Blown Over: Galveston and Texas Gulf Coast Struggle After Hurricane Ike
Sean Penn did not patrol Galveston's streets in an airboat. Kanye West didn't offer unscripted barbs about George Bush's opinion of black people on live television. Since Galveston has no native-born analogues to people like Dr. John or Harry Connick Jr., there were no televised musical specials.
Glen Campbell's "Galveston" was no match for Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" in providing backdrop music to poignant, slow-motion CNN hurricane montages. There's no slow-burningly irate Spike Lee Requiem in Four Acts forthcoming.
Granted, there weren't the thousands of shirt-waving souls stranded on Galveston's rooftops as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but nevertheless, Hurricane Ike signaled the end of a storied American city as we knew it.
While Katrina's destruction of New Orleans monopolized the eyes of the country and the world for weeks in 2005, Galveston had the misfortune to have Ike fall in the TV-watching dead zone of late night on Friday, September 12, three years later, and then to be eclipsed in the news cycle by even larger national and international events almost immediately.
By contrast, Katrina struck New Orleans at 8 a.m. on a Monday in a non-election year, almost as if it were a gift-wrapped page-one story for news-starved organizations the world over.
The neglect even has a bottom line: Wilma, Rita and Katrina together inspired people to give to all hurricane-related charities to the tune of almost $6.5 billion. The four biggest charities have only been able to come up with $19 million for Ike victims. If you are doing the math at home, that comes up to less than one-third of 1 percent. It's a practically infinitesimal amount, even if you divide the $6.5 billion by three to account for the three storms. One example speaks volumes. The Bush-Clinton fund, run by the former presidents of those names, raised $135 million after Katrina. The same fund only managed to scrape together $2.5 million for Ike victims, despite the fact the storm hit the hometown of one of the principals.
"Galveston had the bad luck to get hit right before the financial meltdown. Everybody was also wound up in the presidential election," says local author Dr. Roger Wood, a weekend Galvestonian. "People were talking about Sarah Palin, and it was like, 'Oh yeah, I heard Galveston got wet.'"
Molly Dannenmaier was one of many Galveston residents sitting out the storm elsewhere. She and her 78-year-old handicapped mother, Gloria Jordan, took up temporary quarters in Austin, watching the storm play out on CNN.
"We watched all day Friday, and the images of the flooding started coming through that afternoon," she says. "Downtown was already underwater. It just got to be too much to really think about. I went to sleep at about 10 o'clock that night, and I slept until 10 o'clock the next day, and I didn't even want to watch television that whole day."
She returned two weeks later to find that the first-floor handicapped suite that she'd had built for her wheelchair-bound mother only six months before had been destroyed. "We had just moved her down there, and she had only brought her most prized possessions, and a lot of those were ruined."
Dannenmaier, who works as the director of marketing and public relations for the Galveston Historical Foundation, had believed her house would be safe.
The 111-year-old-home on Ball Street in Galveston's East End Historic District was one of the few homes that made it through the Great Hurricane of 1900. She'd moved into it the year before and, as an avid gardener, had poured endless spare time into developing a paradise of hibiscus, plumeria, banana and oleander. Now all the vegetation was brown or missing.
The house itself, she says, is structurally fine. "We have to tear out all the wall-boards, redo the floors; our back porch was lifted up off the ground; all of our furniture, all of our garden tools, everything was ruined."
But it was the personal stuff that stung. "Like the piano that my mother had got 50 years ago right after she got married...It's not an expensive piano, but she had always kept it with her, and she brought it all the way from Tennessee. We'd enjoyed playing it together since she brought it down, and it was ruined."
Galveston is a miniature New Orleans. Both are Gulf Coast port cities that host Mardi Gras celebrations and have lovely and quaint residential districts. Each city's lush, semitropical boulevards are dotted by raised Victorian houses, neighborhood bars and mom-and-pop groceries. Geography of Nowhere-style corporate America has yet to conquer these cities.
But in both New Orleans and Galveston, the past long ago eclipsed the future; in each, there always hung a sense of possible destruction in the air, even before the storms of the last three years came to shore.
"You always want to be safe, and that's why we evacuated," Dannenmaier says. "But people have evacuated a bunch of times. Everybody was worried about wind. But everybody thought the Seawall would save us from any kind of flooding."
