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.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax