Mark Creany: My name is Mark Creany. I live in Spicewood, Texas, actually in Paleface Ranch, which is pretty much the epicenter of the September wildfires. I – I guess the volunteer part is the major part of my life right now, both for the fire recovery, and because I am a Vietnam Vet working with wounded soldiers at both Fort Hood and San Antonio. Just after the fires, it became obvious that there was a need for someone to organize and help and as is frequently the case in a disaster, it’s people who just come forward and grab a hold and find something to do. I was in the position, I had the time, it worked out well.
KUT News: So what is your official position?
Creany: Actually, although I still see myself as a guy in the neighborhood, somehow or another, I ended up being the volunteer coordinator for the Spicewood Wildfire Long Term Recovery Committee and there’s probably some LLC’s and some other initials after that, but so now just multiple hats. I, in day-to-day stuff, just respond to neighborhood needs, you know, living right there makes me a convenient target, destination of people’s needs, wants and concerns and I’m able to pass that on to the powers that be, whether it be working with the county, working with the recovery committee, working with individual donors or recipients.
KUT News: So, I’m going to take you back to that morning, Sunday morning, I believe. So, if you can think back to that morning, what was that like? Paint a picture for me. What were you doing? I mean…
Creany: I had returned from church, discovered I needed a few small items from the local store, walked outside, there was just the barest hint of wood smoke odor in the air. Walked around the house to make sure there wasn’t anything in close proximity. Everything seemed alright, so headed out for the store a couple miles away. Went in the store, got what I needed, came back out, there was a group of people huddled around a car with a fire radio and a lot of concern and anxiety and when I asked them what was going on, they told me there was a fire on Paleface Ranch Road. Since I live right off of Paleface Ranch Road, it immediately became a concern of my own and I dashed back. There was a stronger smell of smoke at that point. It wasn’t a whole lot of smoke, per se, to be seen. I went inside, decided I needed to pack my bug out stuff and started throwing things in a empty clothes basket, my laptop, my cell phone charger, my insurance papers. I already had a box packed with, well, a basic bug out kit. Before I could finish filling the clothes basket, there was a pounding on the door and there was a local police officer who told me that I had to leave right then. He grabbed one side of the basket, helped me throw it in the back of the truck.
By that point, the smoke was so heavy that it was an impediment to even basic navigation, even with the high beams on in my truck, I couldn’t travel more than five or six miles an hour. Out of the neighborhood, I went to the first roadblock, just the other side of the first roadblock, I pulled my truck over with a few other neighbors trying to, well, see what was going on. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of fire equipment rolling into the neighborhood. So, very, very heavy smoke clouds driven by a very high wind with pretty frightening amounts of various colored smoke, purples and greens and stuff that you would not expect to see in a typical wood fire. Every time the flame front would hit a home, there would be huge column of black smoke with a whole lot of multi-colored smoke, as well, would go up and then it would turn to white and then it would hit another home. I was apprehensive, but the apprehension went up a significant notch when all of a sudden we watched the fire equipment rolling out of the neighborhood and the cops starting hollering, “They can’t stop the fire. You gotta go.” We pulled back about two miles to the next roadblock, were only there maybe two minutes and they came rolling up and said, “No, you’ve got to abandon that position.”
So, from there, pulled back to the Pedernales River Bridge, which is about seven miles from my home. So, we were at the Pedernales or “Perdenales”, dependent upon what part of Texas you are from, for a few minutes and a forest ranger rolled up and told us we had to evacuate because there was a second fire at Reimers Ranch that was threatening to close Route 71 and we would have been trapped in between the two road closures. They had already closed 71 out by Paleface Ranch Road. At that point, I rolled back to Austin to my son’s home and spent the night watching homes burn down around mine on YouTube and sending out the queries on Facebook and trying to get some kind of information and misinformation was a big part of the early problems. Thought, at that point, I had lost everything.
When I got up Monday morning, I was pretty sure that I had only what I was standing on left of my stuff. About 10:30, I heard rumors, that through Facebook, that my house might still possibly be standing. So, my son and I – one of my sons and I drove out. Couldn’t get in the neighborhood. Went to the other side of the river, found a boat ramp that led down into the Pedernales Riverbed so we drove down the boat ramp and up the riverbed as close as we could get to the neighborhood and Dave went up – I could not hike up the cliffs. My legs are too bad for that, so Dave went up on the neighborhood, called me and said, “Dad, the house is untouched.” There’s stuff burned down well, ultimately within 150 feet of my house and stuff being other houses. He, no sooner, got off the phone when a very – another very large fire roared up from the Haynie Flat side. I was on the phone telling Dave that he had to get out of there now and by the time he got back to the truck, the neighborhood was on fire on three sides and with the riverbed being a fourth side. So, when we rolled out of there Monday afternoon, once again, we were pretty sure everything was gone.
Ultimately found out that it was spared a second time, although there’s multiple homes burned down within 100 feet of my house, my house was spared. Next day tried to access the neighborhood again. The next evening, we still weren’t allowed in. We were given wristbands, but they were not going to allow us into the neighborhood for various reasons and the police officer at the road block was kind enough to send a rover back – a roving patrol to see if my house was still standing. It took about 45 minutes for the rover to report in and when he did report in, it was like, “Well, we can’t tell what shape it’s in, but we can tell you it’s still standing,” which would have been pretty comforting, but since several fires in that 45 minutes had blown up again between the roadblock position and my home, I was less than hopeful when I drove away from there that my home would be standing again in the morning.
KUT News: So, you told me that the information and misinformation was big deal initially and I imagine that if I were in your state, I mean, – well, actually I can’t even imagine what that’s like to wonder one minute it’s gone, the next minute it’s still there, the next minute it might be gone again. What was that like for you to go through that?