Downtown Galveston is still at about 60 percent capacity. The Galveston Police Department is facing budget crunch-induced layoffs. Homes all over the island are still unlivable or semi-livable. Four of the six housing developments controlled by the Galveston Housing Authority are closed with no firm timetable for their reopening. The same goes for a number of the city's schools.
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.
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."
"No, we were stupid, we were crazy, we'd lost our ever-lovin' thinkin'," Creasy interjects. "The news told us we faced 'certain death.'" (Harris and Creasy say the famous weather bulletin words in unison.) But we stayed open until the roads were filled with debris, and as soon as the health department said it was OK, I opened right back up."
Bad as the storm was, Creasy and Harris believe the aftermath has been worse. "There was no water, no lights; if it wasn't for the Salvation Army and the National Guard, we wouldn't have ate. There was no food; there were no stores to buy any food. Thank God for the Salvation Army and the National Guard."
Harris and Creasy pointedly did not praise the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They wouldn't speak on the record about FEMA, but more than one source said that the agency's acronym should stand for Failed Everyone Miserably Again.
Galveston is no longer in crisis. What prevails now is more of what author James Howard Kunstler calls "a long, slow emergency."
"There's still a lot of debris, a lot of closures," Creasy says. "Myself, I need nothing. But the island, the people that live here, the people that are homeless, the people who have nobody to put them in their arms and say, 'It's gonna be all right. You need a hug.' We all needed hugs to get through this."
Both Harris and Creasy have some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The two of them sat down together and attempted to read a coffee-table book about Ike. "We were both so...emotional," Creasy says.
"We were just physically shaking and crying," Harris says. "We both had the same reaction. It was one thing to live through it and see it, but to actually reminisce and see what we saw on paper—it was like, 'Oh my God. We lived through this.'" Meanwhile, Harris' nights lately have been dogged by a recurring nightmare in which a wall of water chases her to the edge of a cliff, at which time she wakes up, hyperventilating.
Dee Dee Gregoire
At least UTMB's management spared social worker Dee Dee Gregoire an unnecessary trip to Galveston. They did her the courtesy of telling her she was "RIF'd"—laid off—over the phone.
"Some time in October or November, we were told that if we got a better offer from another organization, we should do what was best for our families and take it," she says. "I never looked for another job. I thought I would be back. Galveston needs UTMB's inpatient psychiatry unit. Already, I've heard a lot of our patients have ended up in jail. They get off their meds, and they don't know what they are doing. Anyway, I didn't think I needed to look for a job. I was in denial."
Today, she believes that her pre-Ike optimism about life in general has been ransacked. "Before the hurricane, I was happy," she says. "I had a job that I loved, my friends, my animals. It's all changing. I can't even picture what my life will be like once I go back to work, wherever that will be. Now I don't have my job to look forward to. I don't have anything to look forward to."
Gregoire's pre-Ike job was as a social worker/psychologist in UTMB's Department of Care Management. Gregoire worked Friday to Monday, 10 hours a day, evaluating the health of new mental patients, until they were either discharged or committed to the state mental hospital in Austin.
Gregoire rode out the storm in levee-protected Texas City, where she lives in a comfortable ranch-style home a stone's throw from the bay front with a few constantly chirping parakeets, two tiny dogs and a gargantuan cat that outweighs both of her dogs put together. The past president of the National Association of Social Workers' Texas Gulf Coast branch saw her career at UTMB come to an early end courtesy of Ike. The day after the storm, she was told there would be no work until further notice, which never really came.
Meanwhile, ominous rumors were circulating among UTMB employees about the nature of some face-to-face meetings with human resources. When Gregoire got one of the notices, she knew the jig was up. "I just told them, 'If I'm being RIF'd, I don't need to come all the way to Galveston to hear it. Just tell me over the phone.' Eventually, they read me my letter word for word."
Gregoire is still receiving benefits and full pay until January 19. After that, her future is uncertain, though she has had a few nibbles from the Department of Veterans Affairs in Houston. Should she take one of those jobs, she would have to rise at four or five in the morning to get to work at eight.
Or she could move north to Houston. It's not a move she would relish. "Galveston is one of my favorite places. I love to go back, but at the same time I hate to go back."
