By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"We won't have as much competition as we used to have, but I don't know if that will matter," he says. "There just aren't many people down here."
The second floor of Vratis' house was spared, but everything that was not on stilts was washed way. Today, he has parked an RV near his home and is in the process of rebuilding his home, office and business.
Vratis joked that the survival of his beach house owed to its "clean living," and he compares it to a phoenix. He evacuated to the mainland before the storm and wasn't able to return for two weeks after, and even then, he did so by boat.
"We put in at Smith Point [in Chambers County]," he says. "When we got here, there was a thick layer of silt all over everything. It was messy. I was praying I wasn't gonna fall down in that the whole time."
Vratis was then, and still is, a bit disoriented. "Houses aren't where they were supposed to be. A lot of landmarks are gone."
And yet he still planned to spend Christmas here, among the ruins. "I don't know what exactly we are gonna do, because not many others are down here. I'm gonna be here, my girlfriend and her two kids are gonna be here. We're gonna do something, but what can you do? I already have the Christmas tree, so that's something, I guess."
And he believes Bolivar will be back. The peninsula was every bit as devastated by Hurricane Carla in 1961, and Vratis himself watched Crystal Beach come back from Alicia in 1983. "That was the biggest boom in history around here," he remembers. "We've got too much to draw from not to come back—Beaumont, East Texas, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth. We can't help but be a hot spot again, but I don't think it will be this coming year."
A 20-year veteran of the often-embattled Galveston Police Department, Captain Henry Porretto says the special disaster training he has undergone over the years served him and his department well, but he was still astonished by the wrath of Ike.
"I'm 50 and I never envisioned the destruction that I witnessed," he says. "One of the big challenges we faced was the fleet. Some of the cars got flooded while we were seeking refuge. And flats. The chief had about 13 flats on his car, and I had 11 from the debris in the road."
In unspoken contrast to the much-excoriated New Orleans Police Department, Porretto praises the steadfastness of the men and women under his command. "Nobody from the Galveston Police Department left their post," he says. "We were the last ones into refuge and the first ones out."
Porretto says the scrambled city presents his department with unique challenges. "We have to try and figure out who belongs in neighborhoods and who doesn't," he says. "There's been a lot of theft. We had to have that curfew in effect so we could challenge people that were in areas where they didn't belong."
He is especially proud of one example. In disasters, he says, it is standard procedure for the Galveston police to place the entire department into the patrol unit, the better to get more officers on the streets. That move allowed two unexpected cops to shine—Porretto says two identification officers (desk-bound police who normally take fingerprints) apprehended two burglars with a car full of artifacts they had just looted from a church.
But as with so much of Galveston, Ike's hangover is afflicting the police department too. "I've been here over 20 years, and we've never laid anybody off," he says, in a voice choking with emotion. "Today, we swore four people in and then 15 minutes later told them they were probably gonna be RIF'd right after the first of the year. You ask what kinda Christmas I'm gonna have...I'm a pretty hardcore guy. I'm sensitive when I need to be, but I get the job done and I'm matter-of-fact. To see those people react when they heard the news, I'll tell you what, I still don't feel real good today. It's disheartening. To see the star go out, I was able to see that. Our future here is gonna be tough."
Eddie Jones is waiting in line outside a FEMA RV stationed in the parking lot of the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Galveston's North Side. He does a lot of waiting these days.
Jones has one of the hardest of hard-luck tales in a town full of them. Jones moved back to his hometown, paid the back taxes on his late father's house and moved in. Three weeks later, Ike destroyed the house. "FEMA is undervaluing my house—they offered me $45 a square foot, which is a joke," he says.
Today, he's looking for odd jobs. "I'm in the red, and there is no work," he says. "All the jobs have gone to out-of-town contractors—people from Florida, Carolina, Mexico, no prejudice. It's over for Galveston residents. Eighty percent of the scrappers are from out of town. I almost went to jail when I was scrapping, and I had tried to get a permit."
Needless to say, Jones is hardly full of Christmas cheer.
"We don't got a Christmas," he says. "There's no Christmas in Galveston."