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Galveston, ten years after Ike

Overall things are better now, but not for everyone, and nothing can ever truly be the same as before.

Galveston has a long and storied history dealing with epic storms, and the destruction Hurricane Ike wrought was no different — a Category 2 storm that battered the island and the Texas Gulf Coast with 100 mile-per-hour 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 updgrades 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. The city’s population has about 50,550 residents today, per 2016 U.S. Census estimates, still shy of the 57,000 from before the storm.

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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.

There were serious concerns about UTMB’s ability to exist after Ike. It’s a major employer for the city, so the fact that it’s still there is a big deal. I’d still be very concerned about Galveston’s future – not to mention the future of much of the rest of the Gulf Coast – until some form of the Ike Dike gets built. After Harvey and Maria and Irma and Florence I have to wonder what else needs to happen to get that approved, but here we are anyway. I’m rooting for Galveston, but in a very real sense we’re all in the same boat with them.

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