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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.

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With little outside help, volunteer fireman Marcus Torres (right) took charge of hometown relief efforts in the small town of Tivoli.
R.G. Ratcliffe

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.

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  • BadDreamsInHeaven

    Rock on, Tivoli! Y’all did good. So proud of my fellow South Texans.

  • Geoffrey Fagan Hooper

    this breaks my heart,..my mother’s family is from Tivoli,..I spent my summers there working on the ranch,know every mile of that part of the world,….I wish I could physically help,..or I would already be there,..( my health prevents me),…sad that so many passed them by,…but they will make it,..in time..

  • ranchogirl

    My husband lost his trailer and everything in it… we had cattle missing. Tivoli is a small community ,but everyone knows everyone and they look out for each other. The Smejkal Ranch had lots of damage but thank goodness , my husband left after what he thought would be secured. Trailer gone..https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9ec896c6125141458fac31d66ad93d7bd38d09ccf865cc039a8bbc0b09941524.jpg

  • ranchogirl

    Thank you Marcus, God Bless You!!

  • Kelly Bluhm Herms

    Awesome story for an awesome town. My family has been in this area for almost a hundred years, and this ain’t Austwell/Tivoli’s first rodeo (hurricane!). They have survived before, and they will survive and rebuild again this time, as well!

  • Brenda Friedel OBannon

    Dean and I had a place on Guadalupe river in Guadalupe River Oaks. I sold it after he died in 2005 and I’m glad I did. We endured two major floods but had lots of fun times, would not take anything for the wonderful memories, but I could not go through another flood again. My hat, and my heart go out to the people in this wonderful little town, God bless you all.

  • These people are dead tired and you cover this as if it’s a success. How about telling us where to donate, what to give and how to volunteer??

    • Cindy Rivera Edwards-Realtor

      Chantilly, I have been posting on Hurricane Harvey site, asking for supplies for these two communities, I’ve posted a couple list of supplies they need, no one, with the exception of a friend of our & a sweet couple out of New York have donated supplies. Breaks my heart no one serms to want to give for these 2 communities ☹☹

      • Georgia Copeland

        Cindy- do we have a updated list of items needed & where should I take the supplies please.
        Thanks ~ Georgia

        • Cindy Rivera Edwards-Realtor

          Hi Georgia, at the moment Tivoli has run out of room to store supplies, as far as I know they’re being sent to Bloomington. Let me ask where I’ll let you know. Thanks for having a kind heart!

          • Georgia Copeland

            Thanks for letting me know!

    • Don Tompkins

      Over the weekend, we helped deliver supplies to Tivoli which were donated by Southeastern Missouri State University. While there, my wife visited with Marcus’ wife in the donation intake center, as well as with some of the awesome volunteers there.
      She put together a list of most in demand items. I am sure this list will also help with other small communities in need. At this point, so many of these communities are overrun with some items and desperate for other items. I would be happy to forward this list to anyone interested in helping down here.
      I can be contacted at [email protected]
      361-237-5640

      • Cindy Rivera Edwards-Realtor

        Don, I have posted the list on this site, hope we get some help!

        • Don Tompkins

          Thank you Cindy!

    • R.G. Ratcliffe

      Part of the reason I did not put up a list is that originally I was going to do a story on both Tivoli and Bayside. In the first two days after the storm, Bayside also was getting overlooked. But some former residents created a web page and material started flooding in. However, the community center was filled with stuff that couldn’t be used, such as garbage bags full of clothing that looked like they mostly should have been used as rags. Bayside needed more organized relief from the outside, rather than more relief. Tivoli was starting to get relief. The town had plenty of water because the local trucking company had driven north to bring it in. As someone here said, most the houses were damaged, but people were still living in them. What was needed the day I was there, was not what might be needed the next day. The big things they needed that day were a nurse, a handicapped portable toilet, an air conditioned tent to put the elderly in. Mostly, I wanted to point out to everyone not to forget the small towns like Tivoli.

  • Curt Broomfield

    Tivoli, spelled backwards spells I love it. And the people there do love it. May God bless them and give them relief.

    • Cindy Rivera Edwards-Realtor

      OMG, never thought of that, Thanks Curt

  • Albert Thurman

    They should have thrown those asshole “inspectors” out of their town. Morons.

    • SDN

      I’m thinking something a bit more…. Spartan. “This is TIVOLI!”

  • Redfishfan

    I just came back from there went to drop off a generator to one of my cousins the town is beat up bad and they have been told they wont have electricity possibly for up to a month, its hot down there and the mosquito’s are relentless right now. There is help coming in from people driving around dropping of water, ice and some other things which helps but the big players are going to the bigger towns. They’ve always rebuilt after hurricanes but many of the folks are older now and rebuilding after this one is going to be the hardest I feel. Its hard to watch the news and see all this help going to the larger towns while some inspector is harassing them for trying to help themselves.

