Seated at her desk in what used to be the servants' quarters of the historic Moody Mansion on Broadway, Betty Massey, head of the Galveston Community Recovery Committee, recalled the words of legendary local politico Babe Schwartz, who once said something along these lines: "In 1900, God said to Galveston, 'Thou shalt not build on barrier islands.'"
"But we did," says Massey. She is smiling, but her clear blue eyes are full of steel. "We have chosen to raise our families and make our homes and run our businesses on a barrier island."
Her voice grows even more determined. "And this is our home and we love it here."
Late last year, Massey took on an enormous task. The committee she chairs is comprised of more than 300 members from every walk of island life, and the job before them is nothing less than to assure the future of what is, arguably, either the most or, after New Orleans, the second-most insanely sited city in America.
Massey is no Pollyanna, but she is definitely adept at looking at the bright side of Ike. On the bricks-and-mortar front, things are looking so much better now than they were around the New Year. The island's economy is coming back to life, Massey reports. The prime engine of that economy is neither tourism nor the port, but the University of Texas Medical Branch, and after a fall and winter of layoffs and doomsday scenarios, UTMB reversed course and recommitted to the island (see "Life, Post-Ike: A Full Recovery").
Massey says that the island is ahead of the game in the tourist arena, too. "I don't want to say business as usual, but it's a pretty well-restored industry," she says. The mid-winter, early-spring $10 million Seawall beach renourishment project worked well, and since then, she says, island attractions have thrived. Virtually all of the town's pre-Ike restaurants have reopened, along with some new ones, and she says that attractions like the Schlitterbahn, Moody Gardens and the historic homes are all doing okay.
Massey's words were borne out by others in the tourist trade. Carriage driver Sidney Steffens told us that business had been strong enough to require hiring additional help. Down on the Seawall, Marie Creasy, manager of the venerable biker bar the Poop Deck, said that neither she nor her customers nor her boss had any complaints.
In fact, in many of the Galveston Bay-area fishing towns and beach-house getaways, there are tangible signs of rebirth. The places no longer look wrecked, and in many cases old homeowners are returning, while many other coastal newbies are trying the waters for the very first time. In both Bolivar and San Leon, huge new bar-restaurants are under construction, each one overlooking saltwater as if to tempt fate (see "Life, Post-Ike: The Comeback Kid").
But there are things Massey and others can't sugarcoat. First, there's the slow dispersal of disaster relief money. Back in March and April, the promise of hundreds of millions in federal money constituted some of the most heartening news in town. Eventually, the feds allocated mainland Galveston County $99 million and $267 million to the Island and City of Galveston. The money has yet to hit the streets, Massey says, and as a result many Galvestonians have moved in with relatives, drawn down their savings to repair their homes (for which they will not be reimbursed), or are simply living in homes "patched together with Band-Aids." The famed iron-fronted buildings in the Strand district are badly in need of restoration, Massey adds. In fact, their bath in eight to ten feet of corrosive saltwater has landed them on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of the 11 most endangered historic places in America. Galveston has been allocated money for repairs, but like everyone else's — those plans are on hold. Meanwhile, rust eats away at the last surviving remnants of Galveston's day as the Wall Street of the Southwest.
Back in December, we spoke with a number of people in Galveston, Bolivar and along the bay about how they were coping with the storm. For the one-year anniversary, we tracked most of those same people down and talked to a few more. Here are their stories.
Winnie Street looks like the impact zone of some strange bomb that selectively annihilates trees while leaving homes standing. Stumps line the road where once live oaks rustled overhead, against each other and the East End beauty's long line of ornate Victorian houses. A bulldozer with a claw attachment hungrily scrapes the asphalt of branches, scoops them up and deposits them in a waiting dump truck, while a few sweaty tree surgeons, a bored Galveston cop (there to help persuade the disbelieving that their trees had to go) and Pete Smith look on.
Smith's deep green uniform and khaki hat identify him as an urban forester with the Texas Forest Service. He was called in from College Station to help assess and remove the town's deadwood. "You should see them when they fall over," he says. "That one right there" — he points to a once-tall live oak now lying supine across 60 feet of Winnie Street — "exploded like glass when it hit the street. These trees are so dry on the inside."
Despite the fact that they are no longer viable in the wild, Smith says the wood is in pretty good shape. He says he was surprised to find such healthy wood coming from trees that had lived in an urban environment. While some of the dead oaks are headed to sawmills, he says, others are headed to the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where they will be used to help patch up the Charles W. Morgan, a 167-year-old whaling ship and the last wooden whaler in the world.