Creany: Pretty much – you don’t know what’s happening, so you try and do the best you can with what you have and whether that be information, resources, just trying to focus on what’s the next two things to do. You want to go forward. You know, it’s no time to – and that’s one of the areas that I am grateful to Uncle Sam for having training in tense situations. You just grab a hold – grab a hold, do what you can and ultimately it will work out. You can’t let fear or concern override effective action. It was a matter of when we found out that the shelter that was designated as the relief point actually wasn’t in operation because the Steiner Ranch fires had taken out the electric. It was making sure that word went out to as many people as you knew not to try and use those facilities. It was pointless. It was – when you found out that the number that they were publishing for information, the phone number to call for information, gave you a recording that to call a second number which then gave you a recording to call the first number which was pretty frustrating and it went on for quite some time and when you ask the police at the roadblock, “We need information,” and he was like, “Well, the best thing I can tell you is call 311 because I don’t have a clue and nobody’s telling me anything either.”
It could’ve been really frustrating, but ultimately, you just have to laugh and do the best you can, talking to neighbors, talking, you know, Facebook was an amazingly helpful tool as more and more of us connected and fire questions, answers, resources back and forth and started posting road closures, started posting resources where meals were being fixed. Several local churches put in place their facilities for food prep, for clothing drives, for bottled water. I mean, temperatures at that time were very, very high. Resources were very, very slender. A lot of confusion among the “disaster relief” forces that hopefully are being addressed since then. I mean, the enormity and the scope of that perfect storm of weather conditions, tender dry lands, just too many fires, too many places and too large a scope. Hopefully, our local disaster responsible agencies will have – and they appear to have learned significant and that more stuff will be put in place and hopefully with projects like this, they will be more understanding of what it takes to effectively respond.
In many cases, the misdirection led to not having resources available. Going to the designated evacuated position, which was quite some – I think it was Travis High School, was quite some distance away. When you got there, there was a guy out front in an orange vest and a flashlight waving people away because the electric was off and apparently was off for several days because I had numerous reports that people had kept – because they kept publishing the same bad information, people would go there and be turned away and go there and be turned away. Having to rely on Facebook, which is certainly under some circumstances, you know, sources aren’t double checked, there’s no oversight, would appear to be less than ideal. When that becomes, by far, the best sort of information, I got to question what we’ve been doing and try and make sure that the next time a disasters occurs, that it won’t be repeated and that’s why I’m here today – one of the reasons I’m here today is to kind of let people know what it was like to be in that position and I consider myself better prepared than most because I had a bug out bag, I had an idea of what would be necessary. I made sure I had insurance papers, title to my truck, a number of things that ease the confusion after the fire. When we had to sign in to get wristbands to get – to allow us access to the neighborhood, a lot of people didn’t – you know, the Sheriff’s Department – well, let me make that a little broader. The “authorities” were asking, demanding, needing paperwork that the majority of the people did not have and through partly fluke and partly preparedness on my part, I had most of what I needed, at least enough to move forward.
KUT News: So, was your house saved?
Creany: My house was absolutely saved. It was untouched. There’s not a burned cinder spot on the roof, the yard, although it was tinder dry, was absolutely untouched. The high winds in front of the fire front had blown down a tarp that covered a patio area and did some minor damage. It was – the winds were strong enough to overturn chairs and – but as far as the structure, the only thing that showed any sign of damage, I had put the flag up from my boat in Vietnam because of the holidays, was hanging there very smoke-stained and very – pretty limp, but even it was effectively undamaged and it was eerie. There was a seven and a half mile drive into my home, the initial drive into my home where it was just utter devastation, there was all nuclear winter, black – black and white, blackened tree stumps and tree roots and branches and white ash covering everything and 100 feet from my house when I made the turn, it was untouched. I mean, things certainly weren’t lush and green because at that point it was severe drought conditions, but there was no burn damage visible. You could walk a very few feet and see just how utter the devastation was in some places and a lot of that is due to several neighbors that avoided the evacuation. They put fires out.
We’re on a community well system. When the electric went out, they no longer had water to fight the fires with. They were dipping five gallon buckets of water out of hot tubs. There was some fire extinguishers in someone’s garage that they secured, they were using rakes and shovels and, you know, they are the true heroes in this – the whole deal. There’s so many of us that have homes now due to their – their work. I can’t say enough. That’s the amazing thing about this community is that there are a number of very, very American, in fullest definition, that stood – you know, they didn’t just stand by. The became – they walked up and grabbed a hold and did what they could and they accomplished an amazing amount in a very short period of time, but they fought fires from Sunday afternoon until ten the next morning with no brakes, no support.
KUT News: So, is that what that means to you? I mean, you say, American, and I guess, right now, a lot of people have sort of, with everything America’s gone through, maybe you could say they’ve kind of lost hope in this country, and it seems like, from what you’re saying, that gave you hope.
Creany: Absolutely. It is – Spicewood is – if anybody wonders what happened to America or thinks it disappeared, they need to come out. It is a – and look and pitch in. It’s very much a situation of neighbor helping neighbor, neighbor protecting neighbor, neighborhood pulling together to defend themselves whether it be looters, whether it be scavengers, whether it be the fires themselves, in the rebuilding. You know, it is, from the very beginning, nobody is asking for charity. You know, yes, we need help. We have needed help, but we’re not looking for charity. The first part of my relief efforts – I’ve got some physical challenges and I can’t rake and shovel and walk very far, but I can still drive and talk, so I figure out what was needed. The first part of my…
KUT News: Can I ask, actually, before you go forward, if you’re comfortable, may I ask you why you have those physical challenges?
