My Frail Island

Looking for lessons in the wreckage of Galveston.

November 2008By Comments

Photograph by Misty Keasler

To grow up in Galveston is to carry inside of you the realization that everything familiar, the sum of your memories and experiences, could be wiped away in a few furious hours. Most of the time, this sense of dread lies dormant, but when a major hurricane reaches the Gulf of Mexico, the anxiety manifests itself physically. It doesn’t matter whether you are on the Island or far away. I was high and dry in Austin on the day that Hurricane Ike approached my hometown, but my stomach was churning as if I were in my boyhood home, three blocks from the seawall.

I was right to worry. Ike was a terrible storm. That it was just a category 2 was deceptive. What really mattered was that it was as big as a category 4 or 5. It covered almost all the Gulf of Mexico: six hundred miles from front to back. As it approached the Texas coast, its southern flank undermined a seawall on North Padre Island and carried off half a million cubic yards of sand, while its backside eroded beaches in Florida and uncovered the wreck of a Confederate blockade runner in Mobile Bay. A storm of such magnitude moves unimaginable amounts of water before it, forming a dome of destruction in the front-right quadrant. This is the storm surge, the most damaging aspect of a hurricane. Propelled by 110-mile-per-hour winds, the surge poured up the Sabine River and left people who had been through Rita just three years ago stranded on rooftops in Bridge City and Orange. It rushed ashore on the Bolivar Peninsula, practically wiping it clean of beach homes and leaving it isolated, reachable only by boat. Driven by the wind into Galveston Bay, it crested over the low western bank into the defenseless towns of San Leon, Bacliff, Kemah, Seabrook, and La Porte.

As I spent the night watching the news, I thought Galveston had escaped the worst. The predicted 20- to 25-foot storm surge, which would have topped the seawall, never materialized. The actual surge was about half that. What I had failed to take into account is that what goes into the bay must come out. When the eye passed over Galveston and the counterclockwise winds blew in from the north, a wall of water headed for the city from the rear, where no seawall could intervene.

Imagine sitting in a bathtub and moving back suddenly, forcing the water to rise behind you and then spill past you toward the drain. One eyewitness at the Moody Gardens hotel complex told a colleague, who told me, that the wave was about eleven feet high. It rolled through the bay, tossed boats around like chopsticks at a marina near the causeway to the mainland, plowed through Offats Bayou and across the airport, and smashed into prime residential property in the west end of town. The houses here were supposed to be safe, protected by the seawall, but the torrent of water—properly called a seiche—came from the opposite direction. It rolled on toward the seawall, finally spending its force on youth baseball fields and leaving dead vegetation pasted to the top of cyclone fences nine or ten feet high. I heard a story about a man who had gone into a bathroom to urinate and found himself in chest-deep water before he could finish.

People who do not live in Galveston may wonder why so many stayed in harm’s way even in the face of a massive storm that covered most of the Gulf of Mexico. For some, staying was the default option. Others could not afford to leave or had nowhere to go. Still others—perhaps 20,000—stayed by choice. They fear more for Galveston than they do for themselves. Those in my mother’s generation regard evacuation as an act of disloyalty, providing evidence impugning the safety of the city to a skeptical world. She left only once, for Carla, a category 4 hurricane, in 1961, and only then after getting the blessing of friends to depart.

To lifelong residents and sympathetic expatriates like me—we identify ourselves by the acronym BOI, for “Born on the Island”—Galveston is more than a spot on a map. It is the central character in a tragic drama that has played for more than a century. The story line goes like this: On the morning of September 8, 1900, Galveston was the most important city in America between New Orleans and San Francisco, with a business artery, the Strand, that was known as the Wall Street of the Southwest. Before the next sunrise, the city lay in ruins, battered to smithereens by the sea, with a fifth of its almost 40,000 citizens dead—still the worst natural calamity ever to befall an American city. The greatest damage was done by a sudden four-foot surge (atop water that already covered Galveston fifteen feet deep). A telegram sent not long after the storm passed began, “One of the most awful tragedies of modern times has visited Galveston. The city is in ruins and the dead will number possibly 6,000. The wreck of Galveston was brought about by a tempest so terrible that no words can adequately describe its intensity, and by a flood which turned the city into a raging sea.”