Now, her beloved city looks scrambled to her. "I used to know where all the social services agencies were. I can't find them anymore. It's very eerie. There are a lot of people just wandering around aimlessly; there's still debris everywhere. I was looking at a coffee-table book about the storm the other day, and I just had to put it down.
"I don't know if Galveston is going to come back. I don't know if it can come back."
Forgive Gregoire for not being much in the Christmas spirit. "Well, my Christmas tree is up. But I'm not interested. I'm not interested in any of it. I'm very sad. Once your kids grow up, Christmas changes, but now most of my friends are having to move away. Another of them moved away the other day, and I couldn't even look her in the eye to hug her."
James Coffman has been driving horse-drawn carriages through the High Victorian streets of the Strand District for 20 years. His stable, located a couple of blocks from Galveston's wharves, took 7 feet of surging bay water during the storm, not to mention the life of Stormy, Coffman's favorite horse.
"I had had him the longest, and he was my best driving horse," says the stoic Coffman, who speaks with a deep drawl and stiff military precision.
Coffman says business had been fairly good before Ike, but today has dwindled to "nothin'." He has laid off his two employees and says that the Dickens on the Strand parade in early December was the first time he has harnessed either of his two surviving horses.
Coffman says he did not realize the magnitude of Ike's danger until very late. "It was just normal until two or three days before Ike. I didn't evacuate until Friday morning. It was a matter of getting some important papers and my clothes and getting out.
"I didn't have time to get the horses out. I barely had time to get myself out. Nobody had any idea how much water there was gonna be. It was much worse than anybody figured."
A few days after the storm, Houston Press photographer Dan Kramer and calendar editor Olivia Flores Alvarez found Coffman's surviving horses—Jericho and Doc—wandering the streets. Stormy's body was pressed up against a chain-link fence, in an advanced state of decomposition. Someone had poured two bags of quicklime on the body. The bags were still there three months after the storm.
Sue Johnson's home and car came through the storm fine. So did all the members of her extended family. Since she is retired, she didn't have to worry about job security. The things she lost were intangible, but no less real.
"My dearest friend in the whole world died just days before the storm," says the native islander. "Her funeral was planned for the day of the storm, and of course that was put off. When the family finally decided to have the funeral, they had it in another city and I was unable to go. That day was hard."
So is pondering the future. After 28 years working as, among other things, a respiratory therapist at UTMB, Johnson retired in 2006 to work full-time at her passion—the community work she had begun as a hobby many years before. Today, from her house, she runs the Nia Culture Center, home to a gamut of programs ranging from family and youth education courses to planning sessions for Kwanzaa and Juneteenth celebrations. She fears that many of those programs are in peril now.
The historically black neighborhood—the area north of Broadway—was, like the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the lowest-lying part of town and thus suffered the brunt of the damage from the surge. Today, four of the six public housing developments in Galveston are closed by order of the Galveston Housing Authority, and most of the rental properties and private homes north of Broadway are unlivable.
"Many of the youths I work with are from a part of town that has been decimated," she says. "Everything's scattered. This is just a new city, and a large percentage of the islanders will have no say in the visioning process for the new Galveston. At this point, there's an effort to change that, but right now, a lot of us aren't included."
One of Johnson's favorite programs was at Central Middle School, which began life shortly after the Civil War (in another building) as Central High School, the first black high school in Texas. Ike severely damaged Central, and it has yet to reopen; officials from the Galveston Independent School District don't know or won't say whether it ever will. Johnson doesn't know if the programs she has been running in Central could survive the jump to Weis, Galveston's only remaining non-magnet middle school.
Johnson is heartbroken about that, and she's angry about one possible way forward for Galveston put forth by the powers-that-be among the merchants on the Strand and others: legalized gambling.
"For a city that's already decimated by drug abuse, the last thing we need is another addiction taking hold. You might just as well start the 12-step programs now. Even without legal gambling, people are already doing it. You can go in these convenience stores and see those slot machines, and I don't think they are playing those to win those little teddy bears, you know what I'm sayin'?
"It's already a problem. I know a family that had to rescue a mom who used to be a pillar of the church—now she's over in a casino in Louisiana calling them in the middle of the night asking them to send her money."