Creany: Yeah, I just have a lot of health issues that are remains of service in Vietnam and exposure to Agent Orange and both of my legs, both of my arms and a bunch of other stuff have been affected by it, so I can’t walk very far, but I can drive. You know, I can’t carry a lot of weight, but had a pick up truck so when volunteers would load cases of water and work gloves and all the other – as the fire recovery first started, we needed rakes and shovels and then the other oddball stuff like Visine and nasal spray and face mask filters because every time the wind blew, every time you would shovel and try to clean up the sites, then just these very large clouds of ash would blow around. Q-tips to try and clean the crap out of your ears, just so many different items that you never think about a head of time and when I try to – when I was delivering, there was such a spirit of, “We’ll get through it.” I mean, here’s forty-something homes on the ground and never once did I hear, “Poor, pitiful me.” What I experienced and heard over and over again was, “We’ll get through this. We’ll be alright.”
My biggest struggle in the beginning was to – if I would try and give them a full case of water, convincing them that it was okay to take a full case of water, there would be enough because they were like, “Oh, people need this worse than I, just give me three bottle,” and with temperatures well above 100 degrees and doing strenuous physical labor, two bottles of water was not enough. So, you know, one tube of Chapstick wasn’t going to go very far and it was also really helpful because of the quantities that were being donated the way people came forward to, “How can I help? What can I give when those resources arrive to be able to distribute them in quantity?” Yes, there is enough and this is not just immediate relief, but this is hope that and belief that more help is on the way. It really was a boost in very challenging times. You know, the local restaurants that prepared food and put it in the back of a pick up truck and just sent it down to fire sites, yeah, just over and over again there were resources that made themselves available and shared and pointed out that, you know, America is not dead.
You know, Texas is a prime example of the real America: that is, in times of stress, they’re very giving, sharing, not just of financial resources, but hands on. It has been and continues to be really amazing just how deep that pool of concern has been. I’m very fortunate to see it first hand.
KUT News: I’m actually going to go back to when you – when you came back to your house. I know when you were in the truck, you described to me exactly what that was like to walk into your house and see everything as it was. Can you describe that for me?
Creany: It was a very, very eerie sensation and it was seven and a half miles of utter desolation, pull up in front of the house, flag’s still flying, nothing’s burned, nothing’s scorched. I walked up to the front door, unlocked the front door, walked in, air conditioning was on, ceiling fans were turning. My – the ice tea that I was drinking before I had to evacuate was sitting on a table next to my recliner. The book I was reading was over the armchair. It was just sense of shock to go from utter desolation to just complete normalcy in the space of a few feet. I don’t – and as I wandered around and looked out of various windows, it just was – became surreal. You know, walked back outside and a very, very heavy odor of burned wood and stuff and you walk back inside and everything is perfectly “normal.”
KUT News: So, can I ask you to describe what that felt like to see devastation all around you and then to see your own home in such normal and perfect condition.
Creany: Confusion was probably the first emotion and then a sense of wonder at being spared, then trying to come to grips with why and, you know, there is no why in situations like this. The awkward moments came when you realized that you had to interact with neighbors that had lost everything. Trying to understand how they felt and getting to the point where understanding it – to those who have been given much, much is expected, which became the primary initial focus of why I was doing recover efforts because, you know, my home had been spared. I was, you know, so abundantly blessed and felt the need to give back. Since I had some tools, knowledge of emotional issues from Vietnam era, PTSD and survivor guilt and how to work through emotions, not let emotions cripple you or stop you and still be effective and focusing on what was needed and what would help the concrete issues, not just how can I help in general. You know, “Who needs meals? Who needs Visine? Who needs bottled water?” to be able to put emotional issues aside and not let it slow down the physical, “Yes, I can do something,” that will return – will return, I guess, people’s hope, people’s, you know, allow them to go forward.
I mean, something as insignificant as Chapstick. One tube of Chapstick is a help, but six tubes of Chapstick at the same location is, “We have backup. Somebody has our back and is getting things to us and it will get better.” And it did, bit by bit, in spite of all the – I mean, the fires kept burning and flaring up, but it has been an upward path ever since the initial fire and I am very pleased to be a part of that.
KUT News: So, you mentioned survivor guilt. Was there – did you ever feel guilty at any point that your home survived?
Creany: Of course, there had to be some initial point, but also realizing that life’ snot fair and it was not my fault. There was nothing that I did – could have done to be in a different situation. It was just the way it was and those emotions that could have been debilitating just needed to be put aside and replaced with effective work, you know, get the water out, get the Chapstick out, get it out on the job sites, find out what they needed, find a resource for it and just – you put that kind of stuff aside until you can deal with it sometime in the future.
KUT News: Have you dealt with it?
Creany: Absolutely not. It’s far from finished. It’s a very long process. You know, I deal with it in bits and pieces, but there will a time in the future where I’ll have to be a little bit more effective and pay a little bit more attention, but right now it would interfere with what has to be done day-to-day.
KUT News: What would interfere with?
Creany: Survivor guilt or emotional issues, whether it be PTSD, whether it be survivor guilt, whether it be anger, frustration, you know, that’s – they’re not – you have to be aware of them particularly about how they can and do affect daily decisions, but it has to be put aside. I mean, my neighborhood was a war zone. It’s still recovering, but it was a veritable war zone. It was just desolation and destruction. It was looters, it was scavengers, it was helicopters flying over, it was all kinds of trigger inputs to, well, for me anyway, and I’m sure for a number of my – well, all my neighbors when the fire sirens would go off in the middle of the night and you would hear equipment rolling, there was no communication. I’d go out at 1:30 or two in the morning and everybody was hyper alert. I’d go out at 1:30 in the morning to drive around and see where the fire engines were going at that point and there would be two or three of my neighbors out at the same time driving around and there was no central clearinghouse.
