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28 August 2017

Sam’s incredible effort to stay alive

Sam Speights tries to hold back tears while holding his dogs and surveying the damage to his home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Picture: Eric Gay

SAM Speights takes medication for extreme anxiety and panic attacks.

But there’s no pill for a hurricane — especially when he ventured into it at the height of its fury.

“You don’t see the flying debris until it’s right in front of you,” said Speights.

“You can’t see it coming.”

Emergency officials co-ordinating triage in the coastal city of Rockport, where Hurricane Harvey barrelled into Texas, said they considered it almost miraculous that the number of confirmed deaths from the storm in their area so far is only one person and five in the state of Texas.

Speights easily could have been a victim.

Unable to get a relative or friend to come and pick him up or to find a ride out — Speights doesn’t have a car — he hunkered down with his six dogs, a huskie and five rat terriers, in his three-bedroom lime green trailer.

His wife and 15-year-old son had fled along with nearly everyone else on Ruby Allen Street, a line of trailer homes on a three metre rise, 4.8km from the Gulf of Mexico.

The wiry 37-year-old with gold-capped teeth and deck-of-cards suits tattooed on his fingers made it through the storm’s first lashing Friday night. His world exploded, after the calm of the storm’s eye passed, in the fury of swirling, sustained 209km/h winds.

Sam Speights tries to hold back tears while holding his dogs and surveying the damage to his home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey: Eric Gay

Sam Speights tries to hold back tears while holding his dogs and surveying the damage to his home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey: Eric GaySource:AP

People who rode out Harvey in devastated Rockport — where emergency management spokesman Bill Terry estimated Sunday it would be three to four weeks before essential services could be restored — described how their houses felt like they were breathing.

Speights’ trailer was absolutely panting.

First the tin canopy tore off over the living room. Then the ceiling peeled up in his son’s room.

“I was sitting on my couch and it bounced up and down twice. That’s when I decided it was time to get out.”

He put the rat terriers — Tex, Rocky, Buck, Angel and Itty Bitty — in a room and looked out toward the street.

“I said, ‘Oh God, I’m going to die.”’

He grabbed his Husky, Nanook, and headed outside. The drainage ditch filled with water. The storm surge was about 1.5m and had nearly filled it.

“I almost drowned in that creek,” said Speights, whose only light was his mobile phone’s torch. “I was worried about a big wave coming and dragging me out to sea.”

Sam Speights holds two of his dogs as he checks on the damage to his home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Picture: Eric Gay

Sam Speights holds two of his dogs as he checks on the damage to his home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Picture: Eric GaySource:AP

He could barely see. Something hit him in his right shoulder, he recalled, rubbing it as he stood next to his neighbour’s toppled mobile home, its steel base twisted. Nearly every mobile home on the block was tossed, flattened or pierced and vacuumed by Harvey.

The wind was absolute confusion.

“It was coming from every direction. It was circling around. It was hard to determine, to be honest.”

First, Speights made for an open green corrugated steel vehicle shed and sheltered there until it started crumpling. Then he ran past another three houses to a concrete bunker-like structure his landlord had heavily reinforced with rear. It was locked.

Next to it stood his landlord’s pick-up.

“I grabbed the door handle,” he said.

“Thank God it was unlocked.

“I got in there, locked all the doors, pushed down the emergency brake and rode it out until about 4:30 (in the morning.” That’s when the carport ceiling began to curl. The pick-up was vibrating, debris crashing along its sides. Tree limbs flew. He feared the truck’s window would explode.

“I didn’t want my head to get torn off,” said Speights.

Sam Speights walks with his dogs as he checks on the damage to his home. Picture: Eric Gay

Sam Speights walks with his dogs as he checks on the damage to his home. Picture: Eric GaySource:AP

Scores of vehicle windows in Rockport — a city of 10,000 — shattered in the storm, including police cruisers parked downtown.

Speights jumped out and made for the concrete-block house adjacent.

“I just snuck into the back window and jumped in. That thing is solid.”

He and Nanook, still at his side, were finally safe.

But Speights has lost everything he owns.

He bicycled nearly 5km to the emergency management centre in Rockport’s centre Sunday, where he was given emergency food rations and a cooking kit. He has no insurance. His wife works as a waitress and he, a former telephone sales representative, hasn’t worked for about a decade.

Speights tried to stay in his home during the storm but had to move to other shelter after he lost his roof and back wall. Picture: Eric Gay

Speights tried to stay in his home during the storm but had to move to other shelter after he lost his roof and back wall. Picture: Eric GaySource:AP

Two Border Patrol agents, who along with state troopers, National Guard soldiers and others are assisting in recovery efforts, came by Speights’ trailer Sunday afternoon to check on him and tell him authorities had a welfare check for him. Of course there’s no place open to cash it, no power, running water and other essential services.

“We’re just a low-income family and this hurts,” he said after they left, holding back a sob that later came when he squatted in his puddled backyard, surveying the roofless, wall-less back of his trailer, his rat terriers heaping on affection.

Speights spent Saturday night on his rain-sodden couch.

“It’s disgusting. I wrapped it in plastic so I could sleep on it. I woke up smelling like mould.” He’d called his father in Austin but wasn’t sure he’d be able to come get him. Where did he and the dogs plan to sleep Sunday night?

“I don’t have a clue.”

Sam Speights moves around debris as he checks on the damage to his home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Rockport, Texas. Picture: Eric Gay

Sam Speights moves around debris as he checks on the damage to his home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Rockport, Texas. Picture: Eric GaySource:AP

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