The Calm Before the Storm

Galveston has always been the summer playground of Texas, with its sandy beaches, eclectic shops, and coastal charms. It has also been victimized by the worst storms in history, which have forever changed the island’s fortunes. With another hurricane season upon us, is Galveston prepared for the future—or waiting for its ultimate fate?

Tilman Fertitta rebuilt the Pleasure Pier on the same site as the original, which was destroyed by Hurricane Carla in 1961. Photographs by Trevor Paulhus
Tilman Fertitta rebuilt the Pleasure Pier on the same site as the original, which was destroyed by Hurricane Carla in 1961. Photographs by Trevor Paulhus

Arriving in Galveston the morning after Memorial Day from flood-stricken Houston—part of a weather tirade that had left more than twenty dead and thousands displaced—I found the island in a state of sunny, even smug, tranquillity, as if history had reversed itself and we had returned to the halcyon days before the Great Storm of 1900, when the island ruled the Gulf Coast. Before that calamitous hurricane laid waste to the dazzling port city and killed at least six thousand residents, to date the deadliest natural disaster in American history, it was commonly held that violent weather preyed only on large territory and would forever spare the unsinkable island. Of course, there has been a vicious succession of storms since that first one, and in its own way, 2008’s Hurricane Ike was especially brutal, in that it all but destroyed the city a second time. Ike was why I had come here. I had fully expected to see Galveston still in disarray seven years later. Instead, in this season of elemental havoc, I encountered an island of absolute calm—as well as inhabitants who argued, quite seriously, that Ike had done Galveston a favor.

One of these was Heber Taylor, a man not given to hyperbole, a result of having spent the previous 23 years at the Galveston County Daily News, the state’s oldest operating newspaper, before retiring last December as its editor. “One of the first stories I did when I got here, in 1991,” Taylor recalled, “happened one night when a city crew called me. They’d been working on the East End with a backhoe, and they’d accidentally cut into a water line. That line was literally a wooden log that was connected with wooden pegs. Someone had put it there in the 1800’s, and it had survived all this time. That’s when I realized how everything underneath this beautiful old city had long been neglected and was now decaying. Ike gave us this tremendous opportunity to rebuild the city, with all this federal money.”

Taylor recounted this as we sat on the patio of MOD Coffeehouse, a languid institution situated in a 157-year-old brick building in the historic downtown Strand District whose habitués—academics, firemen, wealthy retirees in shambling beach attire, and artists with fluorescent hair—reflect the island’s hierarchical nonchalance. Ike had roared through downtown like a 110-mile-per-hour threshing machine, submerging MOD and its neighbors in eight feet of floodwater, ravaging its interior and whisking away every item that had not been bolted to the floor. The coffeehouse’s patrons rallied and rebuilt the furniture, in some cases using reclaimed wood from the city’s shattered houses. Meanwhile, FEMA and HUD poured money into the island’s recovery. Its streets, its buildings, and much of its medieval infrastructure were replaced with materials that conformed to twenty-first-century standards. And now today, in spiteful heedlessness of the floods consuming the mainland, downtown Galveston glimmered like a halo on the coast.

A view of Galveston looking toward the Gulf of Mexico, with traffic from the Houston Ship Channel in the distance.

“Galveston has recovered,” Taylor told me. Then he went a step further. “I think we’re better than we were before the storm.” The statistics bear out his assertion. Tourism and hotel occupancy now exceed pre-Ike levels. The city’s biggest employer, the University of Texas Medical Branch, has not only rehabilitated itself after nearly a billion dollars in damages but has added a new hospital and storm-proofed buildings that were devastated by the flood. In 2012 the BOI—that’s “Born on the Island”—restaurant mogul Tilman Fertitta opened Galveston’s newest mega–tourist attraction: the Pleasure Pier, an amusement park stretching from Seawall Boulevard out into the Gulf, on the site where an earlier park bearing the same name was annihilated by Hurricane Carla, in 1961. Since Ike, Galveston has become the nation’s fourth-biggest cruise line port. And thanks to federal funding, the city’s absurdly cumbersome land development regulations—“which had been written in twelve different volumes, and you had to go back and forth through each one to figure out how you could actually develop,” said Joe Rozier, a member of the Downtown Galveston Partnership—have been recodified, making the island far more business friendly.

The retired newspaper editor was uninhibited in his praise for Galveston. It was today, he said, like Austin had once been: human-scale and unself-consciously eclectic, a place where you could fall into conversation with a stranger about the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein or the relative merits of early versus contemporary opera. You could find yourself retracing the most flamboyant elements of Texas history—cannibals, pirates, conquistadors, mobsters, the millionaire-turned-killer Robert Durst—while at the same time living among a thoroughly diverse population that represented the new Texas. That was the Galveston that Ike had not vanquished.