We did our very best in the neighborhood. We set up a command and control center which was just a pop-up in one of the neighbor’s driveways and it became a source of a center for information because you couldn’t get it other places. It became a destination for donated water, for rakes, shovels, sifters, we posted – we put up a piece of plywood and one side of the plywood had a list of needs, who needed this, who needed that. The other side had a list of what resources were available. The local Methodist church was cooking dinner at five or whatever was necessary. There was a sign up sheet, a place for us to form a security patrol, both for fire – ongoing fires that were blowing up, as well as the looters and the scavengers – another way that it resembled a war zone. This is Texas. A significant number of –
KUT News: Well, yeah, actually, before you get into that, that is what are you going to – are you going to talk about the looters and –
Creany: Well, a little bit better how everyone, maybe not everyone, but a very large majority of the neighbors were armed and there was reason to be and that spirit of, “Well will protect our homes. We will protect our neighbors,” is a big part of what I see as why I went to Vietnam. It was freedom and they may seem like esoteric idealism, but in reality, that’s what it comes down to is, “I will defend my home. I will defend my family. I will defend my neighborhood.” Yes, this is the spirit that America was built on. This is – this is America. If we are a God-fearing and if your god is dead, come borrow mine. He’s alive and well and that’s what’s kept a bunch of us going. If it had not been for the church – if the churches, plural – if it had not been the knowledge if right and wrong inculcated in so many of the people that live around me, we never would be where we are now in the recovery effort and the survival part of it and I am deeply grateful for the people that surround me. I’m a very fortunate man.
KUT News: So, the reason that I – I was going to ask you about this, you know, and I’ve seen that spirit of togetherness in Spicewood when I’ve come out there, but I have also seen complications from the fire, let’s put it that way and I – from what we have talked about in the past and over phone and everything, it seems like that started pretty early on, even as early on as maybe when you had those looters coming in. So, I mean, we’re going to have to make this brief, but can you briefly tell me what happened with the looter situation and how people defended their homes?
Creany: There was a number of issues that came up early. The looters being one of them, and the fact that there was only one road into our part of the neighborhood, we put a security checkpoint, traffic cones that force any incoming traffic to come to a halt so we could identify and request identification. There was a…
KUT News: Who is we?
Creany: The neighbors. You know, we got – you know, it was obvious that the police could not handle, well, particularly once the police pulled down the roadblocks, whether they could or couldn’t handle security was no longer an issue. They just weren’t there. They couldn’t be. There was so many other areas everybody had been working for so long. Within 45 minutes of the roadblocks coming down from the police, there was literal traffic jams in our neighborhood from gawkers and spectators and whatever part of humanity felt that they had to come out and see it. So, our first venture into that was to put up a piece of plywood with spray painted letters about sightseers keep out and then posting a guard then realizing that we needed two people on duty, then start issue. We needed a way of identifying what traffic was going to be allowed into the neighborhood. So, in that case, it was different color construction paper. It was one color if you were a resident. If was another color if you were clergy. It was another color if you were a visitor.
KUT News: So, when did the looting start and how did that kind of go down?
Creany: There was a – well, the actual looters, the first looting incident was within hours of the roadblocks coming down and that was handled with – when the looter was determined to not stop and be identified after he was leaving a property, he drove onto a resident’s property, was driving all around. When the resident asked him to – or tried to wave him down, he was obviously not going to stop, but when there was a 12-gauge round over the cab of his truck, I guess it got his attention and he did stop and offer some – well, a story that was not very believable, but when the information was taken down, he didn’t come back. He was warned that it probably wouldn’t be healthy for him.
KUT News: So, was it just that one guy or were there…
Creany: No, there was another incident shortly after the fires. There was a benefit at Spicewood Vineyards, which was September 11 and while a lot of the neighborhood was working a benefit to kind of help and give back, three looters in a pick up truck with a trailer demanded entrance and when they were told no by the person on duty – they were told no, they weren’t residents. They didn’t know anybody, they didn’t have any names, they claimed that they would have – it was a public road and we couldn’t stop them, which is probably politically correct, but that’s not always a factor that’s taken into account out there. Right and wrong is significantly more important that politically correct.
KUT News: Out where?
Creany: In Spicewood, in the neighborhood, when they decided they – when they said they were coming in anyway, the person on watch at the time started swinging a shovel in response to the looters’ threats and at that point, one of the residents rolled up with a stainless .44 and a laser site and when the red dot settled on the chest of the looter, it also got his attention, very similar to the first incident. The Statesman published a color photo of some of the participants and – of the defender participants and apparently word must have gotten out that, “Yes, indeed, we will defend our homes.” Incidents tapered off rapidly.
KUT News: So, when you say that someone was standing guard, what does that mean exactly because I know you also mentioned that there were people on rooftops. What was that set up exactly?
Creany: There was a post, usually either a canopy or little Kawasaki mule or what have you at the end of the street and residents took turns manning that post and to make sure to stop the traffic jams. I mean, people initially and it amazes me just how unknowing, unfeeling, un – whatever people can be. Part of it wasn’t just act of looting, it was sightseers that would pull into a burn site and someone’s home is on the ground and some places still smoldering, or at least smoke and ash and the debris is still hot from the fires and would get out of their cars and walk over and kick through the ash looking for souvenirs and just pick stuff up like somehow or other it was okay for them to slate their curiosity and they’re wanting to have a souvenir and with no thought whatsoever that the homeowner, who has just lost everything, has somebody picking through the bones of their fire site and in a lot of cases were standing across the street – right or wrong.
