No Man’s Island

A year after Ike, my hometown is still reeling from a storm without an end.

September 2009By Comments

Here comes the story of the hurricane: Salt water–logged dead trees are one of the many victims of the flooding.
Photograph by Kenny Braun

I had just driven into Galveston for the first time since the terrible weeks after Hurricane Ike had ravaged my hometown, and as the Gulf Freeway turned into Broadway, the main thoroughfare, I knew that something was wrong. The thermometer said it was 95 degrees, but the view through my windshield looked like winter. The oaks that lined the esplanade had lost their foliage; bare limbs spread intricate patterns upon a blue sky. The trees, it turns out, are Ike’s latest victims. A reverse storm surge from Galveston Bay inundated much of the city with salt water, which proved to be toxic to the oaks. Summer squalls might have saved them, but Galveston, like the rest of the state, has seen little rain. Some 40,000 trees were afflicted, and all the dead ones will have to be cut down, lest they fall into roadways or onto houses.

Ike is truly a storm without an end. Its impact will be felt for years, perhaps decades. The doomed trees are but one example. Another is the Katrina effect: a loss of population, similar to what happened in New Orleans, that will be hard to reverse. Galveston had some 57,000 residents before the hurricane. One year later the estimated population is closer to 46,000. The school district’s enrollment has dropped from 8,000 to 6,000. Many families have relocated to the dreary landscape across the causeway that locals call the Mainland—blue-collar towns located within smelling distance of oil refineries and soulless subdivisions popping up on the coastal plain. State education officials have allowed the city to run school buses (borrowed from Houston, after Ike ruined those owned by the school district) to pick up students who now live on the Mainland, but that permission may soon expire. The Island diaspora could cost the city dearly. If the census count next spring comes in below 50,000, Galveston might not be eligible to apply for federal grants in transportation and other areas.

I spent two days in Galveston in mid-July, driving around its neighborhoods in search of the familiar. The house where I grew up, three blocks from the Gulf of Mexico, suffered no visible damage (built in the thirties, it is in a part of the city where the grade level was raised after the 1900 storm to meet the seventeen-foot height of the seawall). The hotels along the beachfront were open and busy, though room rates had been cut because of economic conditions (hotel/motel tax collections are down 25 to 30 percent from the previous year). The Flagship loomed above a concrete pier over the Gulf, marooned and weather-beaten; the pounding surf that I saw on television as Ike moved ashore knocked out the segment of the driveway that connected the pier to Seawall Boulevard. Wooden pilings in the Gulf marked the former site of the Balinese Room, the onetime showplace of the Maceo gambling empire, which the sea had lifted up and tossed onto the boulevard as if it were scrap lumber.

On the beachfront, the traffic was thick all day, even after sundown, with cars mostly from out of town. Locals avoid the boulevard during the tourist season, ambivalent as ever about Galveston’s status as a resort city. The free beaches are the attraction for people who, it has long been said, “come here with a dirty shirt on their backs and a five-dollar bill in their pockets and never change either one.” In contrast, the streets in the interior of the Island were almost devoid of traffic. (I found that two had been upgraded to thoroughfares with timed signal lights so that hometown drivers could access their destinations without having to contend with the tourists.) On my way to the Rosenberg Library, where I once had a summer job microfilming back issues of the Galveston Daily News, I saw a man in a wheelchair zipping down the middle of an empty Tremont Street, one of the major routes into downtown. The line for the Bolivar ferry, for which the wait in peak season can be up to two hours, had shrunk to a few dozen cars.

I found all this to be impossibly sad, even more so than the devastation I had seen after Ike. Debris can be removed, but waterlogged buildings do not rebound quickly. The former Santa Fe Depot, where the Chicago-bound Texas Chief once originated, had eleven feet of water, and its Railroad Museum there will not reopen until the end of the year. Nowhere is the slow recovery more evident than on the Strand, known in Galveston’s late-nineteenth-century glory days as the Wall Street of the Southwest. Its restored historic buildings, museums, shops, and restaurants were a second front for attracting tourists, who could shuttle to and from the beach by trolley. Most of the businesses, however, are closed after taking on at least eight feet of water, and the trolley tracks are untenanted.

The residential areas were more resilient, in part because homeowners had both windstorm and flood insurance, which was not always the case for commercial property. For longtime residents, the worst loss was not the damage to their homes, which could be repaired, but the little things: the memorabilia, the photographs, all the items that represented important moments in their lives that were swept away, irretrievably, by the flood. I saw a lot of homes with contractor signs in the front yard and fresh debris piles in the street, an indication of work that is still in its early stages. Many of the people I interviewed—city manager Steve LeBlanc, school board president Andy Mytelka, and Shrub Kempner, scion of a prominent Galveston clan—were either just back or not yet back in their homes.

One of the first friends I visited was Vandy Anderson, whom I have known since we were in junior high school. He had been a co-owner of and newsman for the local radio station, KGBC (“Keep Galveston’s Beaches Clean”). For decades, whenever a storm had approached the Island, he had stayed on the air around the clock. He and his wife, Sue, live in a condo development behind the seawall in the western part of the city. “Don’t go to the front door,” he had warned me. Driving into the paved alley, as I had been instructed to do, I found them sitting in the entrance of their garage, their view limited to nearby units in the development, sipping soda and enjoying the breeze from a sturdy floor fan. Vandy said that the development was virtually empty; only a few residents were back. “It never occurred to us that we could be flooded,” he told me. “There has never been water here.” But the surge that came in from the bay rolled across the Andersons’ part of the Island, smashing through homes until it petered out. I had seen several homes on the edge of Offats Bayou that were a total loss. We talked for a long time, and finally I asked if I could use the bathroom. Vandy directed me to a chemical toilet that I had assumed was for workmen.