Still, a question lingered: Would Galveston always be so fortunate? For as William J. “Bill” Merrell, a marine scientist at Texas A&M University at Galveston, warns, “Essentially, we’re playing Russian roulette with hurricanes. We have a major hurricane go over this region every fifteen years. We’re going to get hit again. It’s not a question of if but when.” Since Ike’s devastation, Merrell has waged a deeply frustrating, seven-year-long crusade to protect the Houston-Galveston region from future storms with the construction of a multibillion-dollar coastal barrier known as the “Ike Dike.” In his pitch to state politicians and business leaders, Merrell’s chief selling point has been that the next hurricane could touch down closer to the Houston Ship Channel and thereby leave the nation’s petrochemical supply reeling.

But in more expansive conversations, Merrell offers a second reason for protecting the island, one that is often lost in the defiant conversations about returning and rebuilding: the damage done to a community by such storms is far more profound than can be captured in economic data. In particular, the most vulnerable residents—particularly the poor and the elderly—are hit the hardest and assisted the least. Taylor acknowledged the same thing as we sat that morning at the restored coffeehouse. “One of the things about Galveston that disappeared with Ike is that we had a lot of homeless people camping out on the streets,” he said. “And people knew where they were, and they’d check in on them and steer them to social services. I was downtown the day before the storm made landfall. The water was already rising, and I was going to catch one of our big trucks to get to the paper when I ran across one of the homeless guys. I told him, ‘A bad storm is coming. You’ve gotta take shelter.’ And the last thing I saw was him nodding before I got on the truck.

“I haven’t seen him since. A lot of people on the margins just vanished in that storm.”

From the tall buildings erected by Galveston’s great families—the Kempners, the Sealys, the Moodys—you can see the island in all its charming insouciance. I stood one morning in the old United States National Bank, founded in 1874, with Harris L. “Shrub” Kempner, whose family had constructed the building. Today his investment firm is located on the top floor, and together we surveyed the stiletto-shaped landmass, 27 miles in length: the 190-year-old port at the mouth of Galveston Bay; the UTMB campus; the historic residences of the East End, now shorn of its oak tree canopies by Ike; the posh new East Beach mansions with sweeping views out onto the Gulf; the gray umbilical causeway unwinding northward to Interstate 45. From this vantage point, of course, one misses the Galveston known best by its devoted visitors, a city of drowsy, salty sensuousness—the beachgoers and the keening seagulls as you whoosh past them on Seawall Boulevard, the ambling pleasures of an afternoon spent among the Strand’s multitude of shops and bars. What you do see is the big picture, and what frames it. “A lot that happens here, or doesn’t happen, depends on this geography,” Kempner said. “Unlike every other city in Texas, you can’t just spread out southwest or northeast and build a new subdivision. Everything that happens here affects everyone else. All these constraints, the compression . . .”

Harris L. "Shrub" Kempner, a scion of one of the island's most prominent families.

The 75-year-old’s voice trailed off, but he might as well have said, “An island, in other words.” Galveston’s peculiarities begin but do not end there. It is not simply an island, but a barrier island, part of a geological chain extending along the Gulf and curving around New England, offering some protection to the coastline against approaching storms. It is a beach town, but also architecturally lush, with a density of Victorian residences unlike almost anywhere else in America. Its history is not redolent of the Old West but rather the Gulf and its maritime opportunists. More than any other Texas city, it has been animated since the mid-nineteenth century by the deeds of abiding patriarchs without the assistance of anything resembling sustained political leadership. Its 2010 census population figure of 48,000, which lags behind its pre-Ike figure of 58,000, is not only out of date but also misleading, given that nearly 20,000 mainlanders commute daily to work on the island; another 10,000 students attend A&M, UTMB, and Galveston College; close to 5,000 weekenders own a second home in Galveston; and another 6 million tourists visit it annually.

A favorite statistic cited by city boosters is that the number of full-time jobs is equivalent to 62.5 percent of its actual population, an enviable data point comparable to that of another island, Manhattan. But that, too, is misleading; the number of Galveston residents who are at or below the poverty line is 23.2 percent, far greater than that of Texas as a whole (17.6) or the United States (15.1), owing to the reality that many of those jobs are held by low-paid employees in the service sector of the island’s tourism-driven economy. From this fact, three other related phenomena would seem to follow: First, over half the island’s population is African American or Hispanic, according to the 2010 census. Second, the city has seen a steady exodus of white families; as one of the longtime BOI stalwarts, attorney Buddy Herz, puts it, “If you didn’t want to send your kids to truly integrated schools, you moved with them to League City.” And third, the middle class has in recent decades all but vanished in Galveston, according to Jeff Sjostrom, the president of the Galveston Economic Development Partnership. “The segment of folks who make more than fifty thousand dollars but less than one hundred and fifty thousand dollars really doesn’t exist on the island.”