An awareness of vulnerability and a sense of glory lost have been unwelcome squatters ever since. After the storm, citizens debated over whether to rebuild or move to the mainland. The most prominent families on the Island chose the former, sending one of their own, I. H. Kempner, to Austin to lobby for aid. Texas had a statewide property tax at that time, and Kempner persuaded lawmakers to allow Galveston to keep its revenue for twenty years. This enabled the city to issue bonds that financed a grade-raising. Every surviving building had to be jacked up so that the Island could be elevated by five feet. Newly dug canals allowed barges to bring dredged spoil into the heart of the city, where it was pumped underneath the buildings. For several years, the populace made their way around on elevated catwalks. Around the same time, a 3-mile-long, 17-foot seawall was constructed on the oceanfront (it is now 10 miles long).

These projects were successful but could not revive the past. Galvestonians long ago came to terms with the unpleasant truth that the city would never again be what it was. Yet a shared preoccupation with the civic well-being remains. Residents are constantly taking the city’s temperature to see how the place is faring. I have friends who compare the ratio of population to jobs with that of Manhattan, who keep up with the hotel occupancy rates, who regularly cite statistics on cruise-ship boardings. Recent numbers are encouraging, but for most of the twentieth century, the patient seemed to be ailing, especially after authorities shut down the Maceo gambling empire (illegal, but tolerated by the constabulary) in 1957 and Carla inflicted serious damage four years later. The city took on a faded, weathered look, as if it had surrendered to the elements.

No one could have foreseen, then, that Galveston would soon experience a renaissance, that the nineteenth-century buildings city leaders regarded as an embarrassment (in the name of progress, they allowed an 1889 home designed by Nicholas Clayton, the first great Texas architect, to be razed in 1967 and replaced with a nondescript apartment building) would provide the inspiration for a historical preservation movement. The next time a historic building was threatened with destruction—Ashton Villa, which dates from 1859—local foundations rushed to save it. By the eighties, Galveston was enjoying a building boom of vacation homes on the west end of the Island, despite the fact that the seawall had never been extended to protect those areas. The grand old commercial blocks downtown were being rehabbed instead of reduced to rubble. New restaurants sprang up. Along the Strand and Postoffice Street, shops filled the long-empty buildings, which were restored to their former glory. The next two decades brought so much development that Galveston became a property-wealthy school district. Almost half the tax base was in high-dollar housing west of the city limits of my childhood years.

Now Ike has put the Galveston renaissance at risk—and the future of the city as well. The problem is not just the destruction. Homes can be repaired or replaced. But faith in the safety of the Island is a different matter. Once it is lost, once the water that surrounds Galveston is seen as the enemy rather than the source of its charms, there’s no going back. Three things make hurricanes dangerous: wind, rain, and storm surge. Of the three, surge is by far the worst. Water in your house does more than damage its structure. It destroys the life you have built. It contaminates furniture, ruins clothing, sweeps away heirlooms and family pictures—all the things you forget about until they’re gone. Flooding drove people away from New Orleans. The same fate may befall Galveston. How many people will choose to leave rather than face another catastrophe?

My first view of the coast after Ike was from the air. Land commissioner Jerry Patterson, who is responsible for overseeing the state’s beaches and submerged coastal lands, invited me to be a passenger in his single-engine four-seater. After assuring a photographer and me that he had “the same number of takeoffs as landings,” Patterson headed east. Our first destination was the Bolivar Peninsula, a lightly populated spit of land a little more than half a mile wide that reportedly had been all but wiped out. We crossed Galveston Bay, shimmering in the morning haze, and ventured over rural Chambers County. The land below us was still flooded, so much so that it was hard to tell what was ground and what was water. At High Island, we turned down the coast and paralleled the peninsula on a course no more than one thousand feet offshore. The sky was crowded with official-looking helicopters and small planes whose pilots had come to gawk. Patterson was constantly scanning for traffic competing for the same airspace as ours. “My head’s on a swivel,” he said.

The reports of devastation were not exaggerated. The cliché after a hurricane passes through an area is that the damage left behind looks like a war zone. This was worse. In war film footage—the real thing, not the Hollywood version—you see half-destroyed buildings. Here you saw no buildings. Hundreds of beach homes had simply ceased to exist. All that remained were the stilts on which they had stood (and even these had been reduced to mere stumps) and pieces of painted lumber that had come to rest when the storm tide subsided. It was the worst destruction I had ever seen, worse than New Orleans after Katrina.

