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3 kids from Texas find refuge from hurricane in Buffalo

They are safe now. The hurricane has passed. The floodwaters have receded.

The Martinez children – Izak, 16, Aubrie, 15, and Emmaleigh, 8 – are in Buffalo, more than 1,600 miles from their home in Rockport, Texas that they were forced to flee as Hurricane Harvey barreled toward their little seaside city.

After the eyewall of the hurricane made landfall on the night of Aug. 25, shredding Rockport to pieces, the children's uncle and aunt made an offer to the parents: They would pay to fly the kids to Buffalo and care for them at their house for as long as needed.

'Nothing ever happens to Rockport'

The Martinez kids were in school when their principals announced over the PA system that school would be closing three hours early that day and there'd be no school the next day. National Weather Service forecasters were issuing dire warnings about the massive hurricane churning in the Gulf of Mexico.

The children had weathered tropical storms before but never a hurricane. Rockport is on a peninsula near Corpus Christi. Barrier islands separate it from the Gulf.

"We didn't think it was going to be that bad," Aubrie recounted.

"Nothing ever happens to Rockport," Izak remembered thinking.

They came home to find their parents, Stephanie and Daniel Martinez, frantically boarding up windows.

The weekend before, the family had enjoyed a day at the beach and a pep rally for Izak's football team: the Rockport-Fulton Pirates. Now, the kids were being told to pack up their stuff because they had to evacuate.

"I was all freaked out," Emmaleigh said. "I was like, 'What's going on?'

Izak grabbed his favorite shirts and jeans. Aubrie packed four outfits, a pillow and a blanket. And their phones, of course. Emmaleigh picked out some clothes, her tablet and her beloved Littlest Pet Shop figurines.

'You can come here'

Early the next morning, the family fled Rockport – the parents in their cars, Izak in his pickup and the kids' uncle in his vehicle. They brought their dogs, Leo and Fifi, but left Aubrie's cat, Buddy, in the upstairs bathroom with lots of food and water. They headed west for more than 300 miles before deciding to camp in their cars at Seminole Canyon State Park. It wasn't even raining at the park but Stephanie Martinez and Aubrie, who were in the mother's car, couldn't sleep. They stayed up all night staring at their cell phones, reading news reports and texting neighbors.

"At midnight, we knew our children's school was gone," Stephanie Martinez said.

Throughout the storm, they were getting messages from Stephanie's brother and sister-in-law, Sean and Ellen Hassett Cahill, of Buffalo. "You can come here," they offered.

Ellen Hassett Cahill started putting together the wood frames for two twin beds.

The next day, Saturday, as Harvey hammered Houston, a friend of the family who lives a little over an hour inland from Rockport tried to visit their house to assess the damage. She couldn't get there. There was too much flooding.

Flooded houses in Rockport, Texas on Aug. 26, 2017 after Hurricane Harvey hit. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

The friend tried to get out to the house again on Sunday.

"It was bad," the friend told Stephanie Martinez. The house was still standing, but a 4-foot storm surge had flooded the first floor. The roof was in tatters. The National Weather Service said that a peak wind gust of 132 mph was recorded a few miles from Rockport.

Stephanie Martinez couldn't bear to look at photos of the house that her friend took. She asked the friend to send them to her brother, Sean Cahill, instead. He saw that there was no way the children would be safe there.

At their makeshift campsite, the Martinez family slept in their cars and lived on perishables they had emptied out of their fridge. Izak cracked everyone up when he made a sandwich out of chocolate bars and deli ham.

After camping in their cars for two days, the family went to a cabin they found on Airbnb in Alpine, another two and half hours further west. There was only one bathroom, but it was working and it had a shower.

On Aug. 28, the city's mayor, Charles "C.J." Wax posted a letter to Rockport residents on the city website:

"We've been told that approximately 30-40 percent of the houses and businesses in Rockport are completely destroyed. Another 30 percent are substandard and cannot be rebuilt.... I want to reiterate that now is not the time to return. No power, no water, no bathroom facilities, no gasoline, no stores and no restaurants."

Robert Grant and Rocky from a Texas search and rescue team look for anyone trapped in an apartment complex destroyed by Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 27, 2017 in Rockport, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

"Until they got on the plane"

On Aug. 30, the Martinezes took their children to the San Antonio airport. They seemed excited. The parents were relieved, but heart sick.

"I was strong until they get on the plane," Stephanie Martinez said. "Then afterwards is when I broke down."

Sean Cahill had enough frequent flier miles to fly in the kids from San Antonio to Buffalo. Delta kicked in the extra miles to cover the cost of an escort for the kids.

The Cahills have had relatives and friends over plenty of times before but this would be different. They don't have children and suddenly they were going to be taking care of three and they didn't know for how long.