Galveston, then, represents a Texas anomaly: an urban mini-city wrapped in a tourist town with the feel of a museum situated on a barrier island that is periodically shelled by hurricanes. And yet no city is more quintessentially Texan. The state’s vaunted entrepreneurship dates from the first merchants and speculators who arrived on the island to export cotton by sea and rail from the city’s mighty port. The economic powerhouse that Texas would become started not in boomtown Houston but in Galveston, which by 1900 had the nation’s second-highest per capita income, after Providence, Rhode Island. The state evolved as the island did, as Galveston became the site of Texas’s first post office (in 1836), opera house (1870), and country club (1898).

But Galveston’s most resonant contribution to the state’s identity is its heroic response to the Great Storm of 1900. In the wake of that tragedy, the city’s fathers—among them Kempner’s grandfather Isaac—rallied with twin feats of audacious valor that, as acts of courage, would rival General Sam Houston’s immortal parry to the massacre at the Alamo. First, they erected a seventeen-foot-high seawall to serve as a coastal bulwark against future storms, an engineering gambit so inventive that a 1904 World’s Fair exhibit of the plan drew multitudes of astounded visitors. And second, the city leaders literally jacked up the entire island and its two thousand buildings, adding eleven million pounds of landfill and thereby elevating an entire metropolis. Both tasks were accomplished by 1911.

Like General Houston, the Galvestonians had help: a Denver firm designed the seawall, a German engineer oversaw the city’s elevation, and the state government supplied the city with ample tax relief. Nonetheless, it appears that Galveston’s $3.5 million recovery after the turn of the century was accomplished without a dime from the federal government. And when, in 1915—one hundred years ago this August 17—the next major hurricane charged toward Galveston, floodwaters inundated downtown and eleven perished. But the seawall largely held, averting a far greater tragedy, while well-heeled locals danced at the Hotel Galvez and drank champagne.

The massive Galveston Seawall, with part of the memorial for the Great Storm of 1900 just visible.
African American workers helping to construct the seventeen-foot-high seawall, which was completed in 1904. Rosenberg Library
Left: The massive Galveston Seawall, with part of the memorial for the Great Storm of 1900 just visible.
Top: African American workers helping to construct the seventeen-foot-high seawall, which was completed in 1904. Rosenberg Library

Looking back, a century later, it’s possible to see the cracks that were already forming in Galveston’s durable veneer. Houston’s port rose up to claim much of the shipping business that the island had lost, leaving it with only one unassailable industry: tourism. Sam and Rose Maceo opened the country’s first air-conditioned nightclub, the Hollywood Dinner Club, in 1926, and later the famed Balinese Room, bringing glamour and Hollywood celebrities like Fred Astaire and Guy Lombardo to their casino. But that swaggering era came to a halt when the Texas Rangers investigated the Maceos for organized crime and shuttered the mobsters’ gambling haunts for good, in 1957. Decay soon became general throughout much of the island. Coinciding with the shrinking of the port business and the integration of Galveston’s public schools, in the sixties, the city’s population, which peaked at 67,000, began an inexorable decline that continues to this day.

In 1976 a Houston energy baron named George Mitchell, whose name would later become synonymous with the drilling technique of fracking, returned to the island where he had been born and purchased the old League Building in the Strand District, the first of eighteen historic downtown structures that he would lovingly restore over the next two decades. The architectural face-lift, combined with the three upscale hotels that Mitchell would open, drew new waves of visitors to the island. But the sword was double-edged. As Herz told me, “I used to joke and say to George, ‘If you love Galveston so much, why don’t you move Mitchell Energy here?’ What Galveston needed was businesses. The tourist industry is a minimum-wage economy.”

Today a trinity of demons haunts Galveston. One is the specter of its own lost grandeur, visible in all directions. Then there is the relentless ambition of the big city fifty miles up the causeway that gradually stole its greatness, until one day the smaller city found itself consigned to the lesser status of tourist playground for Houston and the rest of Texas. The third malevolent force is, of course, nature.

Galvestonians have always weathered storms with minimal fanfare—an enduring legacy, perhaps, of the trauma inflicted in 1900. “People were devastated psychologically,” said attorney and former Galveston district judge Susan Criss, a BOI who knew survivors of that tragedy. “Imagine walking out of your house and seeing your friends lying dead everywhere. How do you get over that? They just didn’t talk about it.”