The ground cover had been stripped away by the storm tide. Only a few green patches clutched the bare dirt. Whatever trees had stood near these former house sites had been swallowed by the surge. I looked for Highway 87, the road that hugs the shoreline from the ferry landing toward Beaumont and Port Arthur. Not only could I not find it, there was no evidence, except for the badly damaged bridge at Rollover Pass, that the road had ever existed at all. The hurricane had washed out the road, and the ocean now lapped at the place it once occupied. Most of the raised beach homes that were still standing were mere skeletons. You could see right through them. The exterior and interior walls were gone; all that was left was the framing. Gilchrist and Crystal Beach, two small communities, suffered Ike’s full fury. On the 27-mile stretch of coast from the ferry landing at Port Bolivar to the birding haven of High Island, only a single yellow house was in viable condition on the strip of land that is seaward of the ruined Highway 87. It was as much of an anomaly as a mountain rising out of a prairie.

Rollover Pass, a great fishing spot that provides East Bay with saline water that is beneficial to estuarine life, will probably have to be closed to prevent the Gulf from severing the peninsula and swamping the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, an important artery for barge traffic. In one of the inlets on the backside of Bolivar, pump jacks had ceased to operate, and several were knocked askew. An oil sheen glistened on the water.

The peninsula dropped behind us as we headed for Galveston Island. Its rage spent, the Gulf was at low tide, with gentle swells producing little foam as they rolled onto the wet sand. From a few hundred yards offshore, the Island looked narrow and frail, no match for the elements as it huddled against the seawall. On its eastern end, Galveston is growing into the sea, as sand from beach erosion on the west end of the Island is transported east along the shoreline until it is trapped by a jetty that protects the entrance to Galveston Bay. There is a lot of usable land here, between the seawall and the beach, and a new resort called Beachtown occupies a site well in front of the seawall. I expected a lot of damage, but the only visible signs of distress were palm trees leaning at strange angles. Later I read the report on the development’s Web site: “The eye of Hurricane Ike passed directly over Beachtown. As expected, the horrible force of this storm caused damage to the landscape. However, the fortified construction of the homes at Beachtown passed its first major test. All of the homes at Beachtown are standing and their integrity is intact.” I still don’t think it makes sense to put such a major development in harm’s way when state and federal governments are on the hook for insurance claims. But I have spent enough time on the coast to know that people are not going to stop building—or buying—as close to the water as they can get.

The commercial stretch across the seawall from the beach did not look nearly as battered as it did after Carla. But Ike did what Carla could not: It took down the Balinese Room, the nightclub and gambling den that was the showplace of the Maceo empire, where Houston high rollers would arrive with police escorts to gamble and enjoy first-class entertainment like bandleader Phil Harris and singer Alice Faye. The sea must have risen up, lifted the aging but recently rehabilitated structure off its pilings, which stretched six hundred feet into the Gulf, and heaved it across the seawall, where it lay in state, crushed. Its heyday was before my time, and I regard the Maceo period as the low point in Galveston’s ups and downs, but even I felt a pang of sadness for a lost piece of history.

The skies were still too crowded for comfort, so Patterson kept us offshore. As we flew west, down the coast, the strip of beach in front of the seawall became narrower and narrower until it finally disappeared. Beyond the seawall, land on the edge of the water reappeared. I wouldn’t call it a beach. Ike had wreaked havoc here: two hundred feet of sand gone and four feet of vertical loss. The dunes had been flattened. Some of the sand is still offshore and will be redeposited, but in the long run, Galveston is fighting a losing battle with the sea. The problem is exacerbated by the damming of rivers, which prevents sediment from reaching the sea. Even in uneventful years, the Island loses about three to five feet along the west end shoreline. Some of it is transported by longshore currents to East Beach, allowing places like Beachtown to be built on the accreting part of the island.

