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 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 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 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 outeither 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 cara 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 stormHurricane Alicia in August 1983without 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 houseand 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 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 The thing to understand about hurricane evacuations in Galveston is that if you want to flee, you have to do so before you know you need to leave. OCTOBER 3, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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