Chris Smith takes on Ike and Rita
Published in 2009 Texas Rising Stars Magazine — April 2009 on June 10, 2009
Of the myriad homophones that accompany the word "mettle," there isn't one that Bush Lewis attorney Chris Smith can't spell forwards, backwards, sideways and while in a deep sleep. But these days, the two-time team competition spelling champ isn't analyzing mettle—he's exhibiting it.
Smith hails from Orange, Texas, where he lives, practices and spells in a tournament aimed to combat adult illiteracy. But despite the sunny connotations of his home's name, Smith's plot in southeast Texas has been anything but peaceful and clear. In 2005, Orange was hit by Hurricane Rita, and last summer it endured the wrath of Hurricane Ike. Orange is less than 150 miles from the ravaged Galveston shoreline which dominated the visuals of the mid-September national newscasts for a week.
"We had the insurance adjuster come in here and basically tell us that we're going to have to gut the whole place," Smith says in late September 2008 from his office that took on over a foot of water. "It's going to be a complete remodeling job. All of our computer stuff is pretty much fried. The air conditioner still works, but it will start corroding. So here we sit. About all I can do is talk on the phone. ... Ike hit the legal community pretty hard, because all the law offices are kind of in the same part of town. The courthouse looks to be closed for maybe a month.
"When Hurricane Rita came through here in 2005, it was more of a wind event," Smith says. "Lots of old trees blown down like matchsticks scattered everywhere. I think the flooding from Ike will prove worse. The stuff that hit this office—all this muddy, nasty, gross water. There was dead fish everywhere in West Orange. A carpet of fish. The smell is just unbelievable, like a nasty beach."
Through preparedness and hustle, Smith and his officemates were able to relocate paper files and some personal effects prior to Ike's arrival. However, for Smith, the office holds a power that transcends just the spirit of the law.
"My dad's been in this office for 40 years," Smith says of his father, Bush Lewis attorney John Cash Smith, with whom the son has been working since 2003. "It's kind of like another home. To see a lot of this stuff thrown away, it's like a little piece of you gets thrown away. But we'll build. We'll have new walls, wallpaper, floors. Maybe that will be good for the future. I try to look at the bright side."
It is this perspective that defines Smith. "When I was young, my dad knew the value of showing me new and different places," he recalls. "One of the first big trips we took was to the Middle East. I was 11 years old in Cairo, Egypt, and it made me appreciate what I had back home. We went through sections of town where people had trash on their roofs. Not everything is the Pyramids. I gained a real sense that I was fortunate, and that I was put here to help people—that there's people that need help that don't have things. And that can be in your own community."
The preparation for Ike found Smith reaching back to knowledge gained while earning his Eagle Scout badge: using his hands to help neighbors sandbag their homes. The aftermath of Ike will put his legal muscles to work.
"We're the attorneys for the city of Orange," Smith says. "And I don't know if there's a happy way to spin this, but what we had to do after Rita was to condemn and tear down a lot of buildings. But if a building is so ruined that it's a hazard to the welfare of the community—well, empty houses are not good. A house needs to be lived in. The city of Orange condemned almost 400 houses after Rita. As a person, I hate to be the bad guy, and I know that some people don't want their houses torn down. And they may not have insurance. So I look at it like I'm doing a service for the city, for the community. After Rita, a lot of places that were torn down got rebuilt and ended up looking better than they did before the storm.
"These things can knock you down," he says. "But this place is going to get back up. It's a bump in the road. Some people have a more tragic story to tell, people that lost more than we did. But this will be something we will overcome."
For Chris Smith, the weather becomes like the words faced in the spelling competitions he and his teammates won in both 2006 and 2008—something to triumph over.
"You can turn into a deer in headlights when you're on stage spelling in front of an audience," Smith says of the charitable GOALS (Greater Orange Area Literacy Services) competition that, like Ike, demonstrated his ample reserves of both determination and focus. "So I try to spell a word to myself. The people that miss words, they miss easy ones. They leave a letter out. It takes a lot of concentration. I just spell very slowly. Then there's that pause when you're done spelling a word and you just want to hear, ‘Correct.'"
What Hurricane Ike was able to take from Smith's workplace, it wasn't able to strip from his mantle.
"Our spelling trophy didn't get wet," Smith concludes proudly. "I got that out."