The 1915 storm did not mark the end of Galveston’s brushes with catastrophe. In 1943 a hurricane took Galveston’s citizens unaware and killed nineteen residents; authorities feared that an evacuation would allow Nazi gunboats in the Gulf to advance onto American soil. As a result, said Michael Doherty, whose mother lived through the event, “water flooded into downtown and the people had to be rescued with boats.” Fourteen years later, in 1957, Hurricane Audrey unleashed six feet of water into the city center.

The aftermath of Hurricane Ike, in 2008. AP/David J. Phillip

In 1961, Hurricane Carla swallowed whole the Gulf of Mexico, spawning two tornados on the island and boosting the career of a young reporter named Dan Rather, who famously broadcast live from the island and showed the first-ever radar image of a hurricane. More destructive to Galveston was Alicia, in 1983. And a decade ago this September, a category 5 monstrosity named Rita prompted a mandatory evacuation from the island—though fortunately for Galveston (if not for Louisiana), the hurricane struck farther east than had been anticipated, resulting in a surge that fell several feet below the trusty seawall.

Nor did Ike breach the seawall. Instead, the hurricane found another way in: the foresurge engorged the bay, carrying the overflow northward into the back side of the island and damaging 80 percent of the city. This time, Galveston received the lion’s share of the malice. But unlike following the 1900 storm, the city was only too grateful for federal largesse: FEMA and HUD set aside money for the island’s recovery—it was snarled in red tape and caprice, but arrived nonetheless. And with the refurbished structures came a return of the old Great Storm–era, hunker-down-and-build-anew BOI machismo. I spent an afternoon with Dennis Byrd, one of the island’s dynamic young restaurant and hotel developers, whose property happened to reside eight blocks away from where Ike’s floodwaters reached—an especially lucky break for him, considering that he did not possess flood insurance. Was Byrd likely to think twice about sinking more money into Galveston?

The 35-year-old businessman did not even flinch. “I don’t allow Mother Nature to dictate my developments,” he said, as any BOI would.

Bill Merrell was born elsewhere—in the farming town of Grand Island, Nebraska, which is nearly identical to Galveston in population—but he is given to wearing sport shirts bearing nautical themes and has the gruff, squinty-eyed manner of a longshoreman rather than the marine scientist he happens to be. Merrell moved to the island in 1987, when he became the president of Texas A&M’s Galveston campus. He lives in a handsome two-story East End house that was built in 1853 by the city’s surveyor. It has survived every storm that has come Galveston’s way. Still, the house sustained hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage from Ike, as did the apartment and retail property on the Strand that he owns. Three of the shop owners who had leased space in Merrell’s building went out of business.

“It’s been a long and nasty haul,” Merrell told me. But, he acknowledged, it could have been far worse—not only for himself but for the entire area: forecasts had predicted 25-foot surges into the bay. A $25 billion disaster might well have been a $100 billion crisis that would have brought the nation’s petrochemical supply system to a standstill. In other words, Galveston had gotten off easy—and might not be so fortunate next time.

But did there have to be a “next time”? In point of fact, there didn’t even have to be a “last time.” From the wreckage of Hurricane Carla in 1961, discussions began in scientific and government circles about the need for a plan for greater coastal protection than what the seawall was providing. As a result, the Army Corps of Engineers published a lengthy analysis in 1979. Among the recommendations was a 127-mile barrier of earthen levees and caisson gates that would stretch across the Gulf and protect Galveston Bay from backside flooding. It also recommended levee systems for Freeport, Port Arthur, and Texas City. Each plan required a “local sponsor”—a government entity that would share the costs with the federal agency. Freeport, Port Arthur, and Texas City ponied up their money; the resulting levees in their jurisdictions have largely protected them ever since. But Galveston’s city officials took a pass, citing the cost. Thereafter, the Corps’s proposal gathered dust, while hurricane after hurricane rocked the island.

The day after Ike, Merrell revived to the concept of a man-made coastal barrier. He began sketching a structure that would extend from Galveston’s western edge all the way to the easternmost point of Bolivar Peninsula, about sixty miles away. Merrell traveled to the Netherlands, where Dutch engineers had constructed 2,300 miles of levees and gates to protect their below-sea-level country from the vagaries of the North Sea without adverse environmental consequences. Back home in Texas, Merrell began making the rounds, evangelizing and requesting research funding from private and governmental sources. This time, the City of Galveston coughed up money without hesitation.

Texas A&M marine scientist Bill Merrell.
An entrance to the historic Strand District.
Left: Texas A&M marine scientist Bill Merrell.
Top: An entrance to the historic Strand District.

