Pastor Liz Hanley
On Monday, March 5, 2012, Liz Hanley spoke with KUT News about her experiences during the Central Texas wildfires.
Hanley: Sure, um, Labor Day weekend as you know Sunday afternoon I left church. Was headed to my brother and sister in-law’s, they have two little boys, and we were- had plans for the holiday weekend and so I after church grabbed a few changes of clothes and my golf clubs and the dog and headed out to Dallas, and was on I-35 and I don’t know – three o’clock in the afternoon or so, when I got a phone call. I was in red oak, so, one of the guys from church called and said: Are you ok?
And I said, I’m ok, are you ok? And I thought he was joking around and he said, there’s a fire coming. Should we go get – and I said, well I’m in the car driving and three hours away. And he said, well should we go get stuff out of the house? And I said: Well, ok, let me go, let me call my neighbor and see. So I called my neighbor, and she said there’s no time, we’re leaving now, the fires are coming, they’re not letting anyone in, there’s no time, I’m sorry, we’re leaving. And so I kept driving cause really I didn’t know what else to do and there wasn’t entire certainty as to where the fires were going at that point, they were still kind of swirling around, and so it was very hit and miss, and so there wasn’t certainty that in fact my house was in the path of things and so when I pulled in my brothers driveway was when I had the call from another friend who lives across the river, who can see my house and I can see theirs from the bluff, from where I was on the high side of the river. And he said: I’m watching your house burn.
And so I knew then that my house was… was gone. It was later that night we were able to get some footage, there had been some people putting on YouTube footage. The house that I was living in was on the high side of the river across from Mona’s fish camp, and so everyone had gathered down there to watch all these fires and the houses go up, and partly it was people who didn’t have anywhere else to go because they had been kind of kicked out of all the neighborhoods and everyone was moved out and so there was footage, we were able to watch… on the computer, the house, burning at dusk. And just totally engulfed in flames.
KUT News: Unbelievable. How did- I mean I don’t even want to say, I hate that question. How did you feel?
Hanley: Well, it was a bit surreal for a while, because you kind of think, I mean my first question to Ben when he called and said I can see your house on fire, was: Are you sure? (laugh) I mean he knows my house, he knew exactly where it was. But it was that, are you sure, really, that kind of disbelief that really, it wasn’t happening. So disbelief in the beginning and then…
KUT News: What did you do after that?
Hanley: Well, my brother posted it on Facebook. And so then the phones started ringing. And I had within probably, you know, 24 hours my voice mail box was full and I was fielding phone calls from people all across the country. Which was… fantastic and overwhelming at the same time. So we tried to formulate a bit of a plan, I stayed there for – at my brother’s house for Monday and Tuesday, he came back with me.
And they- we got back and they wouldn’t let us in because the fires were still burning. We didn’t actually get back in to where the house was till Wednesday afternoon late. So we did a lot of kind of sitting around waiting and we’d go and we’d talk to the sheriff’s department and they’d say: well, we’re going to let people in at this time, but they made us get wristbands and check us in, and do all those sorts of things for security so they could keep looters and that sort of- and just kind of gawkers out. And so we did a lot of waiting, and I think that was probably the worst part was the dread of not knowing, once we finally got to the remains of the house, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the waiting and wondering how bad it would be and how… how emotional you would be about it.
KUT News: So tell me those moments when you arrived at your house.
Hanley: We came back in on- it was late Wednesday afternoon, when they let us in and you just had this kind of sick nauseous feeling in the pit of your stomach. It was, it was labor day so it was about 103 outside, so it was miserable hot and we pulled up, well as we drove in, it just looked like a… like the moon. The charred trees and the just grey… everything was grey. And there was stuff we didn’t know was there. There was creek beds we didn’t know existed and all that kind of thing. And when we finally got to the house, it was just so surreal because as you drove down this road and there’d be two houses standing untouched and then there would be three houses completely annihilated. My immediate neighbors next door, Bob and Sherri, their house was spared in this, and the fire went up to their fence line and then it appeared to just fizzle out and stop. So…
It was kind of lack of emotion when we got there the tallest thing standing was the water heater. This was a two story house on the bluff side of the river. And so it was a pretty substantial kind of two stories and all that, and all that was left was about 18 inches of rubble, it was stucco, and that’s the only reason I think there was that much left, and so we pulled up and it was kind of just, there wasn’t much to get emotional about because… there wasn’t anything to really identify. My biggest sadness was probably that a dear friend and I had restored a 1981 CJ5 Jeep that was in the garage and did not fare well, obviously in the fire.
