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