Still, Merrell’s proposed Ike Dike generated skepticism. The construction cost would be in the billions. Tens of millions would be required to maintain it. A regulation authority would likely have to be established to oversee its maintenance. Such notions were not easily abided in government-averse Texas. Better to combat one act of God with another, Harris County judge Ed Emmett seemed to be saying after Ike when he declared, “Galveston Island is called a barrier island for a reason. It served as a barrier for Houston.” Four years later, the judge openly mocked Merrell’s efforts, saying that the Ike Dike “isn’t going to happen” and declaring Galveston’s efforts to underwrite further study “a waste of $250,000.” (Asked if Emmett still harbored these sentiments, a spokesperson would say only, “He’s not necessarily opposed to the Ike Dike per se.”)

Merrell’s mission became more difficult in the fall of 2013, when a rival research team at Rice University suggested an alternative concept: if, as Merrell himself was suggesting, the gravest danger lay in the Houston Ship Channel, why not just protect the latter, for about a quarter of the cost of the Ike Dike? The so-called Centennial Gate idea was born. What soon became evident was that the Rice plan would not only abandon Galveston and other barrier islands like Bolivar but also further endanger them, since the tidal surge crashing against the new structure would then spill into nearby areas. In more immediate terms, however, the absence of a scientific consensus gave lawmakers a handy excuse not to act at all. State senator Larry Taylor gave the researchers precisely that message last August; shortly after that, the Rice team waved the white flag. As Philip B. Bedient, an engineering professor and the group’s lead researcher, told me, “I literally picked up the phone and called Dr. Merrell and said, ‘Enough is enough. Let’s get together and work out our differences and move this thing forward.’ And he was very responsive.”

Merrell confirmed that he and Bedient’s team at Rice were now on the same page. “We’ve been meeting regularly since last December,” he said. “We’ve come up with a concept of multiple lines of defense, a compromise that combines surge suppression measures in the bay with the coastal barrier—trying to build something on the coast that’s not so damn high and is less expensive.” A consensus for the modified Ike Dike has been growing. At present, 25 neighboring cities in addition to Galveston have endorsed it, along with 12 economic development organizations. Referring to his family’s efforts to raise funds for the seawall over a century ago, Shrub Kempner told me, “I personally consider the Ike Dike an extension of my grandfather’s work.”

Long gone, however, are the days when gargantuan flood-control schemes could be erected in our nation’s waterways as a purely civilian undertaking. The task of building some version of a coastal barrier today would fall to the Army Corps of Engineers. First, though, they would need to come up with a plan for exactly what to build. In 2013 Congress paved the way for this by appropriating $3 million for the agency to study coastal surge protection in six Texas counties. But, as Sharon Tirpak, the Galveston-based Corps project manager, told me, “Ultimately we had to cut out the Houston-Galveston area because it was too expensive. It may cost ten million dollars or more to study that area alone. So we recommended that for future study.”

When I suggested to Tirpak that it seemed somewhat ridiculous to be studying coastal surge protection while excluding both the city most frequently hit by storms and the city with the most to lose in such storms, she nodded her head. She told me that her office is also trying to conduct a larger study of the entire Texas coast but getting that started will be, unsurprisingly, no easy thing. To start, the Corps office in Galveston will need approval from the Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. Then a sign-off from the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works. Then approval from Congress. Let’s take a charitable view of government efficiency and assume that the entire approval period will take six months. At that point, said Tirpak, the actual study could take six years. Whatever plan they decide upon will then have to be funded by Congress and, finally, constructed. At an absolute minimum, it’s hard to imagine the entire process wouldn’t take at least a decade—meaning that some sort of Ike Dike wouldn’t be completed until seventeen years after Ike whirled through the Gulf.

The mere subject of the Corps makes Merrell even crankier than usual. He would like to see the entire process bypass the Corps’s studying regimen: just take the plan and build it. “Look, I’ve spent ten percent of my seventy-two-year life on this problem,” he told me. “Seven years I’ve been the point man on this. That’s a damn long time. I have a couple of novels in me. Life has an expiration date.”

A picture-perfect summer day on the beach.

Alas, the expiration date of political willpower is even more uncertain. Little of it currently exists among Texas Republican lawmakers for requesting a vast federal handout. “We need a champion for the Ike Dike,” Mayor Jim Yarbrough told me. “Those of us locally can do what we can do. But what we really need are the big boys.”

The local U.S. congressman, Randy Weber, needs no further convincing. “I see it as a national security issue,” he told me one evening at a Mexican restaurant near his home in the Gulf Coast suburb of Friendswood. “Texas refines thirty percent of the nation’s fuel on the Gulf. A classified amount of the military fuel is produced here—they won’t tell us how much, but it’s a huge amount. Same with our strategic petroleum reserve. Another Ike would shut down our ability to respond to a national security need.”

