Hurricane Ike's Wake

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

"It's already a problem. I know a family that had to rescue a mom who used to be a pillar of the church — now she's over in a casino in Louisiana calling them in the middle of the night asking them to send her money."

But Johnson's anger and heartbreak are not directed solely at those she sees as doing unto her community. "We were not organized before the storm," she says. "We were just too damned dependent. I don't know. One of the principles of Kwanzaa is kujichagulia, which means self-­determination. I worry that for us, it's too late for that."

Fred Niccum

Captain Henry Porretto of the Galveston Police Department: "We were the last ones into refuge and the first ones out."
Daniel Kramer
Captain Henry Porretto of the Galveston Police Department: "We were the last ones into refuge and the first ones out."
Eddie Jones moved into his late father's house weeks before Ike. Now he's out of work and in the red. (Friend Billy Mathis stands at left.)
Daniel Kramer
Eddie Jones moved into his late father's house weeks before Ike. Now he's out of work and in the red. (Friend Billy Mathis stands at left.)

When he hired on as the Director of Facilities and Maintenance with the Galveston Independent School District, there was nothing in Fred Niccum's job description about running and maintaining a shelter of last resort for 400 hurricane victims of all ages and their pets. Nevertheless, that's just what GISD's Director of Facilities and Maintenance had to do.

Long after most of his staff had already left the Island, emergency managers decreed that Ball High School would have to serve as the city's primary shelter — Galveston's answer to the Superdome. Niccum and his wife and a number of bus drivers and custodians staffed the facility.

"With the good help of a number of very focused people, we were able to get that shelter up and running and keep it going through the 14th," Niccum says, pride glinting in his eye.

Immediately after that, Niccum was charged with assessing all the schools in GISD. By the 16th, he had undertaken an in-depth review of all 12 of Galveston's schools. While making his assessment, Niccum saw as much of the damage firsthand as many of the first responders. "It was very eerie for the first 48 hours," he says. "There was no electricity and very few cars were moving, while many more people were walking the streets. All the while I was trying to assess these schools and find out what I could do to get these schools back on track."

Post-Ike Galveston is that rare place where most kids love going to school. "You can see it in their faces and hear it in their little voices — the excitement they have when they talk about what they did and who they stayed with the night of the hurricane," Niccum says. "Their stories are pretty touching, because these kids suffered immensely."

And then there was one highly abnormal, albeit beneficial, weather event. "That snow [December 10] was one of the best things to happen," Niccum says. "It took kids' minds off the hurt for a few hours. I'm happy that these kids got to enjoy something different than living in a home that is in disrepair, or a hotel, or staying in a relative's home, if only for a few hours."

Jim Vratis

Lawyer and restaurateur Jim Vratis firmly believes that Crystal Beach will be back to its former glory. Seeing the place now, you'd be forgiven for thinking he's lost his ever-lovin' thinkin'. Within seconds of driving off the Bolivar Ferry's gangway, you are bombarded with images of destruction of a near-biblical scale.

Feral cats raid garbage cans in packs and squabble amongst themselves. What had been an empty pasture right near the ferry landing is now a junkyard, where tall heaps of ruined cars, central air conditioning units, water heaters and refrigerators await barges.

Honky-tonking little Crystal Beach, once one of the prime blue-collar party spots on the Upper Texas Coast, is now a ghost town. De Coux's restaurant is now a mere slab. Coba's Restaurant is utterly destroyed. Mama Teresa's pizzeria collapsed in on itself as if it were professionally imploded. The castle-like Gulf Coast Supermarket, also known locally as the Big Store, still stands, but has been gutted and is still closed, as is virtually all commerce on the peninsula.

And then there are the beach houses. According to Vratis, only 1,500 of what had been 5,000 remain. Along many stretches of the beach, the first few rows are simply gone. Elsewhere, there are signs that the God of Hurricanes has a sick sense of humor. All that remains of one beach-house is the raised floor and the front door, while at another, two porch swings dangle over thin air. A third has been deposited — as intact as if it were transported there by the tornado in Dorothy's dream in The Wizard of Oz — across Highway 87.

More cars, more appliances, and golf carts still litter the salt-poisoned grass. Where a few months ago you would have heard the hum of a/c units, plenty of country music and other sounds of good cheer coming from these getaways, today it's so hushed you can hear even a limp surf lapping at the beach at a distance of 200 yards. And the farther east you go on the peninsula, the worse the devastation. It's hard to imagine that towns like Caplen and Gilchrist in and around Rollover Pass will ever return to even a semblance of what they were earlier this summer.

Twenty years ago, Vratis moved to Crystal Beach from Beaumont and established his law practice in a corrugated tin-sided building in the shadow of Crystal Beach's water tower. The courtly fiftysomething with a cultured, Louisiana-tinged Beaumont accent later opened the Stingaree Restaurant, which was destroyed, but is now weeks away from reopening. (Beginning in spring 2007, the Stingaree was the site of former Crystal Beach resident Hayes Carll's annual country music ­festival.)

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