Which is good for the Charles W. Morgan. Much of the older section of the City of Galveston won't be having such an easy time of it. It now seems likely that the most lasting and painful legacy of Hurricane Ike — worse even than the annihilation of the Balinese Room — will prove to be the devastation wreaked upon the city's trees. Around 40,000 are beyond all hope, their root systems withered by saltwater. Tree crews have already gone to work on the majestic live oaks on streets like Winnie in the city's picturesque East End, while those lining the median on Broadway still await their dates with the chainsaw. In the meantime, there is a jarringly midwinter appearance to Galveston's principal gateway in the height of a very hot high summer.
Smith says that Ike has taught Galvestonians a harsh lesson: Trees are so much more than mere visual poetry in a cityscape. One salient factor among many is increased heat — the island's atmosphere now lacks the water vapor those trees once "sweated" into the air through their leaves. Coupled with a lack of shade, the fierier temperatures will create substantially higher electric bills for many, Smith believes, and since many East End houses are both 100 years old and upwards of 5,000 square feet, it was never a bargain cooling them to begin with. It seems likely that dozens if not hundreds of dollars per month, per house, will soon be taken out of the town's pot of discretionary income.
And as with everything else, Betty Massey is trying to detect a silver lining. She says Galveston has a chance to replant smarter, to sow trees that are resistant to both drought and the occasional saltwater bath. And yet even she seems deeply pained when talking about this loss.
With good reason. Smith says that the East End won't look like it did pre-Ike for a long time. A really long time: "It will probably be 30 years," he says. "That's how long it takes to grow a good live oak. And many of the ones Galveston lost were a lot older than that."
James Coffman has left the horse-and-carriage trade. For the 76-year-old, Ike was more than he could bear. When the storm blew ashore, Coffman's stables were flooded and his home ruined. Worse still, Stormy, his favorite horse, drowned in the surge. A few months after the Houston Press visited him last winter, his family came down from north central Texas and took him home.
"He decided it was that time of his life where he had to make a move for his health and he sold the business," says Sidney Steffens, Coffman's former competitor and now successor at the newly consolidated company now called Island Carriages. "He was devastated by the loss of Stormy and overwhelmed by the immensity of his losses, and I think the main thing was the uncertainty. Nobody knew what was going to happen after the storm."
Steffens bought Coffman out and retains a healthy respect for the "ornery," half-blind old man. Steffens is a character in his own right: A weatherbeaten rocker type with lank blond hair who wouldn't have looked out of place on a Bad Company tour circa 1978. A true Galveston Renaissance man, when not holding the reins of a carriage horse, Steffens is taking aquatic bird counts or assessing plankton in the bays in his other role as a marine biologist at the Texas Seaport Museum. Or maybe sleeping in the old converted bordello in the Strand area that he calls home, and in which he rode out Ike.
Coffman had doubted business would come back anytime soon. He had been forced to lay off both of his employees and had no business whatsoever from Ike's landfall right up to Dickens on the Strand in early December. Steffens expressed some surprise at how fast things have turned around since then. He has replaced Coffman's laid-off drivers, and says the tourist trade is thriving. "This summer has been tremendous. There have been a lot of people visiting — quite a few from Houston, of course. The beaches have been packed, and the Strand area, even though it is almost 50 percent vacant, still has large numbers of people coming out to support it. It seems very positive to me."
Steffens is less sanguine when he dons his marine biologist hat. He frets over the dead trees on land and the out-of-whack plankton counts and the state of the natural habitat overall in the bay. 'We're not seeing the levels of larval blue crab they are accustomed to seeing, and there are tremendous amounts of jellyfish," he says. And he is deeply concerned about what he flatly terms the "extreme" water temperature in the Gulf — and hence the potential for the development of a monster hurricane off the Texas coast. Which would possibly be enough to do in even a relatively young and healthy guy like him...
Back in 1991, when he bought the place, Randy Elliott thought he had gotten a steal. Ornately Victorian, 5,000-square foot, 122-year-old, state-registered historic homes like the 1887 Sonnentheil House on Sealy Street aren't easy to find in Texas, especially at around $300,000. The self-employed, semiretired real estate investor from the Dallas area snapped it up and used it as a "vacation home / doghouse" ever since.
A tall man with wavy hair and a good ol' boy's demeanor, Elliott sat on his porch nipping Buds and smoking cigarettes like he does so often these days. "That's what everybody does around here," he says. "Sometimes there will be 20 of us out here. The contractors come drink with us too."