KUT News: What did you guys do about that in terms of, you know, you mentioned that there were people on rooftops or…
Creany: Yeah, there was a couple guys that had night vision scopes and it was – and bolt action rifles in some cases and since there was a need for not just security, physical security from looters, but as a fire watch as well. There were – since fire equipment, particularly early on in the first 10 or 15 days, there was recurring fires and as equipment resources were exhausted, at one point the local bank parking lot was full of broken down fire equipment. We had 55 gallon drums and trash cans full of water in the back of pick up trucks and golf carts and someone had to be on watch pretty much around the clock. There was so many hot spots. Now, my past perception of hot spots was, oh, campfire-sized little flare ups, but in a significant number of cases, it was fires that required helicopter drops to get them back under control. So, the rooftop, the patrols, the security was a real necessity. I mean, we were constantly under threat. That was the other part of it feeling like a war zone because there was a constant threat of not just scavengers, looters, but devastation of a fire coming back. There was a lot of down timber that had not burned all the way, that presented a ready source of more danger, more fires. One of the areas that had been toughest to accomplish in our recovery is just enumerable man hours of cutting burned trees and burned brush and hauling it to – for disposal or chipping it up. It was just danger, danger all the time.
KUT News: Because you’ve compared this to the closest thing that you’ve seen since your days in Vietnam.
Creany: That’s correct and that’s a lot – and Vietnam would present vistas of burned trees and denuded countryside, whether it be from Agent Orange or whether it be from the Zippos or just napalm. This was a very, very ugly, disturbing sight for everybody. I mean, there’s no getting – when you live there, there is no getting away from it. It’s not like you live in East Austin and you come out and work – as valuable and as wonderful of these church groups that come out and work a day or two days or two weeks, it’s still significantly different than living right in the middle of this. Now, they don’t get the benefit of seeing the renewal, you know, day-to-day, but it’s a tough place for us to be in. It just doesn’t go away. There is no relief.
KUT News: So, getting back to the idea of, you know, these – these complications that have existed between groups in Spicewood since the recovery process, can you talk to me about that a little bit? How – what are these complications, what are these groups, what are these tensions that have been brought to head and when you say that the fire has sort of…
Creany: There is a – although there is a tremendous amount of help that will ultimately be available, services have been – and so much of this is your perspective. If you’re standing there in front of a site that is full of sheet metal and the remains of your house and realizing that everything is gone and there’s a bunch of people saying, “How can we help? We’re going to help,” and you’re seven or eight months into after the fire and you’re standing there still wondering where the help is, frequently because you’re not in a position to see all of the resources that are marshaling themselves to make a difference, it can become very frustrating. There’s – disasters do seem to bring out the best in most people and the worst in others and looters and scavengers and hard feeling and, “He got more than me,” or “They may get more than me,” or whatever – whatever the various emotions are. A lot of people don’t have prior experience with a major disaster or such an emotionally overwhelming scenario to be around them constantly and the pressure cooker can get intense. You know, there’s been significant resources promised.
There are significant resources that have been allocated and just a wonderful, amazing group of hard workers that have showed up, you know, Saturday after Saturday, students that worked through Spring Break, churches that send groups and so much has been accomplished, but it’s still hard to see. There are only two new homes that are under construction and, you know, is the glass half-full? Is the glass half-empty? Well, it’s both. I mean, these homes are under construction and it’s taken a bunch to get that far, but there’s still so much left to do. You know, how do you reassure people? The words are only effective for so long when it doesn’t appear when they don’t see it or if they cannot internalize what they’re, you know, what’s going on and it becomes very frustrating and stuff bubbles to the surface. Sometimes it spews from the surface, so…
KUT News: I can see that in this meeting.
Creany: But, for the most part, it has been less than – most of the times, less than acrimonious. Yes, they do want answers. Yes, they do want to know what’s going on, but nobody’s throwing rocks, nobody’s going to jail and nobody’s gone to the hospital. So, as long as we keep that bar in place and keep it low, then you could have a pretty positive view of what’s going on.
KUT News: So, when you say they have unanswered questions or whatever, can you talk to me about these two groups that you’re referring to and within what committee.
Creany: Well, the Long Term Recovery Committee has multiple committees. There are those that see committees as, you know, that a camel is a horse designed by a committee and there are those people that see the necessity since all of this is volunteer work – all of this is volunteer work – that understand and see the necessity for a framework of a contact point, a point of responsibility back to donors, that their funds and resources are used correctly, that there is an equitable distribution of resources. I’m not quite sure what, in this situation, constitutes equitable.
KUT News: Yeah, I was about to ask. What does that mean?
Creany: Yeah, it’s a moving target. I mean, there’s a tremendous pool of need, whether that be uninsured or underinsured, but then there’s also – no one is getting out of this scott free. Everyone that has been touched by the fire has suffered economic loss and no one is going to be restored 100%. Do you penalize people who had insurance for being prepared and doing what was the right thing, wrong thing? Do you penalize them and do not offer any relief to them over someone who made no preparations and were wiped out? You know, it’s a – it’s a moving target, you know, and I am thankful that on my level, my only filter that I need in my neighbor, as guy in the neighborhood, is to filter a need. You know, the one position that the Long Term Recovery Committee fulfills is trying to introduce need with some equality. How they arrived at that, I am grateful I don’t have to get more than peripherally involved in it. Yes, I end up being an avenue of communication, both of good stuff and as stuff that’s – asked some tougher questions and the one encouraging – one of the encouraging parts of the long term recovery committee is when communication is established, when these issues are raised, they immediately take steps to change, modify or – frequently it’s only a perception.
So, to address concerns, to keep communication flowing in both directions from the residents to the Long Term Recovery Committee, and some of the Long Term Recovery Committee members are actual residents and many are not. They may live close or they may come from further distance away, but the fact that they have been so responsive to these concerns is very encouraging and they continue to be. There was a meeting this morning and setting up the agenda for the next community meeting was taking points that were raised at the last community meeting and putting them on the agenda and making sure that they are adequately addressed.
KUT News: So, I feel like I’m getting a little bit of a different, maybe, take on things from you today than what you’ve said in the past. You’ve talked to me about an upper echelon…
Creany: Well, yes, there is a – the Long Term Recovery Committee is a top-down organization as they put together their bone structure/frame work.
