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Texas beach in disarray after Ike

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GALVESTON, Texas | The coast here doesn't have the whitest sand or the clearest water, but to millions of Houstonians and other Texans, this is the beach. And thanks to Hurricane Ike, it's also a mess.

Wrecked houses, rotting cattle carcasses and other debris are scattered along Galveston Island. In some spots, all the sand was sucked back out to the Gulf of Mexico, leaving only rocks.

Galveston-area officials are scrambling to clean up the sand, which draws throngs of out-of-towners who spend millions on food, rental housing and shopping. They say they are relieved that the most popular beach spot along the sea wall is largely intact, but they have asked Congress for $100 million to help them bring the beach back to life.

"Without beach restoration and erosion protection, our economy will suffer greatly," Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said.

Galveston is not exactly Aruba. It offers brownish-gray sand, and the murky Gulf waters are tepid by midsummer. Jellyfish, seaweed and sand fleas normally pepper the beach.

But it is the closest beach to Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, and it is a prized retreat for often sweltering southeast Texas.

Beaches on the eastern end of Galveston remain heavily littered by debris like water heaters, tires, sofas and the occasional dead cow.

While most parts of the beaches along the sea wall are mainly clear of trash, debris submerged in the shallow surf in some areas could be dangerous to swimmers.

Along the far western end of the island, where pricey vacation homes once stood, the beaches suffered "quite a bit of sand loss," said Peter Davis, chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. The hurricane's destructive 12-foot storm surge erased large swaths of beach on the west end.

"It's really sad. A lot of beach is gone," said visitor Sherry Attaway as she walked along the shoreline.

Grateful that Ike didn't hit during the height of tourist season, local officials hope they can get the beaches cleaned and restored by spring.

The $100 million requested from Congress would be used to buy sand to restore the beaches and repair erosion control devices, essentially huge, sand-filled socks put along the shore, said Alicia Cahill, a spokeswoman for the city of Galveston.

"Fixing erosion is incredibly expensive," she said. "Replenishing the beaches is important because it's our number-one tourist attraction. Galveston and beaches: It's who we are."

It's unlikely that Congress will provide that much money for the beaches during the current national economic crisis, but Miss Cahill said that if not, officials would try to combine local, state and federal funds to get the work done.

If the beaches are not restored, it could devastate the local economy. Tourism brought in more than $705 million to the island in 2006, easily the area's leading economic engine.

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