The downstairs of Elliott's home — most notably the 100-year-old parquet floor — was ruined by the storm. About all he could salvage were a few planks, which he had made into a picture frame, in which he put a photo of his family and friends who came down to help him clean up after the storm.
He says his upstairs is livable, and that was where he rode out the storm. (The house survived 1900, after all. How likely was it that a mere Cat-2 would do much damage?) He says he was covered by a little bit of flood insurance but that it was nowhere near enough, so progress on his house is going to be slow. "It's gonna be a couple more years at my pace," he chuckles. "I can't afford to bring in anyone else."
Part of what sold him on the Sonnentheil House was its surroundings. Sealy Street was one of the prettiest in the East End, with many more gingerbread Victorians lining the narrow road, which was overhung with live oaks. "That was a favorite thing of ours — to ride our bikes under the tree tunnel," he says. He is sad that they will all be coming down, but he wants the crews to get going before one of them falls on his house. And he can't resist making a political crack — "Where are all those treehuggers when we need them — and all their money?"
Michael Anderson's was one of the feel-good stories of the entire Ike aftermath. Along with several other men from Bolivar, Anderson, who prior to the hurricane owned an air conditioning business and is a father of two, was found alive after washing ashore in Chambers County, where he had been carried by the storm waters. After the house he had desperately tried to take shelter in disintegrated in the 110-mph winds and giant waves, Anderson, clad only in shorts, tumbled into the raging gulf. He remembers being tossed around like a rag-doll, never able to see anything except during lightning strikes. "I just kept thinking about my family," he writes via e-mail. (His son was then six and his daughter three months.) He asked God to save him and yelled, "I am not going to die!" as loud as he could over and over again.
First one big swell sent him under, then another and another. Anderson begged God for help, and the next thing he knew a piece of plywood hit him in the back. Anderson locked his fingers around it and lost consciousness — or at least all memories of what came next. Anderson came to the next day, being smashed by other floating debris and ducking as flying debris rocketed around his head like mutant mosquitoes.
Twelve hours after and 16 miles distant from where his ordeal began, searchers found Anderson in a debris field, far inland in Chambers County where the surge crested. Anderson was taken to Bayside Community Hospital in Anahuac, which had lost both its power — it ran off generators — and the use of its ER. He was covered in fire ant bites, abrasions from the debris and had what was later determined to be three different varieties of bacterial infections. The doctors at Bayside operated on Anderson in his hospital room because of the damaged ER, while a nurse frantically tried to contact Dawn Anderson — Michael's wife, who had evacuated with the kids before the storm — to tell her that he was alive. When he finally got through, the two of them could barely speak through their tears of relief.
If only the story could have ended on that note. Instead, the Anderson family is now living in a FEMA trailer in High Island. He writes that their Crystal Beach home had been insured for more than its value, but the flood adjusters pointed the finger at windstorm damage, while the windstorm adjusters claimed storm surge. FEMA and Galveston County both called their home a total loss, but the mortgage company still wants its outstanding balance. Anderson says the lawyers they have hired — and there's hardly a flat surface on the Bolivar Peninsula that isn't plastered with entreaties from Ike-chasing lawyers — have all "only want[ed] to know what was in it for them instead of helping us."
He sought free legal aid, and those lawyers told him simply to pay his mortgage, but the mortgage company won't accept his insurance checks as payment. "They still have our insurance money and are basically demanding that we rebuild or pay them in full on the mortgage," he writes, adding that there is a $20,000 shortfall between their insurance payments and what they owe the mortgage company. "So the mortgage company is basically sitting on our insurance money and threatening to foreclose on a home that is gone."
He approached yet another lawyer about filing for bankruptcy, and as far as Anderson can tell, about the only fruit that conversation bore was that his creditors somehow learned his new secret phone number.
Today, Anderson says his family is living "day by day." He's been told that aid in the form of grant money won't be available until spring of next year. Meanwhile, he writes, "We have nothing left, we are basically living off our son's college money and I told myself we would never touch that money." He has some lingering aftereffects from the infections in his legs and ankles, and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He writes that he can't sleep more than a couple hours at a time, and his doctor has told him that he seems more depressed every time he sees him. None of the meds Anderson's doctor prescribed seemed to work, so he has been recommended to see a psychiatrist. "The only thing keeping me together is my family and my faith," Anderson writes. Though he lives a few miles from the open water, he has only gone to the beach twice since Ike: Once on the Fourth of July to shoot fireworks (because his kids wanted to, he explains), and one other time to see his old house just before it was demolished. That second trip caused him serious anxiety attacks, he writes.