KUT News: And what does that mean, top down?
Creany: Well, top down is – while they may not be shoveling and raking and receding and working on erosion projects, they are putting in place the mechanism for donations to come in to be equitably distributed, to set up the policy of what is equitable distribution, as opposed to actual work on the fire ground, whether the fire ground be erosion control projects or home building and home building is, bit-by-bit, getting underway, but we just can’t let – erosion control was a big problem with these burned areas, receding grounds in an issue. The very basic cleaning up of burn sites, one of the first things that the insurance companies decided that if a place was underinsured, they would not be responsible for clean up or debris removal. Well, it’s the first part of the recovery process is you’ve got to make the area safe and we’ve cleared 30-something home sites of burn debris. We, the volunteers.
KUT News: So, I guess what I’m wondering is, you know, you’ve talked to me in the past, Mark, about this top down versus bottom up sort of the way things work out in this committee.
KUT News: And so could you explain what that means exactly?
Creany: Big pause as he tries to figure it out. There, at times, has been an offset between actual work in the neighborhood and perceptions, perhaps, among neighbors that things weren’t moving fast enough or complete enough or favoritism was being shown to individual residents and/or projects. Because – well, I’m only going to be so explicit on the air to begin with because, yeah, there’s no need to introduce any additional complications and…
KUT News: Yeah and I’m not asking you too, but you know, I do want to get the truth here. I mean, I’ve been to these committee meetings. I have met these people. I’ve talked to them. I’ve listened to their concerns.
KUT News: So, you know, I think it’s worth addressing that even in the recovery process, it’s messy. I mean…
Creany: Absolutely mess, but for me, if you don’t know what to do, do the right thing and again, that’s not necessarily the “politically correct thing,” but you know, address the needs and if there’s – and there has been serious concern that frequently when communication was put in place and when those issues were addressed, what initially looked like a very large problem was just a misunderstanding and that’s why my praise of the LTRC attempting to address these problems. Not just attempting, but actually addressing those problems of – my praise earlier in the interview that it’s not always – it is frequently messy. It’s not always pretty, but somehow or other, points are getting addressed, issues are being resolved and whether that’s just by more effective communication or a change in policy or – it is, indeed, becoming a two-way street. It was not always a two-way street and – and through no force trying to make it a one-way street, a lot of times it’s just expediency.
As things change, the situation has to be fluid. There is no way around it. It has been constantly evolving. It’s been constantly changing. There’s no hard and fast rules in the recovery of a disaster of this magnitude. It’s basically what resources are available when and who has the biggest need and that’s one of the strong points of the Long Term Recovery Committee is that they can sit back at a distance and make “rational decisions.” Now, not everybody will agree with every one of those rational decisions, but at least there is some structure in place and that’s kind of top down as opposed to, you know, Joe needs help digging the new hole for a mailbox. I mean, this is how wiped out this community was. I mean, in the beginning of the recovery area, there was no mailboxes, there were few fences that were still standing. Just trying to identify property, trying to get – our basic original goal was to get basic services back to each individual home site which meant water, which meant clearing of sheet metal and debris and the toxic residues of the aftermath. So…
KUT News: So, I guess what I’m also trying to understand is I know I’ve talked to a lot of people who said that Spicewood is a community, even historically before these fires, of people who just physically were separated by acreage of land. Also, you know, you get into that whole concept of above the river, below the river and then there’s that added concept of, you know, taxes and school children and resources fanning out into different counties. People have called it the redheaded step-child of Burnet or Travis, or one of the two, so can you – can you – and we have talked about it too, so can you address that disenfranchisement?
Creany: Gee, that might be a big word for Spicewood residents. The tend to see things a little bit more black and white than disenfran – can you repeat that please? No, I am joking. They – but the – yes, there is and has been and probably will continue to be conflicts about above the river, below the river, conflicts of an unfair distribution of resources from Travis County. Although we pay taxes to Travis County, a lot of our resources come from elsewhere. In the early weeks after the fire, there was more – and this is somewhat subjective, but stuff I witnesses with my own eyes, that there was more resources coming from Burnet and Blanco than there was from Travis. Yes, we try and keep in perspective that there was fires at Steiner Ranch and homes were lost, but it appears to be a very different scenario in Steiner Ranch than in Spicewood. It is a neighborhood of very diverse socioeconomic layers. There is a group of the population that are not permanent residents. They see it as a weekend or vacation destination. There are those that are there 24/7.
The heartening thing about that situation is that when you get down to brass tacks, that’s had very little – when you’re in somebody’s face asking for help or saying that you need help or you know someone who needs help, they tend to rise to the occasion, regardless of whether they are above the river, below the river, whether they are Travis, Burnet, Blanco. Realities frequently outshine the perceptions. Which fire department has jurisdiction in which street – all the fire departments have been – worked amazingly hard to put fires out. So, regardless of what county, when help was needed, everybody has pulled – okay, almost everybody has pulled together to a common goal. This week, my favorite description is we’re staggering towards a victory. We’re certainly not so organized as to be called marching toward victory, but we’re getting there bit by bit.
KUT News: I’m sure – I’ve talked to – I’ve seen that first hand, but I’ve also talked to people who have said that, you know, this fire seems to have taken a community that has always been so proud of its independence, neighbor-to-neighbor. They just respect that and you know, essentially without beating around the bush, taking a community that was never really fully…
KUT News: Yes.
KUT News: And possibly made – brought that to light.
Creany: Not just possibly, it’s a very real…
KUT News: So, let’s talk about that. What – what – what’s going on with that?