Erosion threatens the future of this area. When I was growing up, you could drive down a ramp on the west end of the seawall onto West Beach. If I tried that today, I would drown. The shoreline has retreated several hundred feet inland of the seawall. It is getting dangerously close to FM 3005, which is the sole access to the developments that have mushroomed in this area. Patterson anticipates that his agency will eventually have to build rock revetments to protect the road from the sea, as it has done successfully at Surfside Beach, in Brazoria County. Nature usually takes time to do its work, but not with beach erosion on the upper Texas Coast. Galveston County officials have tried to arrest the loss of sand by placing a string of large tubes filled with sand on the beach, seaward of the front row of houses. Geotextile tubes, as they are known, do offer some protection from high water (though not in a storm like Ike), but they don’t prevent the erosion; the waves just scour the sand from under the tubes so that the loss takes place in front of the tubes instead of behind them.

Damage was heavy on the Gulf side of FM 3005. Two, three, even five rows of houses have been squeezed in here between the beach and the road. This should never have been allowed to happen. Erosion on the upper Texas coast has been an established fact for at least four decades. In another decade or two, as the beach continues its retreat toward the road, or perhaps when the next big storm hits, it will overtake these houses, as it has already overtaken others, and there will be hell to pay.

What we call the beach—the area between the vegetation line and the line of mean high tide—can be privately owned and usually is. In 1959, developers began fencing it off. A public outcry caused then-governor Price Daniel to call a special session of the Legislature to protect the right to use the beaches. The result was the Texas Open Beaches Act, which codified the rebuttable presumption that the public had established a right to use the beach through many years of crossing private property. Ultimately the issue wound up in litigation, and an appellate court found that the public had established an easement by prescription—that is, a long-continued enjoyment and exercise of its unrestricted right of access. The Texas Supreme Court let the decision stand. Whether the outcome would be the same today, in an era when property rights are preeminent, I do not know. But this is the law.

What it means for property owners is that erosion can put them in violation of the Open Beaches Act. If, as happened during Ike, the sea encroaches on the beach, their homes may end up obstructing an area to which the public has the right of access. The houses haven’t moved; the beach has. In practice, if a home that impinges on the beach is not more than 50 percent destroyed, the owner is allowed to make it habitable but cannot improve or enlarge it. Further erosion may cause the house to be seaward of the mean high-water mark, in which case it is on state-owned land and must be removed at the owner’s expense. The result is harsh, but what’s the alternative? If this were not the law, the entire beach would eventually revert to private property, and the public would lose its right of access.

In any event, purchasers of seaside property should be under no illusion as to the risks they undertake when they buy close to the ocean. Who buys beachfront property on Galveston Island not knowing about the 1900 storm? Not knowing about the propensity of tropical cyclones to make landfall on the upper Texas coast? Contracts for sale of land near a beach must contain a disclosure notice setting forth “potential risks of economic loss” to the purchaser. The notice warns, “You may be assuming economic risks over and above the risks in purchasing inland real property.”

What I remember most about growing up in Galveston in the fifties and early sixties is that nothing ever changed, at least not for the better. The city didn’t grow, didn’t attract new business, didn’t have new buildings, didn’t produce new leaders. The Moodys and the Kempners remained the two most prominent families, as they had been for more than half a century. Galveston was old without being charming.

I realize now that this was too harsh a judgment. What I saw as stagnation was in fact a kind of stubborn resilience. Galveston had something that no other American city could match: It had endured the worst that nature could do. No one alive remembers the 1900 storm, but no one who lives here forgets it either. I can remember how I first learned about it. My mother’s family lived in an old Victorian on Broadway, and they had never removed the stain from the walls in the parlor that demarcated the waterline left by the storm. I was too young to be curious about what had spared them the fate suffered by so many others, or to contemplate that their survival on that night of death was essential to my existence. And there was no one to ask. Galveston was a genteel place where friends called on one another and conversed in formal living rooms; children were expected to participate, but I have no memory of any conversation about the storm. The survivors wouldn’t talk about it. Many years later, my mother was planning a reception for my sister and her husband, who were visiting from New York, and she asked for my help in culling the initial guest list. I came across a name of a woman I had never heard of and suggested that she didn’t merit an invitation. “Oh, yes, she does,” my mother replied. “My grandparents spent the night with her parents during the 1900 storm.” She got an invitation.

For most of the twentieth century, Galveston acted as if the storm had never occurred. No museum recorded its horrors. No monument honored its victims. Galveston needed no tangible reminder that its destiny had been washed away in a matter of hours. The knowledge was implanted deep inside the collective memory. Only after the renaissance had taken hold did the city have the self-confidence to remind the world of what had happened here.

