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.