  • paymking

    My son Drayke Murphy & fiance Heather Meadows just moved to Tivoli in 2015. He works for the Texas Parks & Wildlife. My son opted to stay do he could help search & rescue. Right before Harvey hit, they relocated from their Tivoli house to a small cabin on their Victoria deer lease. They too, lost their entire home. After Harvey hit my selfless kids focused on helping the entire town not themselves. Drayke got generators and autos working plus did a lot of cooking and cleaning up. My son’s dad and wife drove down this past weekend helping tremendously. Up north we’ve had many friends pull together and deliver tons of supplies directly to Tivoli including a ATV mud crew that drove hours to bring fuel, food and water. Today our good friend Nancy Matter is delivering another truck of food & water. Also my biker family here along with some of our amazing friends are working on many things to help my son & Tivoli.
    Pretty much everyone in Tivoli are homeless with no where to go because of destruction. The homes that survived obviously are being lived in. So to start over, most will have to build ground up our try to repair some of the salvageable homes or or leave all together. In the interim they will have to live in makeshift shelters. Please don’t let Tivoli
    Be forgotten. They have a LONG way to go.
    So much damage so little funds. Please continue to help. The struggle is very real. Thank you,
    From a very proud mom.
    Paym King

  • Jeff Crosby

    The people down there are as sharp-edged and difficult to remove as the oysters and barnacles in San Antonio Bay. And even when dislodged, they always come back.

  • TexanForever

    My friend Dickey Sessions tells me he lived in Tivoli most of his life and enjoyed reading about his little community in a major magazine like Texas Monthly. Dicky now lives in Brady, Texas, and wishes all of his old friends well in this trying time. These are Texans helping Texans, as would be expected. We are a hearty self-reliant bunch.

  • Don Tompkins

    Thank you for this article. While I am proud to call Marcus my friend, and he is doing an awesome jod, Tivoli and other small communities along the coast who did not receive national media attention need help.
    Marcus Torres…you rock, buddy!

  • Cindy Rivera Edwards-Realtor

    Here’s the list of supplies needed in Tivoli & Austwell, if you can help out please do so!

    HURRICAN HARVEY SUPPLIES LIST UPDATED!!!
    PLEASE, if you can help out, please do so as the people in Tivoli & Austwell need our help. The people I know have BIG HEARTS! Anything will help…….
    1 Gallon Water Bottles
    Juice (Bottles)
    Hand Sanitizers
    Tarps & Tarp Clips
    Non Perishable Food Items
    Dog Food
    Cat Food
    Ziploc Bags
    Trash Bags
    Paper Plates & Bowls
    Plastic Fork, Spoons, Knives
    Men & Women Razors
    Clorox Wipes
    Anti-Bacterial Wipes
    Mosquito Replant
    Ant Killer
    Roach Killer
    Gloves
    Bleach
    Detergent
    Cleaning Products (to include buckets, mops, brooms)
    Toilet Paper
    Paper Towels
    Dish Soap
    Charcoal and starter fluid
    Fans
    Batteries (AA & AAA)
    School Supplies
    Racks & Shovels
    Rubbing Alcohol
    Hydrogen Peroxide
    Antibacterial Ointment
    Band-Aids
    Adhesive Products
    Sunscreen
    Solo Cups
    Safety Vest
    Cleaning Rags in a Box
    Fruit Cups

    • Don Tompkins

      My wife spoke with the Mayor of Austwell last week and let her know we had a shipment coming in from Southeastern Missouri State University. She promised she would text over a list of items her community was most in need of.
      Oops…she dropped the ball, and we have never heard from her.
      While I understand officials in these small communities are extremely busy, they had better take the initiative to help their community, or their community will continue to be overlooked.
      If there is ANYONE in Austwell willing to take the initiative and let the outside world know what you guys need, please let us know!
      [email protected]
      361-237-5640

    • Thomas

      Does anyone know who to contact in order to donate these goods or how to send them to these areas? I’m having difficulty finding any information if any form of delivery is in place already.

      • Cindy Rivera Edwards-Realtor

        Thomas, what I had out of state donor’s do, was to go to the on-line Walmart website place their orders & have me pick them up. There’s a delivery tomorrow going to Tivoli, but I’ll go going back with what has been dropped off, or shipped to me! If interested in doing that, I live in Boerne Texas 78006.

        • Dennis Earl Taylor

          I took a load of donated supplies to Tivoli on Labor day.Is there a way to get updates on needs After each delivery?

          • Cindy Rivera Edwards-Realtor

            Yes, after the donations being dropped off today, Don & his wife are good about getting updated list to me as soon as they take inventory! I’ll make sure, as well as Don to post it!

    • LonestarSA

      Please see my post above. I am sending some items through Amazon.

      • Cindy Rivera Edwards-Realtor

        Thank you, God Bless you

  • Mary Leyendecker

    Ms Jovita Rodriguez posted a shout-out for prayers for Tivoli and a photo. I added for people to please drive straight on from Rockport-Fulton to Tivoli DQ with their goodies. All one needs to make it thru trubble is good ppl and the Good Lord. Thank you T-M for this update.

  • LonestarSA

    I have set up an Amazon wishlist called “Tivoli Harvey Relief with items from the list provided here by Cindy Rivera Edwards. It is set up to deliver purchased items to the Dairy Queen in Tivoli, where relief activities are being coordinated.

    • LonestarSA

      Here’s a link to the list. It includes the address of the Dairy Queen for delivery.