Weber’s willingness to champion an Ike Dike certainly distinguishes him from the previous officeholder, Ron Paul, who was a conspicuous non-presence in the aftermath of Ike and who then voted against the disaster-relief package that passed the House 370–58. Then again, as I gently reminded Weber, he was a mere two-term congressman who had been elected with heavy tea party support; it would strike a discordant note for such an officeholder to be carrying the torch for such an expensive federal project. Wouldn’t this task be better suited to Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz?

“We have a Texas delegation luncheon every Thursday,” Weber replied. “I have not had that conversation with them yet. I don’t have any illusions about what a second-term congressman can do on his own. We need to get the rest of the delegation engaged.”

As of this writing, neither senator has taken a position on the desirability of a federal coastal protection plan for the Houston-Galveston area. But the previous Galveston mayor, Lewis Rosen, told me that he brought up the matter with Cruz last year at a meeting with the region’s mayors in League City. “I broached it,” said Rosen, “and Cruz said, ‘Talk to my aide about it.’ He just wanted to talk about Obamacare.”

In their frantic search for a heavyweight Texas advocate, both the Corps and Merrell’s group have pinpointed a potential ally with actual jurisdictional authority: General Land Office commissioner George P. Bush. While on the island, I learned that Phil Hampsten, the Land Office’s Coastal Resiliency and Recovery project manager, had agreed to meet in Houston with Merrell, Bedient, and several others to discuss the Ike Dike. The meeting took place as scheduled on June 3—though no one from the General Land Office was able to attend in the end.

The aversion to investing heavily to protect against some barely foreseeable misfortune is, of course, human nature—and certainly fundamental to the nature of Texans, who regard risk as a daily sacrament. When I asked Fertitta, whose properties in the Gulf sustained $40 million in damages from Ike, how the hurricane had affected his investment strategy, he scoffed, “Hurricanes are just a part of life. You carry insurance, you pay huge premiums, you get flooded, you rebuild.” Fertitta saw little sense in an Ike Dike. “I don’t support things that are unrealistic,” he said. “How are you going to build it? When’s the next Ike going to come—two hundred years from now?”

I reported the sentiments of Galveston’s current biggest developer to Merrell. The scientist barely maintained his composure. “He’s talking about buildings!” Merrell exclaimed. “What about people who died? What about the people who were displaced?”

From the top floor of One Moody Plaza, erected by Galveston’s most powerful family, a single image caught my attention. It was not a view of the island twenty floors below. Rather, it was a small photograph hanging among many other historical visuals along the wall, depicting several men toiling to build the seawall. All of them were African American.

The image called to mind something I had heard from Kempner, who maintains that Galveston’s racial harmony had historical roots, going back to the Great Storm of 1900. “My grandfather once said, ‘Those who drowned together learned to live together.’ Anyone with the talent was welcome and accepted.” The photo on the wall, of black men being recruited not for their “talent” but instead for the recovery’s most backbreaking labor, suggested a somewhat harsher narrative. So did the fact—recited in Erik Larson’s best-selling book about the 1900 hurricane, Isaac’s Storm—that black Galvestonians were forced at gunpoint to load thousands of the city’s corpses onto boats to be dumped at sea.

Leon Phillips, the director of the Galveston Coalition for Justice.

In later years, the island’s treatment of its African American residents would be far less brutal. Instead, the legacy of inequality would take more insidious forms. “See, racism in Galveston was sporadic and subtle when I was a child,” Leon Phillips told me one afternoon as we sat in Maceo Spice & Import Company on the north side of the city, a few blocks from where Phillips—the president of the Galveston Coalition for Justice—was born, in 1948. “That was an era when you knew your place.” The effects of segregation were not immediately apparent to Phillips when, as a five-year-old boy, he accompanied his mother to a department store. Noticing a public drinking fountain but not the “Whites Only” sign above it, the child ran over to get a drink—only to be dragged away by his mother, who hissed, “Boy, you’re going to get us both killed.”

Said Phillips with a grin, “Took me a while to fully understand what that meant, because racism wasn’t really a part of it—except that racism really was a part of it!”

Phillips had moved away in 1967 for a decent-paying job as a textbook salesman in Chicago, where he regularly endured racial epithets. He returned home three decades later to find that his Galveston—the black Galveston, on the north side of town—had changed drastically. Gone was Armstrong Drug Store, where his mother had been a beautician on the top floor. Gone as well were other bastions of the Jim Crow–era African American community, such as Liza’s Soul Kitchen and Gus Allen’s Hotel. The entrepreneurs had died off; their black children had moved to the mainland; the children of the white landlords had forsaken the property tax payments, allowing the buildings to be condemned and later bulldozed. Now the land was vacant. The black business sector had vaporized. Was that racism, as some of the black locals maintained? Not the way Phillips saw it. To him, it was simply the way all neighborhoods change over the generations.

