AUSTIN, Texas - More than 5,000 people took refuge from Hurricane Ike at 53 different state parks across Texas. Most of them, more than 2,000, stayed at Garner, including many from the Houston-Galveston area who vacation at the park each year.
"A lot of people tried to pay us like they usually do when they checked in, and when we said it's on us, no charge, they just broke down and cried," said Rick Meyers, Garner State Park superintendent. "A lot of these folks were just emotionally frazzled. Emotions were pretty high all around--even some of my clerks and staff were crying."
Texas State Parks waive entrance and camping fees for disaster evacuees, making it free to tent camp or stay in RVs or campers. During Hurricane Rita in September 2005, an estimated more than 1,000 evacuees took shelter in state parks.
"I was at Inks [Lake State Park] when Rita came through, and we had a lot of evacuees, but not near this many," Meyers said. "Rita displaced a lot of folks, but long timers here say this is the most evacuees we've ever seen at Garner."
Garner State Park in northern Uvalde County is popular for shady campgrounds along 10 miles of the spring fed Frio River, which runs clear and cool even in summer heat. Now more than 1,400 acres in size, land for the park was first acquired in 1934. The site is named for John Nance Garner of Uvalde (Cactus Jack), U.S. vice president from 1933-41.
Last Wednesday, as Ike bore down on the Texas coast, the first evacuees began arriving at Garner. At first they were calling, making reservations. Then people started showing up without reservations. By late Thursday, the slow trickle had become an evacuee convoy.
"Some of them came with trailers, either U-Haul rentals or just flat beds with tarps, loaded with personal belongings like TVs, sofas, couches, tables and chairs," Meyers recalls. "It looked like in flood prone areas they just loaded everything on their trailers."
Thursday night, the park office stayed open until 11 p.m. checking people in, and park peace officers were out past midnight helping people get settled and checking the crowded campgrounds. The park staff bent the eight person per campsite rule so evacuee families could stay together, allowing up to 12 people per site.
Walking through the campgrounds Friday night, generator-driven TVs picking up satellite signals glowed and news broadcasts crackled through the normally quiet air. Park visitors watched along with millions of people around the world as weathercasters described Ike's size and power. Anxious faces watched to see whether their homes would be flooded by the predicted record storm surge.
Others sought diversion in a decades-old tradition at Garner. On long summer evenings, young folks (and the young at heart) meet at the park concession building for jukebox dancing every night during the high season.
"The park concessionaire called me and said 'These people don't have anything to do, so why don't we fire up the juke box and have a dance?'" Meyers said. "So we had a dance Saturday night, and had a pretty good turnout, I'd say about 300 to 400 people."
On Saturday and Sunday, as conditions cleared, the campgrounds began to empty.
"On Friday around 4 p.m., our head count was about 1,650 evacuees," Meyers said. "We were down to about 1,100 late Saturday, and probably half that Sunday."
Many of those that remain are from the hardest-hit regions.
"We had one family that requested to stay several weeks," Meyers said. "Typically we don't host evacuees that long, but we found out her house was totally gone; she was from the Galveston area. So of the ones that are still here, a lot of them can't go home. They're watching the news and they know if their neighborhood still has no power or water, there's no point."
Similar stories played out at dozens of other state parks outside Ike's path. Many evacuees clustered at Hill Country parks like Inks Lake (507) and Pedernales Falls (143), but others spread across Texas as far away as Davis Mountains (15) and Lake Arrowhead (67).
Among those gathered at Bastrop State Park were seven members of the Pavlu clan from Angleton. Wayne and Vicki Pavlu came in an RV with their son Kevin and his wife Hannah, daughter Tammy and grandkids Cooper and Konner. Along with them came four dogs and the family's blind pet rooster named Rooster. The setting is pretty, the weather fine, the park staff gracious and helpful, but many evacuees describe an undertone of anxiety to their experience.
"The park's been great, but overall it's been stressful, horrible," said Tammy Pavlu, a 24-year-old insurance agent. "You don't know what you're going to come back to. You don't know what to pack because space is limited, but you don't know how long you're going to live out of your car. We're anxious to go home."
Still, for thousands of Texans, state parks provided a welcome respite. Hundreds of miles away, emergency workers and law enforcement officers were clearing debris and conducting search and rescue through flooded streets without electrical power or running water. Eventually, evacuees from those areas will have to go back and pick up the pieces. But not this Sunday, not for those at places like Garner.