So that was probably the most tangible thing you could see of all of the remains of the house, but still the hot water heater, there was a bedroom downstairs and the hot water heater that was downstairs was the tallest thing standing. And the rest was about 18 inches of crumbled up stucco and there wasn’t much to get emotional about.
KUT News: That’s odd isn’t it? That must be so odd…
KUT News: So then what did you do?
Hanley: We had… some hope of finding – I had a fire box in the house. I have only been in Spicewood now 18 months, I had been there just at a year when the fire happened and so I had- my important papers and stuff, I didn’t have a local bank yet, so I didn’t have a safety deposit box, and so I had important papers and some family things in a fire box, and we went out to try and retrieve that and see if there was any way we could find that and salvage anything from it.
KUT News: You had a fire box?
KUT News: With your special documents in.
KUT News: Did you find the fire box?
Hanley: We did not. Fire boxes apparently are intended for the fire department coming.
KUT News: Hold on, can you say: We did not find the fire?
Hanley: We did not find the fire box. We searched for half a day. We knew exactly where it was, all the other things from the second floor that had fallen down were where they were kind of supposed to be. Apparently, fire boxes are designed for the fire department to come, and so they’re rated for two or three hours. They’re not rated for two or three days of burning. And so…
They’re made a lot of, kind of insulated material. Once that’s breached over that long period of burning. We didn’t even find remains of the box, because it wasn’t metal. The only things we found, I found my cast iron skillet, and a pair of spurs, my mother and my grandfather’s spurs, and my grandfather’s branding iron, which were all in different places in the house. And those were the only things. I found one Christmas ornament, and that’s all that was salvageable or really even recognizable from the remains.
KUT News: So your jeep wasn’t recognizable?
Hanley: Well the jeep was recognizable, but the whole second floor had come down on top of it. And so the tires had burned completely off, the entire frame was kind of crushed down on itself, so that the frame was sitting on the ground and not the – not up on the axels and stuff. And so it was – the rear bumper was melted into the… to the foundation. So it was… it was an ugly sight. (laugh)
KUT News: How old was the house? Do you know?
Hanley: The house was built… maybe 2005, 2009? It was new construction, I was renting this place. So a woman had lived and built this as her retirement place and then married and moved to marble falls where her husband lives and had a house there so… so that’s how I ended up.
KUT News: So how’d you end up in Spicewood?
Hanley: My job called me to Spicewood. I’m a Lutheran Pastor, and came to Spicewood to be a mission developer to grow a new congregation, a new ministry, Spirit in the Hills mission. And so I came the previous September, so I had literally had been there one year, when the fire happened.
KUT News: You had a neighbor next door who did not have a – any damage. How about other people in your neighborhood?
Hanley: Our neighborhood was hit fairly hard; I would say likely half of the homes there in our neighborhood were destroyed. Interesting how these disasters and kind of awful events they bring us together. One of my other neighbors who I had never even met, who I did not know at all, when we were looking for this fire box, he came by and said: I’ve got a front end loader. Let me come and help pull some of the heavy stuff off so you can get in there and see what you’re looking at.
And he came and was able to help us do in a couple of hours what would have taken us; you know, days to do. And so, we had – there was a pretty strong group of neighbors who went through, couple folks had golf carts and so they went through checking in on people and seeing what folks needed, we had groups from the Methodist church and from the Lutheran church coming by as people were digging through this, bringing Gatorade, and garbage bags and wet wipes and peanut butter crackers because after all that waiting to get in to see what had, we didn’t really prepare at all because I mean, you’re not really thinking clearly. So you show up and it’s 103 degrees outside and you’ve got a shovel but no Gatorade, and nothing- no snacks and all that and sunscreen, that sort of thing, and so we had people who were very instrumental in the early kind of hours of that crisis to help make it more bearable.