But, Phillips told me, he also saw something that white Galvestonians did not. “You talk to a thirty-seven-year-old Anglo—he doesn’t know the history,” Phillips said in his slow, reflective cadence. “You ask him if he’s ever heard of redlining. That’s where I, as an African American, wasn’t allowed to buy a piece of property on the south side of Broadway. He’ll say, ‘They did that?’ Well, in a subtle way. You go to the mortgage company—no, they can’t give you a loan. You talk to the realtor—no, it’s already being sold. Anything to keep you from moving there. See, my mother has a very light complexion. She did all the negotiating when we moved to the south side of Broadway, in 1957. We were living there for two or three weeks, and my dad and I were outside cutting the grass. Neighbor comes up to our porch, asks my mom, ‘When your yardman’s finished, could I have him cut my grass?’ My mother says, ‘That’s not my yardman, that’s my husband.’ Woman almost faints.”

Until Hurricane Ike peeled back the scab of festering racial resentments, it was easy to believe what enlightened white Galvestonians had often maintained—that the geographical constraints of island life imposed on its residents an attitude of mutual tolerance. Those who eschewed white flight would instead adopt a posture of defiant pride; as Mayor Yarbrough told me, “I’d put my kids’ education up with anyone’s. They went to school with the Moodys and with kids from the Cedar Terrace projects. They were schooled in the real world.” Occasionally an incident would arise to challenge Galveston’s pat narrative of color blindness, as in the late nineties, when as many as 200,000 black visitors began to descend on the island each year for the slow-moving and boozy Beach Party Weekend, prompting an ugly outcry from many white residents who had never regarded such rowdy behavior as thuggish when the participants happened to be white.

More often, however, racism in Galveston would take the duplicitous form of racial inequality rather than outright persecution. According to Melvin Williams, the chairman of Galveston’s park board, who moved from Kansas City to Galveston in 1997 to become the director of UTMB’s affirmative-action program, “I was surprised to find that this community had such a significant number of blacks, and yet there were so few blacks in any position of authority. When I came here, UTMB was proud to say that something like fifteen to twenty percent of its workforce was minority. But very few of the administrative roles were handled by blacks.”

Under Williams, the diversity in the hiring practices of Galveston’s biggest employer began to improve. And after Phillips helped form the Galveston Coalition for Justice, in 2004, in response to the questionable arrests of several black youths, the organization remained essentially dormant until 2008, when Ike’s toll included the obliteration of two of the city’s public housing projects.

The money from the federal government that flowed into Galveston came with a single but significant string attached: the 569 units that had been part of the now-demolished Cedar Terrace and Magnolia projects had to be rebuilt. “And that, unfortunately, was the fracture line,” Heber Taylor told me. “One of the facts of the tourism and medical industries is that you have to have folks who’ll launder the linens and mop the floors. And those people need to live somewhere, just like the rest of us. But all of a sudden, the people who were in many ways the bedrock of our community were just vilified.”

Heber Taylor, a retired newspaper editor, at the MOD Coffeehouse.
The devastation left behind after the 1900 hurricane. AP
Left: Heber Taylor, a retired newspaper editor, at the MOD Coffeehouse.
Top: The devastation left behind after the 1900 hurricane. AP

In public meetings and on social media, numerous white Galvestonians vehemently protested HUD’s edict. It smacked, they said, of government overreach, forcing a city to build blighted communities on the island’s precious real estate. Their language, said Taylor, was “overtly racist.” To fight HUD, they recruited a new candidate for mayor: seventy-year-old steel businessman and rancher Lewis Rosen, who would later tell me, “It wasn’t so much racial to me. I don’t think black, white, or purple. I grew up in the forties, and I knew what it was like for a kid to be told he couldn’t play with me because I was Jewish—and it’s not a good feeling. I wouldn’t put that on anybody. This was about doing what was best for everybody.”

Rosen ran for mayor in the spring of 2012 on essentially one issue: if elected, he would refuse to rebuild the housing projects and instead issue rental vouchers for the residents who had been displaced. Rosen’s opponent was Joe Jaworski, the incumbent mayor and a well-known lawyer who also happens to be my cousin. Jaworski argued that Rosen’s voucher plan was a thinly veiled attempt to move poor blacks off the island, since no other housing alternatives existed for them in Galveston after Ike. In June 2012 Rosen defeated Jaworski by nearly fifteen points. One month later, the new mayor was summoned to Washington by HUD secretary Shaun Donovan, who informed Rosen that the city would be in danger of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure aid if it did not build the 569 public housing units.

