Letter From Galveston

Dress rehearsal for disaster.


My high school chemistry teacher was right.

In September 1961, when Galveston’s Ball High School reopened after the island had been badly pummeled by Hurricane Carla, G.W. Bertschler cautioned my fifth-period chemistry class that Carla was far from the worst nature could send our way. We students were dubious: Our town was a wreck, with $18 million in property damage, much of it caused by several storm-spawned tornadoes that skipped across the city.

Mr. Bertschler warned of a nightmare hurricane that would rival Galveston’s infamous September 1900 storm, which, like Carla, is said to have been a Category 4 (out of a possible 5) tropical cyclone on the Saffir-Simpson intensity scale. Unlike Carla’s, the eye of the 1900 storm passed right over Galveston. Its 15-foot storm surge completely swamped the island, where the highest elevation was then just 8.7 feet. In response to that storm, the U.S. Corps of Engineers erected a 17-foot seawall, and the city raised its grade so that its topography slopes down northward from Seawall Boulevard, draining floodwaters into Galveston’s ship channel and bay. After that, the city considered itself pretty well protected.

It seemed to have been until Hurricane Ike, which appears destined to go on the books as Galveston’s costliest storm to date, in dollars if not in lives. To explain what was different about Ike, let’s return briefly to chemistry class.

What did we think would happen, Mr. Bertschler had asked us, if a big storm such as Carla were to make landfall between Galveston’s northeastern tip and Bolivar Peninsula? (Major hurricanes threatening Galveston have tended to come ashore at Galveston’s southwestern tip, near San Luis Pass.) No one answered. The storm’s cyclonic, counterclockwise rotation would push waters from the Gulf of Mexico into Galveston Bay, flooding the city from Galveston Bay seaward rather than from the seawall-fronted Gulf landward, effectively blocking the exits, he said. “We will drown like rats.”

With its mammoth wind field more than 425 miles across and its gargantuan, 60-mile-wide eye, Ike did force Gulf water into Galveston Bay. Had it been a Category 3 or 4 and lived up to its maximum predicted surge of 22 feet, Ike would have been the killer storm Mr. Bertschler anticipated. (The National Weather Service issued an early evening warning on Friday, September 12, when it was too late to leave the island but not too late for some to seek higher ground. The service cited surge figures and asserted that “PERSONS NOT HEEDING EVACUATION ORDERS IN SINGLE FAMILY ONE OR TWO STORY HOMES WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH.”)

High-tide surges in the Galveston Ship Channel at Pier 21 reached about 12 feet, according to published reports, and high tides in the Gulf measured at the Flagship Hotel reached 11 feet. That was bad enough. In Galveston County, the storm claimed six lives, including three individuals whose loss of electricity was said to have caused their health to deteriorate. Moreover, Ike’s 12-foot surge flooded Galveston’s largest employer, the 12,000-plus employee University of Texas Medical Branch, with up to 2 feet of water. The storm likewise put several inches to several feet of water into many homes in the nearby East End Historical District and Lindale subdivision (aka “Fish Village”), and on posh Harbor View Drive. Ike’s surge also flattened many beach homes unprotected by the seawall on West Galveston Island. To the northeast, across the Galveston Ship Channel, it demolished the fishing village of Port Bolivar and destroyed the beach community of Gilchrest. Ike also knocked out power to millions of people across the region, paralyzing Houston and Galveston, among other cities. Estimates of insurance claims for wind-caused property damage range up to $16 billion, but the state-led insurance pool destined to pick up much of the tab has reserves of just $2.3 billion. Texas taxpayers will be stuck with much of the balance.

As it approached Galveston, Ike was a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds of almost 110 mph. Yet it had a monster circulation that seemed, in televised radar representations, to encompass nearly the entire Gulf of Mexico, much as Carla’s radar image had looked on TV 47 years earlier. As the storm drew a bead on the chute between Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula, its counterclockwise winds began pushing Gulf waters into Galveston Bay, even from 260 miles away, just like the fiercer storm Mr. Bertschler had envisioned.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas ordered a mandatory evacuation starting at noon Thursday, September 11. The thing to understand about hurricane evacuations in Galveston, or anywhere on the populous Upper Texas Coast, is that if you want to flee, you have to do so before you know you need to leave. If you wait, you may not get out-either because rising water and high winds block your exit, or because of gridlocked traffic on the Gulf Freeway or in Houston and beyond. A usually pleasant, four-and-a-half-hour trip to, say, Austin, can turn into a hellish, 24-hour ordeal. Or stop you cold with rising waters and blocked roadways conspiring to drown you in your car-a fate many Galvestonians fear most.

