Neighbors plan community Thanksgiving meal in Harvey-ravaged La Grange

Bryan Bracewell prepares to smoke 50 turkeys for a Thanksgiving meal in La Grange on Nov. 20, 2017 (KXAN Photo)
Bryan Bracewell prepares to smoke 50 turkeys for a Thanksgiving meal in La Grange on Nov. 20, 2017 (KXAN Photo)

LA GRANGE, Texas (KXAN) — Nothing says Thanksgiving like a home-cooked turkey dinner, but for too many in a central Texas town hit hard by Hurricane Harvey, there’s simply no home for them to cook in.

So, instead on Thursday neighbors will do what neighbors do best.

Homeowners in La Grange are still recovering from the worst flood the town has seen in a century. The surging Colorado River, cresting just a couple feet below the second-worst flood on record in La Grange in 1913, displaced hundreds of people, and more than two months later many of the houses they left behind remain flooded-out shells in various states of recovery.

“You know, my dad taught me cattle, hay, tractors, thing like that,” Michael Hall said Monday, stripping the remaining drywall from the wooden frame of his kitchen. “Construction was not one of them.”

His home, just a few blocks east of the river, was built in the late 1800s and survived the 1913 flood. “There was about five and a half feet of water here in the house,” Hall said, standing in what remained of the kitchen at the back of the house. “We had custom cabinets put in back in here. All that had to be removed.”

Still, he finds reasons to be thankful. For one, his family has the means to rebuild, unlike some of the people who until August lived on his block. Hall is also thankful for the help La Grange has received since the flood, an extended family his family could count on. “It blows you away,” he said, “the people that just show up with their work gloves, and they just started working.”

“I married the preacher’s daughter, and she’s used that term all our marriage — you know, your church family,” he said. “I finally saw it in action.”

His church, the First United Methodist Church of La Grange, is expanding its own family this week. For the last decade, senior pastor J. Paul Bruhne said, his church and the Second Baptist Church of La Grange have alternated hosting a Thanksgiving meal for the people in the town.

Usually they feed between 250 and 300 people, “but because of the flooding in August we expect up to 500 folks to be fed this year,” Bruhne said.

To help make it happen, neighbors from outside of La Grange are stepping up. It started at the end of the summer, when Cpl. Wut Tantaksinanukij, a member of the Austin Police Department’s air support unit, saw the devastation in the small town. “I automatically knew that Thanksgiving Day was right around the corner,” he said. “The holidays were upon us.”

Tantaksinanukij approached Bryan Bracewell, the owner of Southside Market and Barbecue, who’d been in La Grange serving meals to those who’d lost everything and the people helping them recover, and asked if he’d help a little more. Bracewell eagerly offered his services, and this week is smoking 50 turkeys donated by Tom Ramsey and his nonprofit Celebration of Love.

Volunteers will help prepare and serve the Thanksgiving meal on Thursday. “Yeah, they’re going through this,” Tantaksinanukij said, “but your neighbors and the communities around you didn’t forget about you, and we’re going to be here for the long term.”

Hall’s family hasn’t been able to live in their house since the storm, and though they’ve been fortunate to find sustainable arrangements in the interim, it’s been difficult with two high school-age sons. “This is a life lesson,” he said, “and I hope that they have seen the good that people do.”

There’s still a lot of good to be done in the coming weeks and months. “There’s a lot of people that are still in the community that are struggling,” Hall said.

“A lot of folks have lost everything out there,” Tantaksinanukij said, “their homes, they don’t have kitchens, they don’t have anything. And this hopefully will just take one little burden off them that day,” because for Hall and hundreds of others, there are many more burdensome days to come.

“You want to see it rebuilt, you want to see it come back,” Hall said. “And that’s the attitude, so, you know, we’re going to do it.”

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