Galve­ston “a bet­ter place” 10 years af­ter Ike.

City uses dis­as­ter re­cov­ery money to fund more than 500 in­fra­struc­ture projects

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Nick Pow­ell STAFF WRITER

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.”

Michael Cia­glo / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

Michael Cia­glo / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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