But Johnson's anger and heartbreak are not directed solely at those she sees as doing harm to her community. "We were not organized before the storm," she says. "We were just too damned dependent. I don't know. One of the principles of Kwanzaa is kujichagulia, which means self-determination. I worry that for us, it's too late for that."
When he was hired as the director of facilities and maintenance with the Galveston Independent School District, there was nothing in Fred Niccum's job description about running and maintaining a shelter of last resort for 400 hurricane victims of all ages and their pets. Nevertheless, that's just what GISD's director of facilities and maintenance had to do.
Long after most of his staff had already left the island, emergency managers decreed that Ball High School would have to serve as the city's primary shelter—Galveston's answer to the Superdome. Niccum and his wife and a number of bus drivers and custodians staffed the facility.
"With the good help of a number of very focused people, we were able to get that shelter up and running and keep it going through the 14th," Niccum says, pride glinting in his eye.
Immediately after that, Niccum was charged with assessing all the schools in GISD. By the 16th, he had undertaken an in-depth review of all 12 of Galveston's schools. While making his assessment, Niccum saw as much of the damage firsthand as many of the first responders. "It was very eerie for the first 48 hours," he says. "There was no electricity and very few cars were moving, while many more people were walking the streets. All the while I was trying to assess these schools and find out what I could do to get these schools back on track."
Post-Ike Galveston is that rare place where most kids love going to school. "You can see it in their faces and hear it in their little voices—the excitement they have when they talk about what they did and who they stayed with the night of the hurricane," Niccum says. "Their stories are pretty touching, because these kids suffered immensely."
And then there was one highly abnormal, albeit beneficial, weather event. "That snow [December 10] was one of the best things to happen," Niccum says. "It took kids' minds off the hurt for a few hours. I'm happy that these kids got to enjoy something different than living in a home that is in disrepair, or a hotel, or staying in a relative's home, if only for a few hours."
Lawyer and restaurateur Jim Vratis firmly believes that Crystal Beach will be back to its former glory. Seeing the place now, you'd be forgiven for thinking he's lost his ever-lovin' thinkin'. Within seconds of driving off the Bolivar Ferry's gangway, you are bombarded with images of destruction of a near-biblical scale.
Feral cats raid garbage cans in packs and squabble amongst themselves. What had been an empty pasture right near the ferry landing is now a junkyard where tall heaps of ruined cars, central air-conditioning units, water heaters and refrigerators await barges.
Honky-tonking little Crystal Beach, once one of the prime blue-collar party spots on the Upper Texas Coast, is now a ghost town. De Coux's restaurant is a mere slab. Coba's Restaurant is utterly destroyed. Mama Teresa's pizzeria collapsed in on itself as if it were professionally imploded. The castle-like Gulf Coast Supermarket, also known locally as the Big Store, still stands, but has been gutted and is still closed, as is virtually all commerce on the peninsula.
And then there are the beach houses. According to Vratis, only 1,500 of what had been 5,000 remain. Along many stretches of the beach, the first few rows are simply gone. Elsewhere, there are signs that the God of Hurricanes has a sick sense of humor. All that remains of one beach house is the raised floor and the front door, while at another, two porch swings dangle over thin air. A third has been deposited—as intact as if it were transported there by the tornado in Dorothy's dream in The Wizard of Oz—straddling Highway 87.
More cars, more appliances and golf carts still litter the salt-poisoned grass. Where a few months ago you would have heard the hum of A/C units, plenty of country music and other sounds of good cheer coming from these getaways, today it's so hushed you can hear even a limp surf lapping at the beach at a distance of 200 yards. And the farther east you go on the peninsula, the worse the devastation. It's hard to imagine that towns in and around Rollover Pass, such as Caplen and Gilchrist, will ever return to even a semblance of what they were last summer.
Twenty years ago, Vratis moved to Crystal Beach from Beaumont and established his law practice in a corrugated tin-sided building in the shadow of Crystal Beach's water tower. The courtly 50-something with a cultured, Louisiana-tinged Beaumont accent later opened the Stingaree Restaurant, which was destroyed, but is now weeks away from reopening. (Beginning in spring 2007, the Stingaree was the site of former Crystal Beach resident Hayes Carll's annual country music festival.)
"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."
Captain Henry Porretto
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."
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