Anderson estimates his family's total losses at more than $200,000. "We were NEVER late on our payments to anyone," he writes. "I even made our October mortgage payment on September 10th before my wife and kids evacuated on September 11th."
Before Ike, Jim Jones, a strapping 72-year-old former Marine and merchant seaman with the heavy Big Apple accent, was living the San Leon dream. He had his trailer, his golf cart and Blondie, his dog with one blue eye and one brown. Along came the storm, and with three others, Jones decided to shelter in an unusual haven — The Blue Marlin, a bar/restaurant housed in a decommissioned Bolivar ferryboat moored near San Leon's marina. Jones thought it would be the safest place, but Ike broke the Marlin free of her moorings and transformed her into a multiton hunk of steel flotsam. The Marlin crushed every pier in the San Leon Marina before coming to rest, dangerously listing to starboard, half in the bay and half in the front yard of a bayhouse.
"It was a zoo on there, especially when it broke loose," said Jones last September. He was holding court at a card table in front of a local boatyard called Terry's Marine Services — one of San Leon's several impromptu, do-it-yourself disaster relief stations — and along with everybody else there, he seemed energized. San Leon touts itself as a "quaint little drinking village with a serious fishing problem," and the locals thrive on chaos, and here they were literally partying through their tears amid the ruins of several of their homes and beloved barrooms. Loud blues were playing from Terry's speakers, meat was smoking on a big black grill, and the beer and rum was flowing. While the green and gray monk parakeets — the town's unofficial mascots — squawked and pieced together their stick nests in the palm trees at the bayside, down below a man with a forklift stacked railroad ties. The town was visibly on the mend.
Back then, Jones remembered the wreck of the Blue Marlin with a twinkle in his eye. "Aw, man! Then the engine room started takin' on water, we started movin', then the first floor flooded and we had to move upstairs. We thought we were gonna sink. It was not a pleasant experience. All we had was a prayer. We had no control whatsoever. I'm sure happy we beached." (The Blue Marlin remained on its side for almost a year. Work crews had to cut it to pieces with blowtorches to remove it from its landing spot, and the last pieces were not removed until July.)
Today, as the old saying goes, Jim Jones used to have nothing, now he ain't even got that. He has replaced the old trailer and golf cart he lost in the storm, but FEMA had given him about half the money he needed, so both are downgrades from before. The nonstop party at Terry's Marine Services has ended, and Terry is hard at work.
These days, Jones doesn't get around like he used to. He goes out to lunch once a week and treats himself to one half-gallon bottle of Jim Beam per month. Not that he's become abstemious in the modern sense of the word: The sofa in his trailer is surrounded by a veritable fortress built of boxes of white wine. But to Jones, whose view of drinking seems to be rooted in the 18th century, those don't count. "I don't drink much booze anymore," he says. "Only wine."
Most days, he says, are like the day a reporter visited. He and Blondie kick back in his American flag-curtained trailer — "hermetizing," as he calls it — and watch movies like Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider. Other days he has to cadge a ride and go out: San Leon's post office was closed down after the storm, so now locals in the unincorporated area have to go ten or 15 miles to Dickinson to get their mail, which for Jones is his lifeblood: He lives off his social security and veteran's benefits checks. There are also trips to the VA hospital in Texas City, where he gets treatment for his diabetes and flirts with the pretty doctors.
He seems to have aged five years since last September, and despite his stoic humor, he is often angry. Angry at George Bush for cutting veteran's benefits: "Dat draft dodga," he calls him. Angry at FEMA for undercutting him on disaster relief, and angry at the postal service for pulling out of San Leon. Asked why he doesn't move, he says he has nowhere else to go.
& Dee Dee Shandy
While few of Bolivar's restaurants other than the Stingaree have reopened yet, there is another new addition to Crystal Beach's culinary scene: Bear Country Pork Ka-Bob — a roadside wagon offering hot dogs, lemonade and Cajun delicacies.
Though it's no more than a carnival-ready wagon right now, the surrounding grounds make it look like Bear Country is settling in. There are a few picnic tables about, interspersed with South Seas-looking totem poles and tiki torches. In addition to the dogs and kebabs and boudin balls on the menu, Bear Country offers soft-serve ice cream, as Tessa Tedder, one of the stand's two employees, explained to an old woman in front of a reporter at the window.