My next call was on Tom Curtis. We had grown up on the same block—his older brother had been my high school debate partner—and we had been colleagues for a time at Texas Monthly. Like Vandy, Tom has always been a student of Galveston. He brought out his laptop and played a video that he had made about nine months after the storm. Frame after frame flashed across the screen, accompanied by Iris Dement’s haunting song “Our Town,” which seemed like Galveston’s anthem. “And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts . . .” An image showed the damage to houses located in what is known as Fish Village, because all the streets are named after denizens of the deep. “Go on now and say goodbye to our town . . .”

I don’t want to leave the impression that Galveston, having been inundated by Ike, is now inundated by a surge of pessimism. That is not its nature. Though the city had not experienced a major hurricane since Carla, in 1961, its civic consciousness includes a gritty resilience in the face of calamity. Part of the ritual of growing up here is learning that the residents of Indianola, a nineteenth-century rival port in Calhoun County, gave up after their town was destroyed by a storm, but Galveston, upon suffering the same fate, did not. To this day, the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States is the 1900 Galveston hurricane, with a death toll estimated to be eight thousand. Many citizens thought the city should relocate to the Mainland, but the head of the Moody family said, as the story goes, “If everyone leaves, the hunting and fishing will be better for the rest of us.” And so the city rebuilt to face the elements.

Now it must do so again. Today danger comes not only from the sea but from Austin, where the University of Texas regents control the fate of the UT Medical Branch, the Island’s biggest employer. Ike’s floodwaters rendered John Sealy Hospital unusable, and the regents shut it down, laying off 2,500 workers and closing the psychiatric and children’s hospitals. Left unaddressed was a consultant’s recommendation to move the hospital and clinical operations to League City, which would have been a death sentence for Galveston. The crisis seems to have passed, as state and federal funding to rebuild John Sealy and the medical complex is now available. But I saw no discernible activity there on my trip—not one car, not one patient—and there is considerable skepticism among civic and political leaders on the Island about whether UT System administrators will honor their commitments.

After a day and a half, I had seen most of the city. It doesn’t take long; the Island is about a mile and a half in breadth and 27 miles in length, and no one ventures “down the Island” for the last twenty or so of those miles except for vacationers, weekenders, and golfers. I had driven out there immediately after the storm and had seen how homes built after the adoption of stringent building codes in the nineties had survived Ike far better than older construction. And I did not feel a need to return.

I was, however, interested in the fate of the poorer neighborhoods wedged between the railroad yards and Broadway, on the bay side of the Island, which I vaguely remembered as a place of frame houses and aging housing projects. It was the first part of the city to be hammered by the reverse storm surge, and it reminded me of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward after Katrina: uninhabitable. The housing projects were gone, bulldozed to the ground. None of the remaining homes looked right. The force of the water had knocked them a little askew. It was awful. The city has plans to build new projects, but what people say (not for attribution) is that they hope the former residents do not come back. Crime, you know. In their absence, the much-maligned school system posted its best ratings ever.

This is life in Galveston a year after Ike, but the bigger question is, What will Galveston be like in two years, or five, or ten? The entire populace is on edge over the prospect that this hurricane season could bring another large storm. I must have heard the phrase “if we can just get through the summer . . . ” from a dozen people. But, of course, there will be another hurricane season next year. One of the proposals for securing the Island’s safety is an “Ike dike,” the brainchild of a Texas A&M University professor named Bill Merrell, which would protect the Galveston Bay region against the worst-case scenario of a category 4 or 5 storm that came right up the Houston Ship Channel. The giant engineering project would try to hold back the storm surge from entering the bay, where it could wreak havoc on the refineries and petrochemical plants in the bay’s upper reaches. The Galveston Seawall could be extended westward for the length of the Island to San Luis Pass, which separates Galveston County from Brazoria County, and eastward along the lightly populated Bolivar Peninsula to High Island. The crucial feature would be gates that would remain open in good weather but shut whenever a storm approached.

The biggest issue Galveston faces, other than its exposure to hurricanes, is getting people to live on the Island, where the land area is limited and danger lurks on all sides. The economy is surprisingly diverse: thousands of jobs at the Medical Branch, another thousand or so in the offshore oil-field service facilities on Pelican Island, ongoing construction of beach condos from one end of the Island to the other, and lower-paying but still numerous positions in the hotels. The problem is that about half the people who work in Galveston live and pay taxes on the Mainland. Plans for an interurban rail-line link to Houston are into the design and planning stage. The hope is that people who work there will want to commute from Galveston.

These are dreams. But in a way, dreams have always been what Galveston is all about. That is why people decide to stay here, surrounded not only by water but also by the city’s own tragic history. Galveston breeds a loyalty that one is reluctant to breach. And so life goes on, and we dream that the next hurricane will never come.

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