"We both love our families," Ellen Hassett Cahill said. The Cahills did some shopping to get ready – underwear, pajamas, chicken nuggets.

Word spread on the Cahills' street that three kids from Texas would be taking refuge there. Neighbors began to drop off clothes.

Stephanie Martinez found this old photo of her children - Izak, Aubrie and Emmaleigh - in their flooded home in Rockport, Texas after Hurricane Harvey damaged the city. (Provided by Stephanie Martinez)

"This is stuff you see on TV"

Meanwhile, Stephanie and Daniel Martinez returned to Rockport. They were aghast.

Their picturesque beach town, with a population about the same as the Town of Newstead in Erie County, was in ruins. Houses had crumpled. Roofs were torn away. Boats were smashed against each other. Utility poles were bent in half.

"This is stuff you see on TV," Stephanie Martinez said. "This doesn't happen to you."

Their home was still standing. But the damage inside was overwhelming. Floodwaters had destroyed the first floor. There had even been flooding on the second floor, from where the winds had ripped away holes in the roof. Rotting fish lay strewn over their property. Amazingly, Aubrie's cat, Buddy, was fine.

The Martinezes got to work.

"I've had to throw everything away," Stephanie said. "We have a big dumpster and we're throwing everything away."

At night the couple camped out in Emmaleigh's bedroom, the only room in the house that was in decent shape.

Sorting through their soggy, broken belongings one day, Stephanie Martinez found an old framed photo that had hung in their living room. It was of her "babies," taken about seven years ago.

"I was very emotional with no idea what we were going to do," she wrote about finding the picture. "Then I found that little reminder that I need to stay strong and fix this for them."

New schools

The schools in Rockport were badly damaged by Harvey and the children in the city were being bused to neighboring districts. Izak's football team was still practicing and even made the CBS Evening News.

Ellen Hassett Cahill approached Nichols School about the older children going there, at least temporarily, and Elmwood-Franklin School for Emmaleigh. Both of the private schools, which had already been planning fundraisers for Hurricane Harvey relief, welcomed the children. Their tuition was covered.

“Everyone at Nichols, like the rest of the country, was heartbroken to learn about all of the devastation that occurred in Houston and surrounding areas in Southern Texas due to Hurricane Harvey,” said Nichols Head of School Bill Clough. “We’re happy to do our small part by welcoming Aubrie and Izak into our school.... We’ll do everything we can to make these students feel at home in Buffalo.”

Just before Emmaleigh started at Elmwood-Franklin, fourth-graders had planned a "dress-down day" as a benefit for the families affected by Hurricane Harvey. Students who brought in donations could dress more casually the day. "That dress-down day became more meaningful for us all, because we could directly connect with a family in need," Elmwood-Franklin officials said in a statement. "We are all moved to be part of this community-wide effort to help get this family back on their feet."

Emmaleigh started school on Sept. 8 and Izak and Aubrie began on Sept. 11.

After the Cahills' neighbor, Elizabeth Rakas, started an email chain, neighbors, friends and parents from the schools, eager to show Buffalo's generous spirit, brought clothes for the kids and gift cards to Wegmans and Target.

Ellen Hassett Cahill received a card with a donation from the parents of a neighbor. "Dear Houstonians, Welcome to Western New York. Best wishes for a 'speedy recover,'" the note read.

Grateful and humbled

The Cahills and the kids are settling into a routine. On a recent school day morning, Ellen fretted that the teenagers hadn't had breakfast. "Do you want a Pop Tart?" she asked.

Emmaleigh has play dates lined up. Aubrie joined the cross country team. Nichols' football team was excited to have Izak join them.

It's been a big transition for everyone, and the Cahills are thankful for their neighbors, the schools and everyone who has helped them welcome the children to Buffalo.

The donations and offers for help keep coming. Every time Ellen Cahill comes home she finds a bag of clothes for the kids.

"I'm grateful," Ellen said. "But also humbled."

Emmaleigh Martinez, 8 shows off her shoes that her mother salvaged from their flooded home in Rockport, Texas and mailed to her. Emmaleigh's sister Aubrie Martinez, 15, looks on as they get ready for school at their aunt and uncles home, in Buffalo N.Y., on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Their parents are happy their children are safe, but sometimes feel guilty when they see their neighbors in Rockport with their children.

But they know they're doing what's best for the kids.

Stephanie and Daniel Martinez are still living in Emmaleigh's old room. The power came back on in their house, so they have a small window AC unit and a coffee maker. They returned to work and they're waiting on assessments from the insurance adjusters.

Nothing seems normal yet. They don't know when it will be again.

"We're just going to try and figure it out day by day," Stephanie Martinez said.

 

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