"Ours is better than Dairy Queen's," Tedder boasted, smiling.
"That don't take much," grumbled the woman, who had wanted a snow cone anyway. The woman got back in her car, slammed the door and drove off in a cloud of roadside sand, bringing to a close one of the more perfect examples we've seen of life imitating one of Larry McMurtry's Thalia novels.
And such is life in Bolivar. "We love this place," says Tedder's co-worker Dee Dee Shandy. "Where else can you eat next to a pauper and a millionaire?"
Tedder and Shandy, both natives of the Beaumont area, lost a lot in the storm. Tedder said she thought about leaving the area for good, but was dissuaded by her seven-year-old daughter. "She said all the stuff we lost means nothing, but she was distraught about being separated from her friends. She said, 'Mama, next time just remember to take the cats when we evacuate.'"
This year's local Mardi Gras, Tedder says, was the best anyone could remember, an emotional "kiss and cry" event that brought the whole shattered community together, but since then business has just been okay, they say. "Lots of people are coming to Bolivar to look and see," says Tedder. "They know there's not a lot here, and they don't understand why it's taking so long to clean up. And they tell us they don't want to disturb us. We want them to disturb us! We want them here and buying local."
They would also like better treatment from the federal government. From their worm's-eye view on the side of Highway 87, they feel forgotten and ignored, especially when they saw what happened as the banking crisis unfolded. "They can bail out the banks over a man-made problem like the banking crisis, but they won't help us after a natural disaster," laments Tedder. "They'll help them but not us, when it was something we had no control over."
It's a decades-old Galveston tradition: The denizens of the Poop Deck, the nautical-themed Seawall biker dive Creasy manages, always ride out whatever storms the Gulf can dish out inside the tavern. National Weather Service warning of "certain death" or not, Ike was no exception, and back in December, Poop Deck manager Marie Creasy still seemed in a state of shock after her night of terror.
Creasy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, said then that she wished she hadn't stayed at the Poop Deck during Ike. Slumped over in a chair on the bar's deck overlooking the Gulf, Creasy sipped a salty dog and recited a litany of horror. She shuddered as she remembered seeing the streets crawling with rats rushing ahead of the 7-10-foot wall of surging bay waters, and the freight train-like roar of Ike's winds threatening to shred the ramshackle old two-story dive as the storm came ashore. "The whole building shook," she said then. "It was scary," she added. "Crazy. I lost my ever-lovin' thinkin', I believe."
Her friend and Poop Deck employee Jacqueline Harris, who rode out the storm a block from the bar, was also suffering some effects of PTSD. She said she had frequent nightmares, and when she and Creasy attempted to leaf through a book of storm photos, they both started to shake and weep. The two of them embraced and declared friendship for life.
Almost a year later, Harris was gone. Asked her whereabouts, two waitresses exchanged knowing glances and laughed. Creasy is still there, though, and in much better mental health. Harris, she says, had to go. Creasy had thought she was different, but she had proved no better than all too many of the waitresses who had come and gone over the years. Not only do the two no longer work together now, but their friendship, which predated Creasy's employment at the Poop Deck, is no more.
But the news is happier on other fronts. Rather than dwelling on the storm, these days she would much rather talk about her fledgling career as a songwriter.
Last January, she hosted a CD release party at the Poop Deck for NASCAR Junkie, a collection of 12 auto racing-themed songs with her lyrics. "I am a poet," she declares. "I am not a musician. I don't know anything about music other than I like the way it sounds. I wish I could sing but I can't. My voice is horrible." More recently, a poem of hers called "Storm Surge" has been transformed into a honky-tonk weeper by Ronnie Watts, "The Saltwater Cowboy." Although the song is not directly about Ike, the imagery certainly is.
Business at the Poop Deck this summer has been normal, Creasy says, both with her regulars and the tourist trade. "The girls seem to be happy, the boss seems to be happy, nobody's complainin'," she says. To her, Galveston as a whole is pretty much back to normal. The restaurants are open again. "Pretty much everyone has put their lives back together and those that haven't are leavin'," she says. She's even composed a little poem about Galveston's recovery, which she recites while beaming from ear to ear: "Galveston's comin' back to life / you picked the trash up off the streets / you put the sand back on the beach / and you had Mardi Gras right on time in 2009."
And she has changed her mind about one big thing. She now says that if another storm threatened the Poop Deck, once more she would refuse to abandon ship.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.