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First fire, then flood -- what's next for restaurateur-slash-developer Tilman Fertitta: swarms of locusts? His troubles began in February with the two-alarm blaze that closed Willie G's, the popular seafood outlet on Post Oak Boulevard. The attic bonfire wreaked an estimated $1 million in damages, and rebuilding still drags on.

But that conflagration must seem like a Boy Scout cookout compared to the havoc tropical storm Frances wreaked on Fertitta's work-in-progress on the Kemah Waterfront. "Ambitious" doesn't begin to describe his $30 million plans for a 14-acre entertainment complex of restaurants and shops, complete with a boardwalk, train ride, Ferris wheel and 50,000-gallon aquarium.

In the aftermath of the storm, TV news crews spotlighted a rubber-booted Tilman, awash in salt water, surveying his soggy empire. Behind him, murky waves washed over the tabletops in Landry's Seafood and The Flying Dutchman. Jagged glass dangled from the windows as forlorn clumps of monkey grass floated past. Pelting rain, pounding tides and a pair of rudderless shrimp boats had ganged up to destroy three-quarters of the brand-new boardwalk. The project, Fertitta pointed out, was only 30 days from completion. Damage? Maybe $5 to $7 million.

Landry's and the Dutchman are now shuttered and will probably stay that way until Thanksgiving or even Christmas. Three other Fertitta operations might be cleaned up and reopened within a couple of weeks: Joe's Crab Shack, Kemah Crab House and the Cadillac Bar. The Aquarium, the jewel in the project's crown, had been slated to open at the end of this month; now, it may be ready by October.

Of course, Fertitta wasn't the only Job on the waterfront; just, as usual, the biggest.

Luigi Ferre of Luigi's Ristorante Italiano was panicked on that awful Friday. Several feet of water surrounded his restaurant on the Strand, and he expected a party of 150 River Oaks patrons on Saturday. "My wife told me I was crazy to go in," says Ferre. "I had to park three blocks away, then wade through water up to my waist just to get to the front door." Fortunately, his restaurant remained dry indoors, and the party went off without a hitch.

Over on Postoffice Street, Rudy & Paco's took on only a couple of inches of water and sprang some minor ceiling leaks. "But even when we opened again on Saturday, we had only half our usual business," says waiter John Borselino. "I can't imagine how much money we lost."

Gerardo Russo, manager of Christie's Beachcomber on Stewart Beach, sounded discouraged, too. "We lost our fence and our stairs, and our asphalt drive is broken to pieces," he said. "The waves came completely under the building and burst our pipes, so we had water inside as well. I can't even begin to estimate the damage." But Christie's has already reopened, and repairs are under way.

"What can you do?" asks Russo. "That's life on the beach."

-- Margaret L. Briggs

 
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