KUT News: And that was Wednesday, and were they only letting people in who had homes? Or were they letting –
Hanley: Right, they were only letting people in who were homeowners like Wednesday through Friday I suppose and then during the weekend, that’s when some of the other groups then started coming out and they opened it up for everyone to come in.
KUT News: On Friday?
Hanley: I think Friday; I think it was Friday or Saturday. Because I know the Lutheran group came in on Saturday and it was opened up at that point.
KUT News: So then what did you do? Where were you staying?
Hanley: Right. That’s another – yeah, where to live now that you’re homeless. So, my – I have friends of the family from church growing up in Longview. I grew up with their daughter, they live headed out to Dripping Springs off of Hamilton Pool road and so, I stayed with them for a couple of weeks, so I had kind of a home and kind of a surrogate mom and dad to be there so I wasn’t alone cause it was a really… just surreal time, and in the middle of that, I had all this work, and being a pastor of a church, our congregation was trying to mobilize to help all of these other people and so, and initially too there were all these worries about trying to figure out who of the rest of our congregation members were affected by the fire. Thankfully none others were. But at one point we had probably half of the gathering community were out of their homes and not sure where things were. Depending on where the fires, kind of where the winds shifted, it could have been a very different story.
KUT News: So half the – your neighborhood and also half of your church community right?
Hanley: Right, they evacuated just a whole swath of the Spicewood area because I think the winds were so unpredictable at that point that they really weren’t sure and things were moving so fast that if it started in one direction they knew, you would not be able to get people out. So there was a huge number of people that were evacuated initially who weren’t in the direct line of the fires but if the winds had changed it would have been different.
KUT News: So were they back in their homes or were they still –
Hanley: Those evacuations were only kind of overnight, for a very short period of time. And then once that kind of settled down, they all came back rather quickly.
KUT News: So what was it like pastoring to a community when you needed to be pastored to as well?
Hanley: Well, it’s not easy, and I’m not sure how well you function in that. I was aware enough to know that I wasn’t functioning well and that I wasn’t functioning well and that I was fairly well in shock and those kinds of things, and so we gathered a group about how we were going to respond and what we were going to do, what our kind of plan was going to be. And so I told them then, because of where I was, I wasn’t able to do a lot of that and I was turning that over to them and trusting that they would be able to see that vision and know where to go and to carry me along with them, and so they really did, they were the ones who organized most everything.
KUT News: In your church?
Hanley: In the congregation, yes.
KUT News: Oh, in the congregation, not just in the staff, in the congregation.
KUT News: So they knew exactly, of course, where you were coming from. I mean they did, they had to just make it happen. And I’m sure they were ministering to you. Did it help to be that busy, or did you think it was just so much?
Hanley: It was an overwhelming process. Immediately then, you call the insurance company, and then everyone is saying: well, you need to register for FEMA, you need to register for all of these different places and resources for help. And that becomes an almost full-time job, just managing all of that. And so that was just an all-consuming kind of piece, was just registering for things and taking care of the business part of insurance and all those things that had to happen. To go through and do an inventory of your entire house, when all of your pictures are gone. All of your CDs that had your pictures and your serial numbers and all those sorts of things are gone. And so just the process of having to go through and do an inventory of your home when you’re not thinking clearly is a really difficult thing to do.
KUT News: I can’t even imagine. And so – but you have to do that for insurance, and you get through that, but you’re still in shock, and grief… did you have all your old photos and everything like that or were they still someplace else?
Hanley: No, I had everything at my house, I had finally cleaned out things at my parents’ house and gotten all those pieces that- you know you keep yearbooks and those things and all of that, I had taken, and so everything is lost. Everything. And some of those things are replaceable, some family heirlooms are gone, and that’s I think the biggest grief is that you can’t kind of get that back.
KUT News: No you can’t. Well you’re so young, I was hoping they were all still at your parents. It took me forever to move out. So now you’re filling everything out, you’ve been at your friend’s, your Longview friend’s house, the daughter. Now you- so it’s two weeks, what happened after that?
Hanley: So I knew I had to get some place, and there were, the other thing to know is the outpouring of support from people near and far was tremendous and overwhelming and so there were tons of offers for: You can come and stay here, and we’d love for you to stay here and those kinds of offers of graciousness and people’s hospitality beyond measure. And so I was able to find a guest house for some people who I now consider dear family. They will forever be family in my book now, and so they had a guest house that was intended for aging parents essentially. So it was one bedroom but it had a kitchenette and a bathroom and enough kind of a sitting area so it was bigger than a hotel room kind of a thing, but you could kind of settle in for a little while.
KUT News: So it was a free-standing house.
KUT News: How nice is that?
Hanley: Yes, and so it was connected to their home, but it was – it had separate kind of entry and that sort of thing, so you had some privacy. And so I moved in there the first of October, kind of the end of September, and stayed there through the first of the year. Because in Spicewood, there’s not a lot of options for housing in the first place, and then figuring out where to go and then trying to do that when you’re still in a bit of a fog, is a challenge too, cause you want to make good decisions and you don’t want to just jump into something then realize you’ve made a bad decision and you’re kind of locked into it and so. So I stayed there and you know the immediate – kind of back up a bit, you said: what did you do next… and, I still had to work, right, but I didn’t have any clothes. So we spent three days kind of digging around and trying to find things and that sort of thing and initially on that Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then I realize: ok, I’ve got a couple pairs of shorts and flip flops and tennis shoes and my entire wardrobe is gone, my- I mean, you know, everything.
And so then you have to go shopping. I mean, in some form or fashion, whether that’s going to Dillard’s or going to the thrift shop or anywhere in between, you’ve got to spend energy to find clothes and you take for granted how much comfort there is or just assumption about, well, I’ll find something to wear today when you get up, and you go in your closet, and I’ll just pick something. But when you have nothing. Because I had nothing.
Then you have to, then every day you have to figure out: well, I’ve got to find something to wear. And so, my big – so I moved in with this family and my big kind of joke was Ms. Reach got me a laundry basket and a set of hangers for the closet and when I was able to fill up those eight hangers, then I actually had a week’s worth of clothes. And that seems so surreal to think about that, but… but it took me a couple of weeks just to get a week’s worth of clothing. Because you’re kind of doing all this other stuff and you’re trying to figure out, and it’s just overwhelming, and so then finding clothes and work clothes and all of that is no small feat.
KUT News: Did you do it in one big shopping…?
Hanley: No, I don’t really like the shopping, so I remember I went in and I found something for Sunday for worship and for work, and then I would go in once a week and I would spend an hour and a half or two hours figuring out kind of what I needed to- basics to get me started again.
KUT News: It’s just so bizarre. You go through this horrible thing, and then you have to go shopping. And register with insurance. You go through this incredible thing actually you have to go shopping right away. It’s just so unnatural, isn’t it?
Hanley: Yes, cause that’s the last thing you really want to be doing is shopping. Right, I mean…
KUT News: You ARE in a fog. So is your landlord going to rebuild?
Hanley: I don’t think so. I don’t think she will. No. But I haven’t talked to her recently so sometimes those things change, but I don’t think so.
KUT News: Was she in touch with you right away?
Hanley: Yes, she was- we were both – she had built that house as her retirement place, and it was a labor of love that she had built and so it was… yeah, it was… it was hard.
KUT News: That’s so sad. Well, in January where did you move?
Hanley: Well, I actually had started looking in November, that I had decided I knew I needed to be finding a place more permanently. And I am now living still in Spicewood, in a very small, two-bedroom house that’s in the country but close and it’s fantastic and lovely, and I’m just thrilled to be there and start over and it’s very tiny, but…
KUT News: But a house.
Hanley: Yes, well one of the things I found when I went looking for places was that we walked into some places that were the same size as what I was in before. And I walked in and being empty, I walked in them and it was devastating to me. It was overwhelming, because I thought: how will I ever have enough stuff to put in this? Because I have – everything I own can fit in the back of my car. And so the prospect of filling up a home as big as what I had was as daunting as anything, and felt very … not-life-giving to me, at the time.
