Galveston “a better place” 10 years after Ike.
City uses disaster recovery money to fund more than 500 infrastructure projects
In the seating area of O’Malley’s Stage Door Pub, an unassuming bar on Galveston’s Strand Historical District, there is a section of the back wall covered in plexiglass. It protects a slab of weathered, torn white wallpaper covered with faded, colored illustrations of pinup girls, with names and phone numbers penned next to them — evidence of the pub’s former life as part of a brothel and a nod to Galveston’s halcyon days as “playground of the southwest.”
Jen Schweizer, a bartender at O’Malley’s, said the pinup wall is now one of the pub’s main attractions. If it weren’t for Hurricane Ike inundating the Strand 10 years ago on Sept. 13, 2008, leaving refrigerators floating inside and putting the pub out of commission for several months, it never would have been discovered.
“When we ripped out the walls because of the mold and stuff, we found this,” Schweizer said. “It actually had been covered up by previous bar owners.” O’Malley’s reopened in December 2008 and has been a fixture on the Strand since. The only evidence of the massive flooding Ike left behind is the pinup wall and a plaque near the entrance noting the high water mark.
Galveston has a long and storied history dealing with epic storms, and the destruction Hurricane Ike wrought was no differ-
ent — a Category 2 storm that battered the island and the Texas Gulf Coast with 100 mph winds and 17-foot storm surges, killing 43 people across the state and causing nearly $30 billion worth of damage, the third-costliest storm in U.S. history.
A decade later, post-Ike Galveston looks a bit different. Island landmarks like the Flagship Hotel and Balinese Room, which sat perched on piers overlooking the Gulf of Mexico off of Seawall Boulevard, have been demolished, casualties of the storm surge that leveled parts of the island.
University of Texas Medical Branch, the island’s main hospital and a huge employer, underwent $1 billion worth of upgrades to make it more resilient to major storms, but also ceased providing indigent care.
Galveston’s beaches were restored with 500,000 cubic meters of sand, and tourism rebounded after a sluggish few years in Ike’s wake. In 2007, Galveston raked in $7.5 million dollars in hotel tax revenue from June through August. By 2012, the island exceeded that total with $8.3 million in hotel receipts.
Eighty percent of the city's homes and much of its critical infrastructure were damaged by Ike’s high winds and devastating flooding, forcing building code changes that led many residents on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston’s West End to raise their homes on stilts. Today the city’s population has about 50,550 residents, per 2016 U.S. Census estimates, still shy of the 57,000 from before the storm.
The storm’s effects bled into other parts of the region as well, including Houston, where 10 to 12-foot surges flooded several communities in Harris County and the violent winds ripped roofs from homes and shattered windows in downtown skyscrapers.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett recently lauded a number of safety improvements the county has made since Ike: A partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation and city of Houston to prevent underpass drownings; the Transtar building, another joint effort between the city, county and TxDot; and a new emergency operations center.
Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough also sees a silver lining to Ike’s destruction. Yarbrough was Galveston County judge at the time of the storm and noted that many key infrastructure projects that the island and county could never afford — a brand new wastewater treatment plant, drainage projects, pump stations, new fire hydrants — were made possible by the influx of federal disaster recovery money that flowed to the region.
In total, Galveston has completed more than 500 Ike-related projects through FEMA grants and Community Development Block Grants Disaster Recovery funding. Eight Ike-related projects remain on the docket — including trolley track replacement and wastewater treatment plants at Pelican Island and Scholes Airport — with a completion deadline of December 2019 set by the Texas General Land Office to spend the remaining federal money.
“We’re a better place 10 years later,” Yarbrough said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly incrementally better than it was 10 years ago.”
And yet a vast swath of vacant land dotted with palm trees on the north side of Galveston, where the Oleander Homes, a public housing complex, used to sit, serves to remind that the legacy of Ike did not reach its most vulnerable populations.
The 10 to 15-foot waves that laid waste to single-family and vacation homes also damaged the island’s four public housing developments — located in low-income neighborhoods with high percentages of people of color. Four months after the storm, the Galveston Housing Authority decided to demolish all four developments — 569 housing units — due to extensive damage to the buildings.
Under a state and federal government mandate, the city is required to rebuild every unit, but fewer than half of the units have been reconstructed — delayed by a toxic combination of bureaucratic red tape, racially-tinged public outcry, political inaction and the housing authority's lack of financial capital to manage and maintain the new housing.
“It’s just tragic that a decade after the disaster when the money has been available for all of that time that most of the public housing has not yet been rebuilt,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service, a statewide housing advocacy group.
Yarbrough, who was elected mayor of Galveston in 2014, does not dispute that Galveston’s recovery has proceeded on two different tiers — one benefiting more affluent homeowners as opposed to poorer renters — adding that doesn’t make the recovery unique from other recent storms that devastate urban areas.
“It’s unfortunate. I wasn’t at the city at the time, hopefully we learn from those experiences, and the next time it won’t be perfect,” Yarbrough said. “And it will still be the same phenomenon: those who have money and private sector resources are gonna recover quicker than those who are dependent on public resources.”
Still, Yarbrough points to the dozens of projects funded by the Ike recovery that will help ensure the island bounces back from future storms much faster than it did during Ike, from concrete roads with better drainage that won’t wilt under water like asphalt will to larger-scale projects like a new water line in the design process that will allow Galveston to have potable water in the event its water distribution pipes are damaged like they were ten years ago.
“Before Ike, we basically had one water pipe and distribution center coming from Texas City to Galveston for all of our potable water,” Yarbrough said. “We’ve done some repairs to an old 1800s line that goes underneath the Bay and sleeved it, so it’s still not a really good system. But it’s certainly more reliable than it was in 2008.”
But whether these improvements signal that the island can withstand a future storm of Ike’s magnitude, both from an infrastructure and public safety standpoint, remains an open question.
“There’s no 100 percent, no matter what,” said Ross Blackketter, Galveston’s director of capital projects. “(Building) codes and standards only get stricter, they never slack off – they’re being built above flood elevation and I’m pretty confident we’re definitely improving our ability to weather another storm.”
Dustin Henry, the city’s coastal resource manager, notes that the coastal spine “Ike Dike” concept — a proposed system of levees designed to protect the island is currently under final review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, would go a long way in ensuring the island can be sustainable for future generations. But any of the proposed alignments come with a massive price tag, estimated anywhere from $14 to $19 billion, which could be prohibitive even with assistance from the state and federal government.
“It’s still really preliminary, and we’re doing our best to kind of poke and prod and make sure we’re involved in those dialogues when we can,” Henry said.
Yarbrough, ever the optimist, does not view the coastal spine as the panacea for Galveston’s precarious geography, but more as an “insurance policy” as climate change continues to alter the dynamics of coastal environments.
“There are things we can do locally, but to really have a chance to win that battle, (the coastal spine costs) a lot of money,” Yarbrough said. “We’ve survived 177 years without a spine and we’ll survive another 177 years.”
Galveston restaurants, like Taquilo’s Tex-Mex Cantina, commemorate the city’s track record of devastating storms with plaques marking the high waters they caused. Hurricane Ike gifted O’Malley’s Stage Door Pub similar memorabilia, like a forgotten wall.
Post-Ike Galveston looks different than when the storm rolled through 10 years ago. Old landmarks, like the Flagship Hotel, have been demolished, and infrastructure improvements have been made.