Tivoli, the Town that Saved Itself
When emergency aid passed by for bigger cities, the residents of one small town came together to save their community.
The frustration was rising in Marcus Torres’s voice. For five days, he had been the “chief cook, bottle washer, commander, whatever you want to call me” in the small unincorporated farming town of Tivoli, where one out of every four residents lives in poverty. The houses are mostly wooden frame, many homemade. When Hurricane Harvey hit Tivoli with winds in excess of 130 miles per hour, trees ripped up from the roots, branches broke, and homes were battered, losing water and electricity. For five days, Torres had been helping his community of 479 people to fend for themselves during the recovery with little outside help. But on Wednesday, government agencies and do-gooder groups were suddenly overwhelming the 53-year-old former auto repair shop owner—and they all wanted to imply either that he had been doing it wrong or that Tivoli could not move forward without their help.
But for the previous four days, Tivoli had saved itself.
There had been warning that the storm was coming, perhaps more powerful than people realized at first. Tivoli (pronounced tie-vo-lee) sits inland almost twenty miles from the Gulf of Mexico, a barrier island and a bay in between, in the middle of a sea of open farm land. However, with the eye of the storm predicted to hit Rockport to the west, Tivoli would take the brunt of the wind. Refugio County officials had ordered a mandatory evacuation on August 24, but that didn’t mean much to poor people with questionable cars and trucks. Two-thirds of the people of Tivoli just hunkered down. “People had nowhere to go,” Torres said. “The majority of them had no money to go anywhere or vehicles to transport out. You’ve got families that lost their homes, TVs, clothing. School was supposed to start this week, so a lot of them lost their school clothing.”
No official shelter existed in Tivoli. Just in case, though, Torres had gotten the keys to the Austwell-Tivoli High School. On Friday night, in the midst of the storm, Torres and his 22-year-old son Justin, helped a family take refuge at the school. Then they returned home. “I told my son, let’s go get something to eat. We got in there and we were in the process of winding down, and by that time the winds were kicking, and the next thing we heard was wraaack, that was when the roof came off,” Torres recalled. “That was when it was time to throw the sandwiches down and get the hell out of Dodge. It was a wild night. When this thing ripped, his eyes were as big as saucers. ‘Dad! What was that?’”
Two days later, on Saturday morning, the Texas Forestry Service came in to clear branches off the street and trim the most dangerous trees. And members of the Ohio Task Force 1 urban search and rescue team joined Torres in doing a search and rescue mission in Tivoli and nearby Austwell. No one had died, and no one was seriously injured. The town, however, was a wreck—but the emergency crews quickly redeployed to Houston. And that became the Tivoli story. Everything went to the greatest number with the greatest need. Tivoli was on its own for food and water. “I knew I wasn’t going to get no help because we’re located near no one, resources don’t come,” Torres said.
But the community kicked in. A local company, JML Trucking, sent a truck toward San Antonio for cases of water. James West, the owner of the Rockport Dairy Queen stores, gave Torres permission to use his Tivoli store as his command post to provide for the town. Food was rotting in powerless refrigerators, so residents brought what they could to the DQ for cooking. (During the week, a man traveling from Illinois to Rockport to help his son save his storm-ravaged home stopped at the DQ in hopes of getting chicken nuggets. A woman working the food line told the man his only choice was a chicken leg with beans and rice. He took it, and gave Torres money to help with the relief effort.)
On the night the storm hit, Tivoli native Richard Solis was at his new home in Dallas. Solis, who competes in competitive barbecuing competitions, called his friend Avery Camacho, who had evacuated from Tivoli, and suggested that they buy as much meat as they could, take it to Tivoli, and cook it for the community. Between the two of them, they purchased 200 pounds of meat. “This is my hometown. I called my Uncle Marcus and said I want to come down and cook for everybody,” Solis said. By Monday, they had Solis’ smoker cranking out one brisket and pork butt after another.
