Hurricane Ike's Wake

Forgotten and overlooked, Galveston and the Texas Gulf Coast struggle on in the storm's aftermath

Now, her beloved city looks scrambled to her. "I used to know where all the social services agencies were. I can't find them anymore. It's very eerie. There are a lot of people just wandering around aimlessly, there's still debris everywhere. I was looking at a ­coffee-table book about the storm the other day, and I just had to put it down.

"I don't know if Galveston is going to come back. I don't know if it can come back."

Forgive Gregoire for not being much in the Christmas spirit. "Well, my Christmas tree is up. But I'm not interested. I'm not interested in any of it. I'm very sad. Once your kids grow up, Christmas changes, but now most of my friends are having to move away. Another of them moved away the other day, and I couldn't even look her in the eye to hug her."

Fred Niccum found himself drafted into running the city's answer to the New Orleans Superdome post-Katrina.
Daniel Kramer
Fred Niccum found himself drafted into running the city's answer to the New Orleans Superdome post-Katrina.
Area business leader Jim Vratis says Crystal Beach will be back. You'd be forgiven for thinking he was crazy.
Daniel Kramer
Area business leader Jim Vratis says Crystal Beach will be back. You'd be forgiven for thinking he was crazy.

James Coffman

James Coffman has been driving horse-drawn carriages through the High Victorian streets of the Strand District for 20 years. His stable, located a couple of blocks from Galveston's wharves, took seven feet of surging bay water during the storm, not to mention the life of Stormy, Coffman's favorite horse.

"I had had him the longest and he was my best driving horse," says the stoic Coffman, who speaks with a deep drawl and stiff military precision.

Coffman says business had been fairly good before Ike, but today has dwindled to "nothin'." He has laid off his two employees and says that the Dickens on the Strand parade in early December was the first time he has harnessed either of his two surviving horses.

Coffman says he did not realize the magnitude of Ike's danger until very late. "It was just normal until two or three days before Ike. I didn't evacuate until Friday morning. It was a matter of getting some important papers and my clothes and getting out.

"I didn't have time to get the horses out. I barely had time to get myself out. Nobody had any idea how much water there was gonna be. It was much worse than anybody figured."

A few days after the storm, Houston Press photographer Dan Kramer and calendar editor Olivia Flores Alvarez found Coffman's surviving horses — Jericho and Doc — wandering the streets. Stormy's body was pressed up against a chain-link fence, in a high state of decomposition. Someone had poured two bags of quicklime on the body. The bags were still there three months after the storm.

Sue Johnson

Sue Johnson's home and car came through the storm fine. So did all the members of her extended family. Since she is retired, she didn't have to worry about job security. The things she lost were intangible, but no less real.

"My dearest friend in the whole world died just days before the storm," says the native Islander. "Her funeral was planned for the day of the storm, and of course that was put off. When the family finally decided to have the funeral, they had it in another city and I was unable to go. That day was hard."

So is pondering the future. After 28 years working as, among other things, a respiratory therapist at UTMB, Johnson retired in 2006 to work full-time at her passion — the community work she had begun as a hobby many years before. Today, from her house, she runs the Nia Culture Center, home to a gamut of programs ranging from family and youth education courses to planning sessions for Kwanzaa and Juneteenth celebrations. She fears that many of those programs are in peril now.

The historically black part of town — the area north of Broadway — was, like the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the lowest-lying part of town and thus suffered the brunt of the damage from the surge. Today, four of the six public housing developments in Galveston are closed by order of the Galveston Housing Authority, and most of the rental properties and private homes north of Broadway are ­unlivable.

"Many of the youth I work with are from a part of town that has been decimated," she says. "Everything's scattered. This is just a new city, and a large percentage of the Islanders will have no say in the visioning process for the new Galveston. At this point, there's an effort to change that, but right now, a lot of us aren't included."

One of Johnson's favorite programs was at Central Middle School, which began life shortly after the Civil War (in another building) as Central High School, the first black high school in Texas. Ike severely damaged Central, and it has yet to reopen; officials from the Galveston Independent School District don't know or won't say whether it ever will. Johnson doesn't know if the programs she has been running in Central could survive the jump to Weis, Galveston's only remaining non-magnet middle school.

Johnson is heartbroken about that, and she's angry about one possible way forward for Galveston put forth by the powers-that-be among the merchants on the Strand and others: legalized gambling.

"For a city that's already decimated by drug abuse, the last thing we need is another addiction taking hold. You might just as well start the 12-step programs now. Even without legal gambling, people are already doing it. You can go in these convenience stores and see those slot machines, and I don't think they are playing those to win those little teddy bears, you know what I'm sayin'?

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