Late in his life, I. H. Kempner wrote a privately published memoir in which he described the situation facing Galveston after the storm: “Here stood on September 9, 1900, the day after the hurricane, in the wake of receding waves and diminished wind, a community where, within ten hours, one-half of its total taxable values had been physically erased, where 7,500 souls (one-fourth of its population of the previous morning) were found dead; where within a few weeks another one-fourth of its inhabitants left the city to seek some place of abode where their days and nights would not be haunted by scenes of the wiping out of their homes and memories of loved ones buried in unknown places or whose remains were irretrievably lost.”

A few days after Ike had passed, I had an e-mail exchange with a woman in Galveston, a cousin of a cousin and the granddaughter of a former mayor. Her words captured a modern version of Kempner’s sentiments: “Many people who lived for years behind the seawall have lost their homes due to flooding. The devastation is heartbreaking . . . I was there during the storm. Yes, we should have left, that is a whole other story and if you would like to hear it I would be glad to tell you. Anyway, most of us [on her street] had about four feet of water in our homes. Most of us have lost everything. Nothing of course could compare to the three homes that burned across the street, in front of our eyes. Nothing could express the heartbreak and terror of my husband trying to help my neighbor remove a few items and his pets before his house became an inferno. Many people have had to relocate. We are living temporarily with [relatives] in Cypress. We are having to put our three younger boys in new schools. In my mind, this was the 19 hundred storm of our generation.”

I responded, and a day later came a second e-mail: “We are moving to League City. I love Galveston, but I don’t want to keep running from storms.”

Lyda Ann Thomas, the mayor of Galveston and the granddaughter of I. H. Kempner, had a bad feeling about Ike from the start, even when the models were showing Corpus Christi was the likely place of landfall. “As soon as I heard its name, I knew it was headed for Galveston,” she told me. “My grandfather had led the recovery after the 1900 storm. His nickname was Ike, the same as the hurricane’s. I knew I would have to follow in his footsteps.”

Thomas had already taken some steps to prepare for a storm after seeing what Katrina and Rita had done to the Gulf Coast. She formed a recovery team and named her cousin, Harris Kempner Jr. (a money manager known to all on the Island as “Shrub”), co-chairman. He determined that a city’s most immediate need after a major storm was money. Without it, leaders would face an impossible situation: Lacking funding, municipal workers might have to be asked to work for free, on faith that the city would be able to pay them later. The solution was to have Galveston start putting aside reserve funds earmarked for hurricane recovery—enough to pay for ninety days of city services. For additional help, the city turned to Austin, as it had after the 1900 storm. Hometown state representative Craig Eiland passed a bill in the 2007 legislative session that enabled cities within seventy miles of the Gulf of Mexico to negotiate with banks for interim loans, which would allow them to pay their workforce and get the city up and running again after a disaster.

During the afternoon of September 12, as the storm approached and the winds increased, the mayor watched the water rise in the street outside city hall. Flooding started from the bay; the hulking downtown buildings, with their high nineteenth-century ceilings, had as much as fourteen feet of water inside. Beyond the end of the seawall, in the beach developments, the ground had vanished beneath the encroaching waters by mid-afternoon. City officials moved to the San Luis hotel, on the beachfront, to spend an anxious night. “Around two or three in the morning,” Thomas said, “it really started to blow. We could see palm trees bending.” Hotel personnel came to her room and said it was necessary for everyone to take refuge inside the core of the hotel.

The next day, it was obvious that the storm had been worse than anyone could have imagined: businesses ruined, homes destroyed, flooding in parts of the city that were supposed to be safe. The University of Texas Medical Branch had taken on water and was unable to function as a hospital or a medical school. Galveston had no city services: no electricity, no gas, no water, and no prospect of having them restored in the next few days. Sand and hurricane debris clogged the drainage and sewer systems. There was no food, no open grocery store, no open restaurant—and there were still 20,000 or so people on the Island and tens of thousands of evacuees who wanted to return to their houses despite the conditions.

