Blown Over: Galveston and Texas Gulf Coast Struggle After Hurricane Ike

Forgotten and overlooked, Galveston residents try to put the pieces back together

The University of Texas Medical Branch, the city's prime economic engine aside from tourism, slashed 3,000 of the city's best jobs through cutbacks, devastating the buying power of the residents while simultaneously busting the city's health care quality from major league-level to rookie ball.

(Indeed, a former UTMB employee interviewed for this story fretted about the effect the lack of a level-one trauma center might have during the recent Lone Star Biker Rally, and sure enough, at least six bikers had to be airlifted to the mainland, with one dying of head injuries days later. Perhaps prompter top-shelf trauma care could have saved that person, or at least could have eliminated the need for all those expensive chopper sorties.)

On Bolivar, matters are worse. The four hamlets of Port Bolivar, Caplen, Gilchrist and Crystal Beach are less actual places than mere names on maps.

Carriage driver James Coffman said there was no time to evacuate his horses from Galveston. One of the three died in the flooding.
Daniel Kramer
Carriage driver James Coffman said there was no time to evacuate his horses from Galveston. One of the three died in the flooding.
Galveston resident Sue Johnson worries that the island will turn to legalized gambling to help undo Ike's damage.
Daniel Kramer
Galveston resident Sue Johnson worries that the island will turn to legalized gambling to help undo Ike's damage.

At least 19 residents of the Galveston area were killed in the storm. Today, nine are still missing from the Bolivar Peninsula alone. Bodies are still turning up in debris piles on deserted islands in the Galveston-Trinity Bay system or in rural stretches of mainland Chambers County—wherever the turbid waters took them.

In Galveston, the progress looks superficially impressive. Scaled-back and/or rescheduled editions of major tourist draws like Dickens on the Strand and the Lone Star Biker Rally went over fairly well. Things seem to be getting back to normal, and in Houston, also affected by the storm, the second power came back on, the lines dwindled at the corner gas station and the streetlights returned to working order, most residents "moved on." Hasn't Galveston as well?

In a word, no.

"Galveston isn't getting attention, even less than 50 miles away [from Houston]," says Fred Niccum, director of facilities and maintenance at the Galveston Independent School District. "This is just another blip on the page. There's no discussion of it. People are struggling down here, and there's very little help coming from the state or national government."

But the people of the area are resilient. There's the "skipper" of the Poop Deck Bar, who, like every good seadog, was ready to go down with her ship, even if that meant riding out Ike on the Seawall. There's Niccum, who found himself running Galveston's answer to the Superdome post-Katrina. There's a carriage driver who lost his best horse, and a cop as proud of his force's withstanding of the storm as he is worried about its financial future.

Even in blitzed Bolivar, Highway 87 is dotted with signs from builders, and local resident Jim Vratis reports hearing plenty of "gruntin' and cussin'" from rebuilding neighbors. Vratis himself hopes to have his landmark Stingaree Restaurant open again early this year.

Here are some of their stories, from interviews conducted before Christmas.

Marie Creasy and Jacqueline Harris

For decades, a nautical-themed bar called the Poop Deck has overlooked the gulf where 29th Street meets the Seawall. It's a Galveston tradition that regulars and employees of the Poop Deck don't run from hurricanes, and Ike was no exception.

Dire warnings of "certain death" or not, bar manager Marie Creasy kept the Poop Deck open until about eight the night of Ike's landfall and then locked the doors and rode out the storm inside. Waitress Jacqueline Harris evacuated—albeit only to her house, a mere block away.

"It was scary," says Creasy, between sips on a milky white cocktail. "Crazy. I lost my ever-lovin' thinkin', I believe."

That belief was driven home long before Ike came ashore. "The storm was here before the storm was here, if you know what I mean. We stayed open until eight, but it was almost like you couldn't go anywhere by then because there was already so much debris in the street. We closed the door and decided to stay then, but we couldn't have went anywhere anyway."

Debris was not all that was clogging the street. By nightfall, a wall of Galveston Bay water some 7 to 10 feet tall was making a run for the Seawall, pushing everything before it. Creasy remembers seeing pieces of wood and booze bottles floating on top of it, and something else running away.

"The rats! We watched them running around on the Seawall and were hoping the cops would run them over, but we never saw one get killed," Creasy remembers. "But at least those rats were smart enough to seek shelter, and we were sitting here. What's wrong with us?"

By the wee hours, sheer terror prevailed inside the Poop Deck. "It was like a freight train runnin' down one side and then turnin' around and comin' down the other," says Creasy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. "At any minute you didn't know if the roof or one of the walls was gonna go. At one point I got up to go to the bathroom and practically flew back in here. The whole building shook."

Saturday morning's gray sun dawned over a city in ruins. According to Harris, those who stayed behind in the city they loved immediately set in to work. "The people that stayed were here for a reason," she says. "It wasn't, 'Oh, I'm brave and I'm tough and I'm stickin' it out.' They were die-hard islanders that love this island."

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