Still, despite the work of people like Torres, Solis, and Camacho, Tivoli remained largely isolated on Monday and Tuesday. There was no power, no TV, and no radio except for a few powered by batteries. The residents had heard of the devastation in Rockport and Bayside and could imagine it: Those towns must look like Tivoli. The flooding in Houston was more difficult to envision. What they knew was that help kept heading elsewhere, leaving them on their own.
Even the HEB disaster relief mobile kitchen and pharmacy left them. The 45-foot trailers had been a balm, serving thousands of hot meals first in Victoria and then in Rockport. But when the salvation caravan moved from one city to the other, it merely flashed through Tivoli. “It hurt watching HEB drive by and other big companies drive by and nobody stopped to helped. They were looking at Rockport, Corpus Christi, Port Lavaca,” Camacho said.
Then on Wednesday, help arrived—with a vengeance. Someone from the Salvation Army dropped off 180 pounds of frozen chicken quarters. There was nowhere to store them, so Solis put them into a five-gallon bucket to thaw out. A wealthy rancher showed up to tell Torres that she had generators at her place and 500 pounds of meat in a freezer that was still cold, which he could have used days before. (He was polite when telling her that it really wasn’t needed then.) Then a volunteer group of former military personnel showed up, offering to put blue tarps on the roofs of houses. Torres told the woman in charge that he would try to get someone to go around town with her. “Do whatever you want to do,” he said, with some exasperation in his voice. She wanted to know where to set up. Anywhere, he said, except under the portable generator lights, because the bugs were bad.
Torres’s patience and politeness were tested when the State of Texas showed up in the form of two inspectors from the Department of State Health Services. One wanted to know why there was no hand-washing station outside of the portable toilets that Torres had on site. He tried to explain that was all he was able to get, even though he also had asked for a handicapped toilet. He explained that he also had ordered an air-conditioned tent for the people who had completely lost their homes, but it had not yet arrived. Torres noted that had no medical personnel in town. When a man fell off his roof the day before, someone had to put him into a car and drive him more than forty miles to a hospital in Refugio. “We’ve got elderly and people being injured,” Torres said, with a pleading sound in his voice. Yes, the health inspector said, but sanitation is important.
The health inspectors also were concerned by the makeshift cooking conditions at Solis’ smoker. Were they measuring the temperature of the meat? Where was their hand-washing station? Why were they putting personal drinks on the same table where the meat was being cut up? “I’m OK with you hydrating. Just keep it separated from the food,” the inspector said. “Where’s the trash can?” One of Solis’s helpers started to reach into the cooking station for a black plastic bag, but Solis interrupted him. “It’s coming right now.”
One of the Tivoli residents grumbled, “Have you ever been to a family barbecue? This is a family barbecue.” The health inspector continued to ask about meat thermometers: If they had one, they needed to use it. “We’re making the rounds,” he said. “There’s only two of us for nineteen counties. You might see us come by and check up on you guys.”
Certainly, the state’s concerns about sanitation were valid: it does not want a town with food poisoning in the midst of a disaster area; the inspector was just doing his job. But his brusque manner and lecturing tone robbed Solis and his crew of some of the pride they had exhibited just minutes before in taking care of the community that they loved. “It was messed up with them showing up for us. We’re just trying to help our community, just to see the looks on their faces,” Solis said. “Our people are not going to go hungry.”
Torres, the man in charge, also seemed exasperated. He is not Tivoli’s mayor or the chief of the volunteer fire department, but took charge because people in positions of power left to find shelter from the storm. “We were hit hard, but everybody made it,” Torres said. “Five days, and I’m just now getting state people in. We need medical. My guys are exhausted. I’m exhausted.”
Tivoli is too small for a traffic light. There’s a stop sign where Texas 239 intersects with Texas 35, but traffic hardly slows. Over the small town, the water tower stands, advertising the town and the local football team, the Austwell-Tivoli High School Redfish. Hurricane Harvey destroyed ten homes and damaged the rest, but in small towns like this, the first responders are often the people themselves. In the days immediately after the storm, Tivoli saved Tivoli.