Creany: Well, again, a lot of it is taken beyond perceptions. Oh, so-and-so said, “above the river, below the river,” and move it into reality and that who you were talking to may have been from above the river or below the river, but still comes through for whatever need is being addressed. There are those situations that don’t get addressed and creates a certain amount of contention and frustration and sometimes squeaky wheel gets the grease and it gets resolved, but overall, the coming together around the recovery – I mean, there’s a lot of my neighbors that I know now that I never knew before. There’s a lot of home sites that I didn’t even know existed until the fire took out so much of the woodlands. The fact, in a lot of cases, where you realize you have to rely on your neighbor because whatever county wasn’t coming through with whatever resources has built a certain level of trust and appreciation of their – the commitment of their neighbors. A certain amount of tension when it doesn’t come through, from whether it be from their neighbor or their government. Our first evening Long Term Recovery Meeting brought out several county authorities who pledged their support and continue to try to help whenever they can.
KUT News: So, I’m getting really different story now from what I’ve been hearing which is that as a community that’s proud of being so independent, this fire has basically brought to light that that is how Spicewood operates and – but now from you I’m hearing that it’s possibly brought the community closer. So…
Creany: Again, we get back to is the glass half-empty, half-full? Well reality is it’s both, so what side do you want to focus and perceive it as? In my case, giving this being a radio interview that’s going out to the public, I would rather my neighborhood be perceived as looking at the good side rather than…
KUT News: Which I totally understand, but I’m wondering if that’s true.
Creany: Well, of course it’s true, one way or the other. I mean, both sides are true. Is the glass half-empty or is the glass half-full? Obviously, it’s both. So, yes, there’s been divisiveness. Yes, there’s been togetherness. Yes, there’s been cooperation. Yes, there’s been absolutely adamant resistance to common solutions and I guess that’s part of my saying that, you know, it’s life is simple. It can be really messy, but it is simple and that’s part of the messiness and it will either get resolved for better or for worse or it won’t get resolved and it will continue as a Hatfield and McCoys feud for years to come. I mean, there are still…
KUT News: So, can we – can we briefly, really briefly, talk about both? Where does the divisiveness come into play and where does the cohesiveness come into play.
Creany: It might take a higher pay grade than mine. Where does divisiveness come into play? Well, part of that is just inherent humanity and if you allow yourself to depersonalize someone or tag someone from above the river or below the river takes away their innate human worth, if you’re on fire grounds and somebody needs a hand lifting something up and throwing it into the back of a pick up truck, if it is Joe – Jim Bowie Drive that you’re dealing with and not case number 1234, that goes a long ways towards not allowing the depersonalization to – to take effect and that’s what build bridges and understanding that we are all subject to human condition, both good and bad and not to allow frustration and anger to override remembering that. It’s as true in my case as, you know, in anybody else’s. I mean, I get to see the benefits of improvements and progress. I get to hear about what’s not so fine and certainly the same temptations to vilify or to glorify on either side. I am subject to and all I can do is try and put myself in a place that’s non-judgmental and hence my filter of need, not – you know, not judging. If the guy across the street – it’s immaterial to me, whether he had insurance or had enough insurance and how much insurance did he have and is he telling the truth about how much insurance that had. All that kind of stuff for me is immaterial. So, we’ll see how that works out.
KUT News: So, in your opinion then, do you think this fire has brought people closer together, brought to light the fact that Spicewood is a community that people like to operate independently.
Creany: The short answer is yes. Yes to all of that. How it plays out? Do you want a report card? Do they get an A+ or A or C a 70?
KUT News: I’m just asking your opinion.
Creany: Yeah, when – I’m feeling and positive then absolutely it has brought people together. When I’m feeling frustrated over a length of time things being taken, projects taking, then absolutely. It is very tempting to tag it to above the river, below the river, Burnette County, Travis County, redheaded step-child, whatever you wan to do, but you just start out each day – you hope to start out each day with a relatively even keeled perception of what’s going on and as long as you keep your list of things to do and it’s an overall positive at the end of the day, end of the week, end of the month, it’s easy to stay encouraged. You know, you see what you want to see. You hear what you want to hear.
KUT News: That’s what I was going to ask you. What has this recovery process taught you?
Creany: I don’t know. I’m an old dog. It’s pretty hard to teach me anything, but depending upon day-to-day, it’s – I mean, I get a lot of benefit out of it. It’s come along in a point in my life where I was less than enthralled about my future prospects because of physical disabilities, because of a number of issues. This has been an opportunity, not just a challenge, but it’s also been an opportunity that it has returned a lot of satisfaction. I mean, I’m also the guy out there that when I roll in with whatever it happens to be, whether it is a case of water or whatever, to have the people say, you know, “We’re so grateful. We are so overwhelmed by the response.” You know, I get the positive feedback that a lot of people from the top down side don’t get and it’s been one of my goals throughout this is to pass on to the volunteer workers that have not been on the fire sites, just how appreciative people are and how well they are thought of by the people and how grateful the people on the fire sites are.
KUT News: Right. I mean, one of the things that I noticed is, when I went out there both times is that – and this is irrespective of divisiveness, togetherness, whatever, is that I think when people think of natural disaster, they do think of all these sort of feel-good stories of groups coming together and that very much exists.
KUT News: But, like for the common man who has lost his home, this is hard. You know, like – and the wear and tear, the physical wear and tear, on buildings, et cetera, that can be addressed. But the emotional wear and tear it seems is – is where it has really hit.
Creany: And again, when you come out on job sites, what you are seeing is a snapshot. You know, it’s not the entire video. You are correct that the emotional side of things ebbs and flows. There are times when it is frustrations are at a very, very intense level. There are times when people see and feel progress that it’s of lesser – there are times where it – I mean, I can remember the first rain after the fire because it was quite some time and when it was raining, I was dancing in my backyard in the rain. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. I mean, the emotional intensity that has gone along with this has been an absolute roller coaster and will probably continue to be a roller coaster for quite some time. The LTRC has tried to address those issues by setting up a committee for emotional and spiritual need. I’m not privy to and it’s probably not appropriate that I be privy to who is taking advantage of that and what that resource is. I mean, the fact that they are hoping to make that available, have made that available, is again outside of my day-to-day deals because yes, the emotional component isn’t going away any time soon, both the good part and the bad part. I find myself frequently on the edge and as everybody does and at different times for different reasons.