About 20,000 of my fellow Galveston citizens reportedly did not heed the mayor’s order, and I think I know why. Suffering from hurricane fatigue myself, I considered staying put. I rationalized that I, like many Galvestonians, had previously experienced a Category 3 storm-Hurricane Alicia in August 1983-without lasting ill effect.

Alicia made landfall on Galveston’s West End, at San Luis Pass, and roared inland, where it downed myriad trees and power lines, and turned downtown Houston into something resembling then-war-torn Beirut. I had helped cover that storm for the Dallas Times Herald. After filing my story, I had spent the night Alicia blew in just two blocks from the beachfront at my mother’s two-story, Dutch colonial frame home. She adamantly declined to leave because, I think, she always felt she’d been stampeded into leaving unnecessarily for Hurricane Carla. Mother’s house bent with Alicia like a reed in the wind, but the house remained moored to its pier-and-beam foundation. Slightly traumatized by the storm’s ferocity, we survived with relatively minor damage to the house-and major damage to my mother’s pride and joy, her carefully landscaped yard and garden.

Over the Labor Day weekend, two weeks before Ike, I had joined many Galvestonians in hightailing it to Austin ahead of Hurricane Gustav, which went to Louisiana instead of Texas. Now, too soon, it was evacuation day again. I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled in Galveston that Thursday morning and had slept badly the previous night. I figured I’d be more of a danger to myself and others as a sleepy driver in stop-and-go traffic (with two unhappily caged cats in my back seat) than I would be in a Category 2 storm in my Galveston abode two blocks behind the seawall, on relatively high ground. Anyway, the cats had worn out their welcome at my two previous Austin refuges, and I initially couldn’t think of a third friend to ask to shelter us from the storm.

Finally, thanks to strong encouragement from a friend and hospitality from another who generously accepted the three of us in her Austin home, we left Galveston for Austin about 7 a.m. Friday, September 12, some 17 hours before Ike’s eye began its two-hour passage over Galveston. The gridlock was gone, and I drove the posted speed most of the way. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so persuasive with those I encouraged to do likewise. Though I advised my determined-to-remain and gridlock-averse ex-wife that the coast was clear, by my second, pre-10 a.m. call, the bay near her Strand-area first-floor loft had risen so precipitously that she couldn’t get out by car. The water rose all day and much of the night, at 2 a.m. reaching a height of 7 feet in her apartment, which is 3 or 4 feet above the street. She, three friends, and two dogs holed up in a second-floor hallway above her loft for two days until the water went down and they could make their way out through the evil-smelling, diesel-laced mud that coated the streets. Meanwhile, my first cousin, his daughter, and her spouse had elected to stay in their (ultimately flooded) Fish Village house. They used the surcease provided by the eye of the storm, around 2 a.m. Saturday, to wade with their new puppy and 84-year-old neighbor through waist-deep water to the third floor of a low-rise condo. They spent the second act of Hurricane Ike hunkered down there in exterior doorways, pelted by wind and rain. That morning, the neighbor went home, and a police officer gave the remaining trio a lift to Broadway and 41st Street, where they faced another eight- to 10-block trek through waist-high water to the shelter-of-last-resort at Ball High School, which they found chaotic. Sunday morning, following another trip home and back to retrieve their grown dog, they were bused with their pets to a shelter in San Antonio.

Precisely a week after I’d left, I was back on the Gulf Freeway mired in miles of stop-and-go traffic headed for Galveston. Pleasure, fishing, and shrimp boats of various descriptions and in various states of disrepair littered the roadsides. Approaching the island, Galveston had never looked sadder or more bedraggled, despite the fact that the initial cleanup had already taken place and most streets were passable. Just over the causeway in Galveston, another armada of beached boats was stacked chockablock on the roadside near the wrecked Payco Marina.

