Life, Post-Ike: The Comeback Kid

Without as much to lose as Galveston, Bolivar surges ahead in its recovery.

Three months after the storm, the Bolivar Peninsula still looked as if it had been strafed by B-52 bombers, or even like a Texas Gulf Coast version of post-tsunami Sri Lanka. Whole blocks of beachfront homes had simply vanished without trace, while timbers were all that remained of others. (Most of Bolivar hadn't vanished, of course. It had just washed to the mainland in Chambers County, some 12 miles away.) Local landmarks were upside down, or had drifted down the road from where they once were. A huge junkyard of ruined cars and household appliances welcomed visitors to one end of the peninsula, a sight that warned of the devastation that extended all the way to the eastern end at High Island.

Most of Galveston County's 20 storm deaths were Bolivar people, and a spokeswoman for League City's Laura Recovery Center, a missing-persons clearinghouse, said four more are still missing from the area and presumed dead. (There are other missing persons, the spokeswoman said, but the others are all believed to be alive.)

And yet, even back in the bleak mid-winter, local attorney and restaurateur Jim Vratis predicted that Bolivar would be back. It happened in 1961 after Hurricane Carla, and he saw it happen again in 1983, after Alicia. "We've got too much to draw from not to come back — Beaumont, East Texas, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth. We can't help but be a hot spot again, but I don't think it will be this coming year."

From the top floor of his Stingaree Restaurant, local attorney and restaurateur Jim Vratis is helping lead the Bolivar Peninsula back from the brink. Behind him is Goat Island, where several of the area's storm victims washed up.
Daniel Kramer
From the top floor of his Stingaree Restaurant, local attorney and restaurateur Jim Vratis is helping lead the Bolivar Peninsula back from the brink. Behind him is Goat Island, where several of the area's storm victims washed up.

Events of the past few months have borne his prediction out. His own restaurant — the Stingaree, long Bolivar's culinary and social epicenter — reopened in February and Vratis reports "tremendous" business. About two dozen beach houses are going up in the Emerald II subdivision alone, he says, and adds that building permits are sky-high all along the peninsula. Bolivar's one school has almost doubled its enrollment from 55 to 90, with most of the new kids being the children of contractors who have decided to put down roots in the area.

"I don't know how many forests are being decimated to rebuild this place, but I'll bet it's plenty," Vratis says. "A lot of homeowners are getting their insurance proceeds and coming back."

But as of earlier this month, some were still biding their time, Vratis says. Old Farmer's Almanac has plenty of devotees in Bolivar, and that venerable journal's weather diviners had predicted a Cat-5 to make landfall in the area on September 5. Old-timers pointed out that the Almanac had accurately predicted Gustav, Katrina, Rita and Ike, so they held off rebuilding until after the fateful date passed.

And now the place is going great guns. It's a paradox. Bolivar seemed much more devastated than Galveston earlier this year. Now it seems much closer to coming back. But then Bolivar didn't have as much to lose. It had long ago made peace with its ephemeral existence, and so with the exception of the old lighthouse and the new school, there are virtually no structures more substantial than a mid-range beach house from the ferry landing to High Island. Like San Leon on the bayside, Bolivar revels in its identity as a honky-tonkin' fishing camp/hard-drinking beach house and barroom getaway with minimal services and even less governmental intrusion.

 
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