letting property owners back for a five-hour-period that was known as a “look and leave.”
Look, I did. What I saw resembled a city, post-battle. I drove along the causeway past piles of debris — mangled boats, crumpled washing machines, the bloated corpse of a dog. State and National Guard troops, in their crisp BDUs and driving Humvees, were only outnumbered by reporters and news trucks.
As I traveled down Broadway, a main thoroughfare, I thought how timely the demolishing of the Taco Bell had been. A small victory. The wind knocked the canopy off one of the fuel stations, and blew apart one of the already rickety burrito joints. Surprisingly, many buildings suffered little damage. A large tree was strewn across most of 21st Street. I carefully drove around it. To the merriment of the rag-tag bunch on the corner, it looked like the Cabana and Albatross, two watering holes, had fared well even though Doc wasn’t around to serve up a cold one.
The Martini Theatre, long boarded-up, was laid bare. For the first time, I saw the antique concession equipment in its lobby. As I came up to the corner of the Post office and 21st, it all suddenly felt personal. Bob’s Grocery was wiped out. How many thousands of sundry items had he lost? Like Oscar the Grouch, Bob could always pull what you were looking for from under his counter. To my amazement, crews were already hard at work at the Stork Club bar and Paco’s, a favorite restaurant; both were nearly totaled by the bay-side storm surge.
Then I reached my place, Hava Cigar Shop and Lounge. After removing the sandbags in front, laid hastily and in vain, I opened our front doors. The stench punched me in the face. The reality of the damage hit harder, just a little bit lower, smack in the center of my chest. I couldn’t move. I just stood. Frozen. The plans I had been making over the weekend, to remediate and recover, suddenly seemed insufficient.
After I’m away for awhile, I have a ritual of entering the store and trying to experience it from a customer’s perspective. My sense memory betrayed me. My normal clockwise stroll around the lounge to straighten picture frames and wipe away smudges on the furniture was impeded by random objects that had floated on the flood waters and settled in the entry way. Humidors, cigarettes, cigar boxes, plants and mud — lots of mud — filled the space.
To my left, I noticed that the lockers had detached from their wall anchors and split under their own weight. The water destroyed our leather couches and chairs. It overturned our cooler, the contents now sat smushed beneath it. Water had penetrated the double-pained humidor glass; it rocked like wave as I opened the sliding doors.
Fortunately, Charlie had removed more than half of the cigars in the humidor, so the bottom four rows of shelves were mostly empty. I noticed that the boxes he had placed on the top two shelves seemed safe. I walked out of the humidor looking for signs of a flood line. There it was, across the face of the clock behind the register. The water had neatly split across the latitude of 9 and 3.
Across the room, a similar line was visible on the LCD panel. The point-of-sale was eerily in place, but based on the flood line had been submerged. I wished we had removed computer and audio-visual components, but who could have guessed that the water would reach this level?
The accessories’ counter was also overturned. Thousands of dollars of lighters and cutters had spilled out onto the floor like an aficionado’s cornucopia. The door to the storage area was impassable, so I went around to enter from the rear of the building.
The back door was similarly blocked by sandbags that had been stacked in vain. The locks, polluted with sand and salt, were difficult to open. After a few minutes, I was able to cajole the lock. I almost wished I had failed. The dark, brick and concrete-lined room emitted an odor foul beyond belief.
One of our customer’s cabinet humidors, which we had a local carpenter restore a few weeks earlier, had come to rest on the sink. I began to move it, but discovered there was no point: The water-soaked wood dropped out of my hands and splashed in the mud.
I opened the door of the escaparate (the Spanish word for the cooling cabinet where cigars are stored.) The only light was from the doorway, and all I could make out were the dozens of rounds of our exclusive Camacho cigars, expanded to twice their normal ring-gauge by the water. I thought of the dog on the causeway.
After a few minutes, my eyes adapted and I saw the top shelf. It was packed with boxes of cigars, each well above the water line. I thought about the effort Charlie and Stella had made to move the inventory much higher than any of us imagined necessary. I was thankful.
I pulled down a box of Double Ligero DL-660s, thinking about our ill-fated La Flor Factory Event that had been scheduled for the following Friday. They were in perfect condition thanks to the post-storm humidity and moderate weather.
I inhaled the aroma from the foot of the cigar directly into my nostril. I ceremoniously peeled the cap off of the end and lit it. I stood there, in that damp and dank room, smoking my cigar, and I began to cry for the first time in a decade.
Skip Martin is co-owner (with Charlie Head) of Hava Cigar Shop and Lounge in downtown Galveston, Texas.