Triggers present differently. There are some common triggers, the smell of smoke, a fire siren going off, the – a neighbor irritating a neighbor for real, imagined, perceived, half-full, half-empty will continue to roll on and you address that as best you can and it’s a community issue, it’s a personal issue, it is very, very messy, but it is life and it is on the whole, very, very encouraging, I mean, even if it’s situations that you never would have imagined in a million years coming up. They all have some amount of common resolution, which is communication and applying resources and finding resources and setting up win-win situations.
KUT News: So my last two questions are – the first one is what I ask everyone which is I’m sure there’s one sort of, or many, but the strongest sort of emotional story that sticks out at you either from the weekend or the recovery process.
Creany: People staying behind to fight fires when they were told to evacuate is certainly a prime example of answering a common need with a determined group of individuals that are willing to put skin in the game.
KUT News: So, tell me about that. I mean, what did you hear about that? Did you see that? Can you describe it for me?
Creany: I saw results. I heard stories. Did I see it, no. I evacuated. You know, that’s one of the – I found this to be a stunning aftermath is that I evacuated. That’s both the good side and the bad side. I mean, I found myself wondering why I just accepted the threat of danger and of police coming around saying, “You have to leave now,” why I didn’t question that. There’s two types of – someone once said there are two types of people in this world, those that run towards fires and those that run away and in my past, I’ve always been someone who ran toward a fire. In this case, I was not. Sure, after the fact I realized that given physical limitations, it’s probably wise that I did so, but it was still very emotionally charged perception of what went on. It’s made many of us look inside ourselves to figure out, re-evaluate who we are. For me, a lot of this has been building a new life. This has been very different. It’s been all encompassing from a time standpoint, from an effort standpoint. Everything else has become secondary. It’s been very encouraging.
KUT News: So, when you say it’s made you look inside yourself? What do you see?
Creany: I’m coming to realize that although I am physically limited, that I was still able to rise to the occasion to do useful work again, that my efforts have made a difference, a positive difference. I still see myself as just a guy in the neighborhood, but yeah, I am coming to realize that because people, not just myself, but because people have rose to the occasion, it has made a significant difference. When I ride down the street and I see, whether it be grasses growing from groups that I was able to hook up with some resources and the seeds sprouting and when I see projects and I drive through and there’s lots of sites that have been cleared, not just through my – you know, certainly not just for my efforts because I couldn’t physically do it. You know, there have been people that were in my job prior to me who were just amazing in what they accomplished and to see so much good come out of it.
So, yeah, it is really encouraging and to realize that there is an American spirit, Texas spirit, whatever you – whatever tag you want to put on it, whether it be Cowboy Creed, you know, “ride hard, shoot straight and always tell the truth,” up through, you know, the only way evil can triumph is if good men do nothing, to see that embodied in a residence and outside of the residents, people from outside coming in, pitching in. They’ve done a tremendous job. So, yes, I see it overall as a coming together in a very positive way regardless of any of the squabbles and messiness.
KUT News: And what I’m hearing is that if you go to – if you head out to Spicewood, Texas, you will see the American spirit.
Creany: Yes and even more importantly, if you care to participate, you can be a part of the American Spirit. You know, it’s all a matter of coming out and grabbing a hold, not talking about, “Oh, I’d like to help.” Put your boots on. I’ll give you a pair of work gloves. I can find those for you.
KUT News: Do, I didn’t actually address this earlier, but I know you said you do have children, but none of them live in Spicewood.
Creany: That’s correct. I have three children that live in Austin and five more that live in Baltimore, but – and they’ve been part in parcel of as much or as little as they care to be part of it. That’s their personal decision. It’s a hike from Austin to Spicewood and transportation is frequently a problem, but they have their lives too.
KUT News: May I ask about your wife or your ex-wife or…
Creany: I’m divorced. I live single. That’s been one of the challenges about what’s been going on. You know, there’s no one there to tell you to slow down, tell you to stop and when there is no support system for here’s a meal, it ads to the complexity of what’s going on. So, you do what you’ve got to do.
KUT News: So, you mentioned that in a way that this whole process for you has like given you a new life.
Creany: Certainly given it a new focus. I don’t know if I’d describe it as a new life, but it has certainly changed the focus. It has been encouraging for me. I have found in the past that when you have the least amount of resources and you’re trying the hardest, you can make the most amount of gain, you know, long term for your life and when you need – yeah, I’ll let it go at that. Yes, it’s been a different focus. It has brought me in contact with a huge amount of people that are good spirited, encouraging, well-meaning group that when you surround yourself with positive people, good things happen. I mean, you see it and you feel it and you’re part of it. So, being part of it is very encouraging to know that all of us are making a difference.
KUT News: So, of course, my last question is, where do you see Spicewood in a year from now, the recovery efforts? Where do you see it? And what do you hope for it? Which are two different things.
Creany: Hm, where do I see it? I have no preconceived thoughts about where it will be. One of the things that keeps me going is through tough times is not having preconceived limits. You know, you don’t know what you can accomplish if you’ve already convinced yourself that you have a limit, that there is a – whether it be glass ceiling, roadblock, what have you. So, I tend to think in that. You know, I tend to think more in the terms of there’s a lot of homes to rebuild. There’s an awful lot of concerns about erosion control, cleaning up, lots of progress, lots of challenges and while it may not be day-to-day, it is seldom more than week-to-week with some general idea of things will get better. We don’t know how much better, but as long as we keep putting out 100%, then we better.