TIVOLI, TEXAS—First of all, it’s Tie-VOLE-ee, and not TIV-oli, like the famous Danish amusement park, which puts it up there in uniquely American pronunciations like Cairo—Kay-ro—in Illinois. We’ll borrow your names, Old World, but we’ll say them like we want to say them because we’re Americans, dammit. We can change the world, even the very smallest parts of it, by renaming them as one of our own.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
It’s always been a very small place, ever since it was founded by a rancher named Preston Austin in 1907, and configured as something resembling a town by a local surveyor that same year. In 1913, the town was surveyed again and then was nearly erased by a winter flood in December of that year, when both the Brazos and Colorado Rivers merged and ran free, inundating everything in their path on the way to the Gulf, drowning at least 180 people along the way. Tivoli rebuilt itself, the local economy depending on cotton farming and the very poor people who worked in that industry. In 1928, it reached its peak population. Nearly 700 people lived there. There are 479 people living there now, over a quarter of them doing so below the poverty line. Tivoli is technically called a “census-designated, unincorporated” place. But it is a town, no matter what the cartographers say, in all the ways that a town should matter.
Tivoli sits 20 miles from where the storm came ashore, at the intersections of Routes 35 and 239. On Saturday, under a brutal September sun, that intersection was a congested mess. Route 35 was blocked just north of the town because of the damage done by high water. An electrical worker posted at the roadblock also functioned as a kind of traffic cop, turning northbound cars around and sending them on detours in the opposite direction through side streets lined with great tangles of debris and derelict furniture. Turn the corner on Crocket, and you run almost directly into what was the headquarters of the Tivoli volunteer fire department. The headquarters still has a roof; the problem is that half of the roof is now inside the headquarters. A local construction crew was setting up outside the headquarters, beginning the process of, yes, raising the roof, and the rest of the building as well. (See above.)
At first, there was a bustle of help in Tivoli, but then the storm went and drowned Houston, and the people of Tivoli were left to help themselves.
When the storm hit, the residents of Tivoli were told to evacuate. Some of them were whisked off all the way to Marble Falls, outside of Austin, but most of the people in Tivoli stayed where they were, in many cases because they had no reliable transportation and couldn’t to go anywhere else anyway. The storm hit and Tivoli pretty much exploded. The roof blew off Austwell-Tivoli High School, which is where Brooke Williams goes to school. By Saturday, Brooke was working in a tin shed next to the First Baptist Church. Pallets stacked high with bottled water covered the scrub lawn in front of the shed. Inside were stacks of clothes and household items. It was a walk-up crowd. People almost invariably stopped to hug Brooke and the other volunteers upon arrival and then again while they were leaving. Actual conversation was drowned out anyway by the howling of a generator that David Andrews had brought down from Goliad and that was now providing the power not only for the shed, but the church as well.
At first, there was a bustle of help in Tivoli, but then the storm went and drowned Houston, and the people of Tivoli were left to help themselves. They cooked up food that might have spoiled in the refrigerators and served it up to their neighbors. They organized the distribution of everything from tarps for temporary roofs to school supplies, although nobody was really sure when the school year would start. When the official help arrived again at midweek, it found that the people of Tivoli had set up their own recovery program. (There was a bit of friction between the new arriving aid workers and the local people who’d been improvising since the storm hit.) And Brooke Williams opened up her relief operation in the tin shed next to the church where she’d worshipped all her life. The generator kicked on noisily and people began to arrive, one or two at a time, until word got around.
“It took us a couple of days to get organized,” she said. “But now we’re equipped to handle whatever folks come to us, and if we don’t have it, we can send them to places that do.
“Our town’s going to recover. Our people are going to recover because our people have come together.”
Brooke stepped back just then, to take another hug from a woman with water bottles in either hand. Up on the small porch, David Andrews was tending to his generator, which was still grinding away so loudly that it drowned out the chain saws at work down at the intersection of 35 and 239.
“That young woman there,” he said, nodding in Brooke Williams’s direction, “She’s the one really in charge here.”
Maps be damned, and hurricanes be damned, too, Tivoli was a town in every way that matters.