And so something very small seemed better because: One- I didn’t have to try and fill it nearly as much, and the whole- this whole journey has had me rethinking our stuff, because the things I really grieve are the things that had emotional attachment and are not necessarily the furniture or the TV or those things. And so how much stuff do we really need? And so there’s- I mean, be it a pretty extreme clean-sweep, this has called me to rethink, how will I re-gather things in life in a way that… that honors the things that are important, and let’s go of those things that are just things that we tend to get cluttered up in closets and not use and all that sort of thing?
KUT News: And so you have a whole new definition of stuff, I’m sure. [Yes] So are you keeping everything sparse?
Hanley: S… sort of. Yes…
KUT News: You’re accumulating aren’t you?
Hanley: Right, and part of that has been one of the challenges that I never anticipated was receiving help, being such a difficult thing. And people have been – I have received grace upon grace and just an amazing outpouring of gifts from people near and far and friends that I’ve kind of known forever and people who only know me by name. I mean, it has been tremendous, but it is also – there’s something deep down in us that is very difficult, or at least for me to receive, because you think: But I should be able to and I know I can, handle this myself and do this on my own and yet, I think probably the hardest day for me was when I went probably two weeks in I was still, I just moved into the little guest house, and I went to the Spicewood community center, where they were overflowing with gifts and things that people had brought to share, and they had all kinds of shampoo and toothpaste and all that sort of stuff that you need.
And I remember going in and then gathering up a box of things for me, letting me kind of go through and gather up what I needed and I remember going out to the car and just weeping. Because I’m not the one who needs help, right I’m the one who offers help. And to receive that and to realize that well really, I don’t have anything. I really didn’t have it and I did have that need, but to receive it was very difficult.
KUT News: And why, again, why do you think you wouldn’t be receiving help, because of your profession?
Hanley: Well just because I’m fairly middle class America and I’ve always been able to kind of manage life and I’m not just a little bit stubborn and independent and so you think: well, I should be able to overcome this, I should be able to manage this. And so there’s something about the ego and about pride that makes it – there is gratefulness and also this deep sadness. I don’t know how else to kind of lift that up, but it is a difficult thing. But so thankful for… that it was there. Because you, you can’t even comprehend how you need everything, like I was two days just going crazy cause I didn’t have any nail clippers. And so much of our routine is kind of based on that we have access to all of this all the time, and when that’s kind of pulled away, and you don’t have anything, there is this great appreciation for that, and yet it’s very humbling to receive it.
KUT News: So how do you think- where do you think you are now? There’s the shock, the grieving… where do you think you are now?
Hanley: Well, I hope the worst is behind us. I think probably I’m finally in the rebuilding and kind of hopeful stage again. It was – there was a window, probably those first 3 weeks or so that were pretty much kind of in a fog, and then just real grief for … probably through Christmas. October, November, December. And then kind of getting a new place and starting over and finally having some place to call your own… has helped make that kind of feel like new beginnings and that we’re past the most difficult…
KUT News: So, was your church… I’m sure there’s still ministering to all these – you and to all the folks.
Hanley: Right, our congregation joined up with the Austin disaster relief network, as did all of our other congregations in Spicewood. And we adopted families and so our congregation adopted four families, myself and three others. And the other congregations did as well. And so the congregations have been walking with people to offer help as they’re able to do that, and to see where people are and what’s most helpful at the moment. And so that’s been- the intention is that’s a bit of a longer term journey, and so we’re continuing to walk with people as they go through this process, and that looks different for everybody, because people who like myself are renting, that looks very different from people who own the home and were- and are rebuilding, so there’s lots of different kind of pieces to the puzzle that make those scenarios different.
KUT News: I think that’s a great way to do it, is just to adopt some families through everybody getting together. Austin disaster network… is there anything you would like to add, your personal experience? … Never in a million years, right?