A week and a half after the storm, Thomas went to Washington to pitch her case for $2.1 billion in federal aid to a Senate committee. “I must tell you that chills ran up my spine when I saw the name ‘Ike’ selected for this year’s hit list,” she stated in written testimony. “The irony, on the one hand, is that I, his granddaughter, might bear the God-awful responsibilities of helping my citizens dig out and bear up against a similar tragic event. The greater irony is that my grandfather, I. H. Kempner, was commonly called ‘Ike.’ If I feared before, I instinctively feel now, that Ike symbolizes more than the destruction of Galveston. Ike represents the rebuilding of our city.” I read these words, and I got chills. They describe perfectly the essence of Galveston as only BOIs know it—the benign paternalism of the preeminent families, the refusal to countenance the possibility that an eroding sandbar two miles into the Gulf of Mexico might not be the ideal place to build a city, the gritty determination that the sea will not wipe us from the face of the earth, though it will surely try again.

After her trip to Washington, Thomas told me, “Galveston will recover. We’ve done it before. We’ll do it again.” I wondered: Who was “we”? Did she mean the city? Or herself and Ike?

What does the future hold for Galveston? This is the question on everybody’s minds. There are two ways of looking at it. One is through the eyes of thousands of residents and business owners who must decide about whether to rebuild or leave. Most of them have houses that are uninhabitable. Thomas said in her congressional testimony that 80 percent of the households in Galveston had rising water in their homes. The other is through the eyes of geologists who study the Texas coast.

Let’s start with the first group. Here is the reality: Ike was a bad storm, but there are worse storms, and sooner or later one will make landfall at Galveston. A category 4 or 5 storm that strikes the Island will bring a surge in excess of twenty feet. It will top the seawall, inundate the entire city, swamp the west side of Galveston Bay all the way to Interstate 45, and, in the upper regions of the bay, flood eastern Harris County as far west as Beltway 8. Such a storm will leave hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Rita could have been the big one had it not diminished in strength as it veered to the east and made landfall in extreme southwestern Louisiana. If you have a hankering for beach property and you have a gambler’s nature, you might reflect that 47 years passed between Carla and Ike, and maybe the odds are against another big storm in the immediate future. (Alicia, a small but intense category 3, struck Galveston in 1983; it inflicted wind damage and tore up power lines but resulted in no serious flooding.)

Individual decisions to abandon damaged property could have serious fiscal consequences for the entire area affected by Ike. Already, candidates for the state Senate district that includes Galveston are urging that damaged homes be reassessed to reflect diminished values. Homes that go unrepaired will be lost to the tax rolls, leaving Galveston without sufficient revenue to rebuild its aging infrastructure. (A relatively small number of residents had purchased federal flood insurance.) It is too early to know whether there is a resale market for vacation property that suffered damage, or whether, as Thomas speculated, “the west end may return to pasture.” It is possible—indeed, it’s likely—that a year from now Galveston will be a much smaller city, just as New Orleans shrunk after Katrina.

The geologists are even more pessimistic. Rice University’s John B. Anderson, author of The Formation and Future of the Upper Texas Coast (a book with a large following at the land office), writes that the global sea level has been rising at a “relatively slow rate” of between 1.5 and 2.0 millimeters per year for around five thousand years, as ice sheets melt. (He eschews the debate over global warming and its consequences.) Meanwhile another process is going on, and that is subsidence of the land surface. Subsidence is caused by the weight of tens of thousands of feet of sedimentary strata. Other contributing factors are oil and gas production offshore and the pumping of water by industries along the Houston Ship Channel. Anderson’s assessment is that the upper Texas and Louisiana coasts “are the most rapidly subsiding coasts in the United States.” Subsidence means that tomorrow’s small storms could do the damage of today’s big storms. Galveston isn’t going to sink into the sea anytime soon, but “a significant portion of the upper Texas coast will be submerged in the next century.” My children will be able to see geologic change on Galveston beaches take place in their lifetimes, as I have seen it take place in mine.

It is a terrible thing to come back to one’s hometown and see it in ruins. My friend of longest standing in Galveston—our mothers were best friends—invited me to stop at his house for lunch. He and his wife sat out Ike in Houston and came back to find furniture and clothing “totaled,” as the insurance adjusters say. The interior, which I remembered as immaculately decorated, was strewn with water-damaged furniture. On the dark kitchen tiles was a thin imprint of dried mud. We sat on plastic chairs in the garage. He opened up a cooler and produced two sandwiches and some soft drinks. “I’m so sorry you have to go through this,” I said. “We were one of the lucky ones,” he said. “We only had about two feet of water.” While we ate, we watched workmen carry contaminated Sheetrock out to the front yard. I asked one of the workers how he had fared. He started to answer and then walked off. When he returned, his whole face was quivering. “We lost everything,” he said, barely getting out the words.

