Swiss Victim of Hurricane Harvey
Who would have thought back then, that a member of our Swiss community would fall victim to this devastating hurricane when it made landfall in South Texas on August 26, 2017?
Sylvia Kernen had a house and her own little business in Rockport - both suffered major damage during the storm. She and her teenage son survived, but her existence is shattered to pieces.
Now, several months later, her house has been rebuilt, but this very talented lady is still without a job.
Here is her story:
"Sitting on my newly propped-up porch and looking over my back yard, the world almost seems normal again. Today it’s been six months since Harvey hit our picturesque little town, since the day our lives were ripped from their foundations."
"That morning, the evacuation notice came after my son was already in school. He was 15 and had just started high school earlier in the week. I drove to the little graphic design and t-shirt printing shop I owned with my best friend. For five years we had run the shop together, and together we packed everything up high and away from the windows. Then we boarded up the windows and said goodbye to the business we’d worked so hard to build. We had one last hug, then she was on her way with her family and I rushed home to pack."
Back porch before the storm
"I dragged everything I could into the house, then taped the doors to keep the water out. My mind was racing a thousand miles an hour: What’s important? What can I not leave behind? What is irreplaceable? What will fit into the small SUV? I grabbed all the photo albums, some pictures, a clock from my Grandma in Switzerland, and my computers and hard disks. Half of the back seat was reserved for our two puppies, so space was very limited. I packed one small carry-on suitcase for my son and one for me, thinking a week’s worth of clothes should be enough."
"I raced to the school to pick up my boy and seemed to enter a parallel universe. The school seemed unaware of the evacuation. Everything was business as usual, so I waited until the end of their school day. Then we went back to the house to pick up the dogs, take one last look, and make sure he could grab the items most important to him."
"We hit the road for a three-hour drive to Lockhart, where my ‘adopted’ cousin invited us to stay at her lovely home. The roads were still clear and the drive was uneventful. About an hour into the trip we received a phone call from a fellow Swiss who we had just met a couple of weeks earlier at a national day celebration in San Antonio. She offered us a place to stay as well. How sweet and totally unexpected."
Sylvia and her son
"The storm hit the following night. We were on the phone until about 11 p.m., texting with friends who had stayed in Rockport. Then all communication came to a complete stop. I was terrified for them. Facebook messages from the mayor told people to put identification info on their forearms with sharpies. That really shed light on the severity of what was happening. The last message I got was from my friend of 27 years. He said that the wind was so strong it was literally sucking the air out of his house."
"In the morning, it hit me emotionally. I could not stop crying. Had we lost everything? The unknowing was excruciatingly painful. We spent the entire day on the couch scanning every bit of information on Facebook and the TV news, looking for some glimpse of information about how things were in Rockport and what was still standing. Was our house intact? Was the business still there? In the news, the devastation shown was massive and the official point of impact was Copano Village. That is where our house was."
"It wasn’t until two days later that the first drive-by pictures emerged. There it was from frame 6:37 on https://www.facebook.com/wxchasing/videos/522342784764023/. It was still standing, but badly battered. The massive, heavy air conditioner units were both displaced: the first evidence of the forces that had brutalized our home. Finally, first communications came through from my friend’s dad. He had stayed, as well. He went to the house and took pictures from the outside. A couple of days later he returned to take pictures of the inside. With the exterior pictures, we had hope that the damage wasn’t as bad as we had feared. As more photos arrived, those hopes were crushed and it became clear that the house was just a shell around a devastated interior."
After the storm pictures
Kitchen and living room
"Five days after the storm, I went back to see the damage for myself. Doug, our host, insisted that I couldn’t go alone. What a blessing, as he patched several holes in the roof to keep out additional water. Outside, the heat, the bugs, and the humidity were unbearable. Inside, the smell was overwhelming. There was water on the floor and the ceilings were coming down. Wet insulation was hanging from rafters all over the place. The main section of the house is cinderblock with interior plasterboard which was sucking up the water and already growing mold. The laundry and bathrooms had conventional frame walls. Those were soaked through and falling apart, covered in mold."
"I was immobilized by the enormity of devastation. It was just too much. Everything wet had to go outside and, like a zombie, I started just moving and ripping and dragging."
"The back porch was off its foundation on one side, the air conditioners had been slammed into it with that much force. Standing there, marveling at the destructive power, I suddenly realized that the house which should have been to my immediate right was completely gone."
"All of my trees were down, except for my favorite. In the midst of so much loss, I was overcome with joy to see that one special tree battered and abused, but still standing. Every leaf from every tree, bush, and shrub in Rockport was gone. The area looked like a war-torn region from a sci-fi movie."
Back porch after the storm
"After that first visit, I enrolled my son in Lockhart’s Independent School District. They took him in with much care, as we all realized that this was going to be a longer recovery than we had anticipated."
"I spent two to three days in Rockport every week, ripping out walls and trying to salvage items that were dear to us. It was sweltering hot, but at least I had a generator to run fans and move the hot humid air trying to dry out the studs in the bare walls."
"Meanwhile, my best friend and business partner was dealing with major emotional issues due to the storm. She decided that she did not want to reopen the store. That pulled the carpet out from underneath me again. We were 50/50 partners and the business was located in her dad’s property. Basically, that was it for the business. Now I had no job."
"Our insurance adjuster had come to assess the situation and I looked for a contractor to take on the rebuilding work. My husband’s brother offered to come down from Canada to help us rebuild. He is a contractor up there and was thankful for the work during his slow season. His fee was exorbitant, but we really didn’t have any other option. I was a bit taken aback that he would not give us a ‘brotherly’ deal. We bought an RV for him so he would have a place to stay and he arrived on October the 13th, the day we officially moved back down to Rockport as the schools reopened on the 16th."
"We had one room that we could live in. I had put in a window unit so we could keep that room cool. My son went back to school and I went to work as free help to my brother-in-law. He had arrived thinking he could hire someone, but there were no available workers. After eight weeks of rebuilding work, he left."
"After the brother-in-law contractor left and my husband came home for his leave, I realized that I was a bigger mess than I had thought. I don’t know whether it was stretching the rubber band until it snaps, or a stress reaction, or a stage of grief, but I’d been strong for as long as I could, and I completely went to pieces. I was angry that my husband had not come home to help me. Yes, I had told him not to come so we would have at least one income but then again, I was kind of expecting him to rush over anyway. I was sad. I was questioning my existence."
"My home is now rebuilt. My son is back in school and well adjusted, and I am here without a purpose or direction or goal. In all of this mess, somewhere I have lost myself. All I can think of is for these next three years to be over so that I can go back home to Switzerland. I miss Switzerland, my family, and safety."
"In January, it got so bad that I was crying on a daily basis. My son texted his grandma and she cancelled a planned vacation to come and stay with me. It just was all too much. She stayed for four weeks."
"I am slowly recovering, but the urge to go to my homeland has not passed. The house in Rockport is now just a house. I don’t trust it anymore. It’s like I’ve been burglarized. At any time another hurricane could come and take it again. I lost my best friend in this disaster. It has changed her in such a way that I don’t recognize her anymore. We had spent every major holiday for the past five years together, and now she’s not even willing to divide up the inventory/possession we had in a fair manner. It’s too expensive to get a lawyer involved, so it’s just another thing to let go. I’ll be ok, eventually, but it will take some time."
"The hurricane didn’t just devastate my little town and my house, it tore my life to shreds."
by Sylvia Kernen, Rockport Texas