Hanley: Right. This is one of those things that you always hear about it happening to someone else, but it does happen… the whole experience is certainly not anything I would ever recommend… but… there has been an amazing way in which I have been cared for and have experienced great love from kind of… it’s hard to describe. You kind of- you sit back sometimes and go: Gosh, I didn’t know that I had this many friends or that I had this many people who loved me in this way. So that’s been a bright kind of spot in this journey, a hopeful piece of the journey… I’m sure there’s other pieces to tell…
KUT News: So as everybody was administering to you and to everyone else who had lost, did you feel that you got to a point you were then able to kind of function in an easier way? Did it take January to when you started…?
Hanley: Right. Probably so. You’d have to ask parishioners then (laughs) they may say I’m still not back to good, but the other piece is that once I got a little further separated from this, it brings a whole new understanding of what it is and how we give gifts in the midst of these things because I’ve been on the other side of receiving that in a way that I had never received before, and so it’s helped to shape how we as people support each other in ways that are more helpful. For example, we have these conversations around, immediately you get lots of very well intended offers, some of which are: You know we just had a garage sale, and you’re welcome to come and look at whatever’s left. Right, and in the moment, that doesn’t always feel good, and so how do we talk about that in ways of… can we- how do we give our gifts, and how do we support in ways that recognize the frailty and the ways in which our people who are going through this are really fragile.
KUT News: I bet. I bet you get in a whole different, definitely in a different way than ever before, right? You get as much as you ever did, but how do you give it a different way?
Hanley: There’s something about particularly when you’re in this fog and I’ll be running thank you notes for- I’m still, I’m just now at a place of being able to write thank you notes. And some people, because I know we received some, I know some people who were able to do that very immediately. I was not able to do that immediately.
KUT News: And how many months has that been?
Hanley: Um, six. Almost six months. But yeah, it’s been almost six months now at the point of being able to do that, but, and so, yeah so I would just say how we give, when we’re on the other side of it we think: Well, let’s have something to celebrate and let’s have people kind of bring them in and we’ll have them be the guest of honor at the party and we’ll share all these things but for me, for the people who are on the other side, that’s a very overwhelming emotional proposition to open all of that in front of people, and to have, it’s just an emotionally overloading proposition. Very different from a regular- but we don’t know how to do that because- I didn’t know- I would not have any point of reference prior to this happening to me.
KUT News: So being in a very public way is not easy. And probably going in a very personal and private way is a better way to help, wouldn’t you say, someone in your situation.
Hanley: Yes. And things that are helpful. You know, when my brother and I were initially shoveling on the foundation of our- what was my house, some people came over and I assumed they must have been land owners or- because this was before they were letting people in, perhaps they had gotten in, I don’t know. But they came over and kind of just started talking, and said, well you know, it sure looks like you’re not going to be able to salvage that jeep, just talking and Matthew and I both just kind of stopped and looked at him like: ok, either get a shovel, or go away.
It’s not helpful for you to come and give me a commentary on my life right now, what I need is somebody who will help me, pick up a shovel, like my neighbor who came with his back-hoe. That’s what I need. And so, so you learn what’s needed, the talking wasn’t needed so much, the shovels and the Gatorade, that was a show of love. On Wednesday afternoon when then Methodist showed up with Gatorade and crackers and wet wipes, my brother and I both said thank god for the Methodist, right, who showed up to – because that’s what we needed, we didn’t need people to talk to us about it and ask us how we were feeling, we needed people to help us with the task at hand, cause it was- that was not- there’s a time and place, right?
KUT News: Right.
Hanley: And that was the time for work.
KUT News: Is there anything else you’d like to add to your journey?
Hanley: I don’t think so. I think we kind of gave you a snapshot.
KUT News: Exactly, from beginning to end. You’re still on that journey, but you’re rebuilding, and it’s only been six months. Well thank you Liz Hanley very much, can you give me an idea again when you say: who you are and what you do and where you live.
Hanley: Sure, I’m Liz Hanley, and I live in Spicewood, I’ve been here now 18 months, I was in Spicewood right at the year when the fires happened. And I’m a mission developer for Spirit in the Hills Lutheran Mission in Spicewood.
KUT News: Thank you very much.