My friend, a lawyer with the Moody interests, suggested that we go for a ride. He directed me to the next street over. It was awful. Every house had a towering mound of debris in front—the accumulations of a lifetime. Appliances large and small. Living room furniture. TV sets. A mud-covered basketball. One home had a large sign that was prominently displayed: “Owner with gun.”

If you just looked at the damage, you might doubt Galveston’s ability to come back. But it has become a destination city, not just a weekend extension of Houston. For a town of its size (at least until flood victims decide whether to leave or stay), it has the makings of a diversified economy—a medical and biohazard research center; offshore oil service and repair; a port, including a cruise ship terminal and all the supporting business that requires; a Texas A&M campus; and the headquarters of American National Insurance and the Moody financial empire. The immediate threat to the economy is that the University of Texas Board of Regents decided when, without consulting any state leaders or budget writers, to downsize the hospital, greatly reduce the technological capability of the emergency room, and lay off four thousand workers. Some serious politicking ensued, which has temporarily forestalled the plan. But the future of the medical complex, the city’s major employer, is grim.

There’s always tourism, of course, though for much of the twentieth century, locals despised the tourists. It used to be said that Houston’s day-trippers would drive down to the beaches “with a dirty shirt on their backs and a five-dollar bill in their pockets and never change either one.” I have friends who still will not drive on Seawall Boulevard during the tourist season. But I also have friends, from elsewhere, who used to constantly ask for suggestions about what to do here (ride the Bolivar ferry; try the stuffed flounder at Gaido’s; take a walk on the beach at sunset; go to the Galveston history room at the Rosenberg Library; see the penguins at Moody Gardens; drive around the east end north of Broadway looking at old Victorians; explore the Nicholas Clayton buildings downtown). Now I have to wonder how much of the Galveston I knew will still exist.

The biggest problem is how to rebuild in a way that makes its people feel safe. The city made a mistake, years ago, in allowing canals to be built into the heart of the Island. As in New Orleans, water is the enemy. It was one of these canals that brought the storm surge into a part of town known as Havre Lafitte and contributed to the destruction and flooding in my friend’s neighborhood. That canal should be gated (as has been done in New Orleans) so that storm surge can be kept out. The geotextile tubes filled with sand are a bad idea as well. They make it impossible for natural forces to reestablish the beach and should be outlawed.

Maybe the way to ensure safety is to change the style of construction on the Island. At one of the mayor’s press conferences in the days after the storm, a city official suggested that any house that had had as much as four feet of water in it would have to be rebuilt on stilts so that it met FEMA’s recovery guidelines. I don’t know whether this proposal will fly—who wants to carry the groceries up the stairs?—but I think it is on the right track. The goal is not only to protect life and property but also to prevent home values from going into a tailspin whenever the next storm hits.

The General Land Office has a role to play too. Houses on the public beach are not only illegal but are also a hazard to their neighbors as they deteriorate. In the long run, the answer is not to remove these houses through litigation but to prohibit construction so close to the water. Setback rules should bar any new construction seaward of FM 3005, or any road that hugs the coast. Finally, the land office is going to have to undertake some beach-nourishment projects—not just in Galveston but wherever erosion is occurring along the Texas coast. Texas actually has plenty of offshore sand, in the long-drowned valleys of the Sabine and Trinity rivers. Unfortunately, it’s covered by eighty feet of Mississippi River mud. Beach nourishment is an expensive proposition. The least expensive method (and it isn’t cheap) is dredging and pumping the sand onto the desired beach. A more efficient method, using a hopper dredge both to extract and carry the sand, is around four times as costly. Politicians may object to the process, because nourishment is only delaying the inevitable; it can’t stabilize the beach and will have to be repeated, again and again, at no small expense.

Contemplating the past and future, I have come to realize that I love Galveston more from afar than up close. Wherever I might live, I will always consider myself to be from Galveston. But I can’t escape the feeling that its existence is fragile—that the erosion, the subsidence, the lack of sand, the overdevelopment, the memory of the 1900 storm, and the turning of the calendar to the next hurricane season is nature’s way of saying that cities don’t belong on barrier islands two miles offshore. And that we all know in our hearts the sea will win in the end.

Related Content