“At one meeting, some of us cornered Lewis Rosen’s wife, who’s a fantastic lady,” Phillips told me. “And out of my mouth comes, ‘How in the world did you stay married to your husband this long if he’s got this attitude?’ She said, ‘Leon, that’s not him.’ And as I learned, in his two-year tenure as mayor, that wasn’t him. He was swayed by naysayers. The more conversations we had with him, the more he began to understand that if you don’t know somebody, you have no feelings about what happens to them. His association with African Americans had been very minimal. And now all of a sudden, you’re in the mire. You’re with us. You have to listen to us. And we sounded like human beings to him, with the same red blood flowing through our veins.”

Then Phillips burst out laughing as he added, “But that didn’t change his way of thinking. What changed his way of thinking was the federal money!”

Rosen capitulated to the feds. The two projects are currently being rebuilt on the same land as mixed-income dwellings. An additional three hundred or so public housing units will be scattered throughout the city, at locations that have yet to be determined. But, Phillips told me, the episode has left lingering resentments. “Of course we were offended,” he said. “Wouldn’t you be?” For their part, Kempner, Taylor, Yarbrough, and other white civic leaders acknowledged to me that the invective hurled at their black neighbors constituted a major embarrassment for the city. “I never thought I’d hear that in our community,” said Yarbrough, who replaced Rosen as mayor last year. “It wasn’t the Galveston that I thought we were.”

The Galveston that Yarbrough wants to accentuate is very much one that includes African Americans. Propped up beside his desk on the morning I visited his office was a large map of the north side, with a number of beautification projects slated for groundbreaking—all in keeping with the 59-year-old mayor’s practical belief that “if we do things for the residents here, bring pride back to the city, take care of our own business and quit trying to be something we’re not, then more tourism and all the other things will follow.” Widely praised as a community healer after the bitter public housing rift, the former Galveston County judge nonetheless assured me that after two decades of nearly uninterrupted office-holding, he is eager to pass the torch. Yarbrough has taken it upon himself to encourage the next generation of Galveston residents to become involved in city affairs—going so far as offering to finance their campaigns if they run for office. Thus far, Yarbrough has found few takers.

“You want to find a Sisyphean task?” he muttered. “Go find a young black person to run for city council. I’ve driven the streets. I’ve talked to everybody. You can’t do it.”

Phillips sympathizes with the new mayor’s frustration. “When it comes to Galveston, I’ve tried to get African Americans to understand that you can’t make changes standing and hollering on the corner—you have to get inside the building,” he told me. The problem after Ike was that there weren’t even that many black residents hollering on the corner anymore. As many as six thousand of them had left the island after the hurricane destroyed their homes. Seven years later, the houses were still not rebuilt. In that time span, the evacuees had become mainlanders. Meanwhile, the classroom desks and jobs they had left vacant in Galveston were now occupied by the city’s burgeoning new population: Hispanics.

“African Americans are moving off of this island as fast as they can,” said Phillips, with neither rancor nor sadness—simply as a statement of the obvious, like a meteorologist standing beside the radar screen and pointing to the latest tantrum of nature gathering fury in the Gulf.

I woke up at dawn on my last morning in Galveston. From the hotel I crossed Seawall Boulevard and scaled the wall down to the beach. The air was tranquil and only slightly moist; rays of ginger and watermelon light fanned out across the sky. The sand was immaculate, thanks to city workers who had already collected and bagged the previous evening’s debris. A couple held hands and strolled as the waves scudded about their feet. Ten yards out into the water, a man paddled drowsily on an inflatable raft. Otherwise, the seagulls and I had the beach to ourselves, and the steady hum of traffic on the seawall was the only reminder that I was not, in fact, on some privileged refuge, very far away from Texas.

This, I thought to myself, was Galveston’s enduring image. But who would be here to see it after the next hurricane? The city at my back was not, after all, a starfish that could naturally regenerate its vital parts. It was man-made, greatness and folly splayed across a barrier island, one of those audacious human experiments still prone to nature’s harsh judgment.

I paid my hotel bill, got in my car, drove across Broadway, and bought one last café au lait from MOD Coffeehouse. I took it with me to the harbor on the northern edge of the island. I stood there for awhile, gawking at the big cruise ship filled with fellow gawkers. Then, satisfied that I had seen enough—that Galveston was intact, more or less—I took leave of the island and its ghosts. Four weeks later, a tropical storm named Bill fell hard upon the Gulf Coast. Residents on the island hunkered down, as Galvestonians do, waiting for the rain to stop before venturing out to assess the latest damage.


Magazine Latest