At a highly controlled noon news conference, Mayor Thomas, City Manager Steve LeBlanc, County Judge Jim Yarbrough, state Representative Craig Eiland, UTMB President David Callender, and various other officials and notables made brief remarks, the gist of which was: We’ll let the citizens back into town in a week or so, but we hope they won’t stay. Without secure water and sewage systems, electricity and gas, and without a working hospital, Galveston is unsuitable for habitation by its former population of nearly 60,000.

Piled debris a week after the storm

City leaders don’t even seem to want their own citizens, much less outsiders, to see their island in this sad state of dishabille or, worse, battered and stark nakedness. For as long as they could, they kept residents at a distance and the media blocked from the hard-hit Strand area and historical district, as well as West Galveston Island, and they have forbidden city employees other than the city manager to speak with reporters. This meshes nicely with what Galveston County Daily News publisher Dolph Tillotson called in an editorial “a desperate effort to avoid embarrassment for the Republican administration in charge of FEMA.” Tillotson, whose editorials usually lean to the right, added pointedly: “It is, after all, about six weeks from a presidential election. Nobody wants another Katrina this time.”Now, as the cleanup continues, Galveston, like Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, must rely on the kindness of strangers, whether from FEMA or the Texas National Guard or some insurance company’s claims office. As for those who do come back intending to stay, medical experts say a plague of pestilences, from tetanus to toxic mold, may await them. So does a state of emergency and a dawn-to-dusk curfew with a $2,000 fine for violators. Nitpickers like the ACLU and other rights groups have asked why 1,050 county prisoners weren’t included in the mandatory evacuation and were left in Galveston during the storm. Sheriff Gean Leonard has said unspecified security issues prevented their transfer. Judge Yarbrough amplified at the news conference that county jails elsewhere in Texas are so crowded that there was no practical place to put them, and anyhow, the jail is part of Galveston’s new Criminal Justice Center, which is designed to survive a Category 5 hurricane. In any case, he said, the prisoners already have their air-conditioning restored, as many Galvestonians do not.

The judge added that the county is running a marathon, not a 100-yard dash. In such circumstance, one can safely infer that potential litigation by the ACLU and others is an issue for another day.

A wise and compassionate friend from Pascagoula, Mississippi, whose home was flooded three years ago by Hurricane Katrina’s 20-foot surge, e-mailed me shortly after Ike struck: “One thing I have learned post-Katrina is that no one from the outside can fully understand the experience of dealing with the aftermath, nor should that be expected.”

The Friday I first returned to the island, I visited with some of my former colleagues at UTMB, where I had worked for 11 years as an editor, writer, and publicist for the hospital’s research arm. In their administration building offices, even these “fresh troops” who had come to relieve those who’d stayed through the storm were unshaved, sleeping on cots, wearing old T-shirts and shorts, and like many others at UTMB, presenting the somewhat glazed appearance of shell-shocked soldiers.

No one can foresee how long it will take Galveston to recover, but it won’t be anytime soon, and it won’t happen without substantial financial help from Austin and Washington. One year ago, properties on the 22 miles of Galveston Island west of the seawall were collectively worth $1.6 billion, four times the value of taxable property on the 10-mile stretch of city behind the seawall, according to the Galveston County Central Appraisal District. On September 12 and 13, a significant portion of that tax base disappeared overnight.

Our charming, semitropical paradise has one incontestable flaw: It is built on a barrier island that is in constant motion toward the mainland. It is extremely vulnerable to major hurricanes, which strike it on average once every 20 years. Thanks to global climate disruption caused by greenhouse gases we all help generate, Gulf hurricanes are likely to become more unpredictable (like Ike), more intense, and perhaps more numerous. Even as the 1900 storm recedes into historical memory, Galveston won’t soon forget Hurricane Ike, which wasn’t even categorized as a major storm.

Looming in our consciousness will be the knowledge that, in the not-distant future, it’s possible, perhaps inevitable, that a bigger, deadlier storm with a 20- or 25-foot storm surge-Mr. Bertschler’s hurricane-may follow Ike’s path. If it does, and if we fail to flee, there is no seawall or easy technological fix that can save us from being flooded, from the harbor toward the Gulf, and drowning like rats.

Tom Curtis is a longtime journalist and Galveston native. This is not his first hurricane.

Investigative reporting for this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Institute.