- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

GALVESTON, Texas | Hurricane Ike was the perfect, bad-timing storm. When it blew hell on this Gulf of Mexico county on Sept. 13, 2008, its 20-foot storm surge ripping away whole beach communities, the ravages came at a time when the nation’s attention was focused on an impinging economic meltdown and a hard-fought presidential election.

In the aftermath of the third costliest storm in hurricane history, there was little celebrity outpouring — no heart-shaking movie star produced telethons. There was only brief wall-to-wall media coverage — with many in the nation and networks feeling a here-we-go-again post-Hurricane Katrina fatigue.

While federal and state supporters rallied to offer assistance and Ike rescue volunteers did heroic work on a massive cleanup, which continues, one year later the Galveston area and Gulf Coast struggles to rebound, worn thin by the weight of the recovery and displacement, but also buoyed by the chance to create new development projects and modernize its plan for future growth.

“It was phenomenally devastating in all senses of the storm, but how can you complain about a storm when the entire nation is about to go into the Next Depression,” remembers community organizer Erin Toberman, 38, a Washington, D.C., native, who leads Help4Galveston, a nonprofit that brings community groups together for storm relief efforts.

“Our needs were overshadowed by the greater financial concerns of the U.S. banking system and then this historic presidential election. We were kind of a blip on the radar for a minute and the amount of damage and destruction here got completely lost.”

“This wasn’t like Katrina,” adds Mrs. Toberman, a Tiki Island resident. “Bill Clinton and President [George H.W.] Bush, who raised money for hurricane relief efforts, have barely been able to scrape together $2.9 million for Hurricane Ike recovery funds. You didn’t see a lot private money coming into the community … but the need is still great. You have a lot of homeowners here and small businesses, a lot of people who live below the poverty line, who are really struggling hard to recover.”

But they are making do and forging ahead with a weeklong Ike anniversary commemoration that kicked off with a torch relay Tuesday night. Residents attended a host of reflection and renewal events, including a block party, free symphony concert, art and historic tours, and a showing of a Hurricane Ike documentary. A communitywide sunrise service was to be held Sunday, the same date that the massive Category 2 storm blew in.

Hope — along with a lot of hard work — also continues, even as the emotional wounds remain, residents say. Tourists have returned this summer, riding over the island’s causeway to glistening, peaceful waters where they vacation under lollipop-striped umbrellas as the 100-plus-degree heat blazes down on Galveston’s famed shores.

Sand, sucked into the sea by the powerful waves and wind of Ike, was brought back in to re-landscape parts of the 10-mile beachfront, protected by a seawall erected after the nation’s worst hurricane in 1900, when an estimated 6,000 people died.

A plan is also under consideration to erect a 55-mile, 17-foot-high “Ike Dike” that would protect the Texas Gulf coastline from any future storm destruction, although officials acknowledge that it would take years and millions to make it a reality, even as hurricane season continues and another threat could be months or even weeks away.

In Galveston, just a block behind the mostly rebuilt resort and restaurant facade on the oceanfront tourist area — only three city hotels did not reopen — the scars of Hurricane Ike remain visible. A condo complex lies rotting, an abandoned skeleton of devastation. Streets away, piles of jagged plywood are stacked alongside unoccupied homes. Roofs still bear the protective blue tarps as residents, weary of a scam, await coveted — and honest — contractors.

Residences across blocks and blocks, particularly in the area’s poorest sections, carry the ragtag look that says they need help. Some homes have the obligatory FEMA trailers alongside where locals are living until their houses can be made habitable.

On 39th Street in Galveston, Lane Rosentreter, 21, wiped sweat off his brow as he finished up a sweltering July day of painting an elderly couple’s home along with members of a Catholic student volunteer group from Camp Shine. They worked in teams this summer, spending a week helping city residents who need assistance. They are not professionals, but their presence was welcomed and showed that someone cares.

“We just want to give them some hope,” said Mr. Rosentreter, of Carlinville, Ill., who is a history major at Illinois College. He worked at a soup kitchen last summer, but it was torn away in the storm. He returned to Galveston this summer “to do unto others,” he said.

“To have someone here — it means a lot to them,” he said. “We’ve had people stop by and say, ‘Please come to our street.’ It’s not about us. Yeah, it’s hot out here, but sometimes you’ve got to get uncomfortable for God.”

Betty Massey knows discomfort. Her husband passed away a year before Ike bore down on her city. When it was over, her house was flooded and she had lost precious artwork, furnishings and clothes, adding to her grief.

“It’s amazing how little you need to get by,” she says of the aftermath. But she was lucky. Her insurance money came through and she was able not only to rebuild but to sell her refurbished residence.

Now she is working to help others repair. While her day job is in philanthropy for a local foundation, she chairs the city’s long-term community recovery committee, which has devised a plan to deal with infrastructure and housing issues along with education and economic recovery. She is in meetings upon meetings each week as she helps to lead efforts for future post-hurricane plans.

“We were hit everywhere, so you’ve got to deal with every aspect of the community,” she says of the epic needs left in the wake of the storm.”

Apart from shoring up social services and other immediate concerns, next up on the list of city projects is the removal of 40,000 trees, many of them expansive live oaks, which were ruined by the saltwater from the storm surge. About 11,000 of those trees are in public rights of way and another 30,000 on private properties, creating an aesthetic and costly problem.

Removal, contracted with the Texas Forest Service, has started from west to east, she said. FEMA originally set a September deadline for cutting and removing the trees but that has been pushed ahead to March 2010 as city leaders craft a plan for replanting, particularly in visible esplanades and parks.

“We need to raise a lot of money to do our replanting,” Ms. Massey said. “It’s not going to come at one time.”

Another issue for the city is replacement of about 2,500 fire hydrants also damaged when saltwater flooding got inside them. City officials are awaiting the first round of funding from disaster block grants to remedy this ongoing safety concern.

Sixty-one percent of homes in the city did not have flood insurance, making it difficult for many residents to make full repairs until federal money arrives. Some have used credit cards to make partial fixes, but still need thousands more to get their houses to live-in condition, she said.

“We like to think we are Texans,” Ms. Massey says stoically of the rebuilding. “We are tough, we are self-sufficient, we are very resilient and we are going to help ourselves.”

FEMA, according to its reports, has provided $519 million in disaster assistance for housing and other needs along with “obligating” $602 million for public assistance funding. FEMA said the U.S. Small Business Administration also has approved $584 million for low-interest disaster loans.

Albert Myres, senior vice president for government and public affairs at Reliant Energy who led the Gulf Coast Ike Relief Fund for Houston Mayor Bill White, said private donations accounted for about $10.4 million. But even he concedes that compared to Katrina, the contributions were not even close.

Four years later, foundations and corporations have donated more than $1.3 billion in cash and products to Katrina relief efforts, according to a study released this month by the Foundation Center. The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund raised more than $130 million through July 31, 2007.

“With Katrina and Rita, it was all television and the media was covering it, pretty much every day for weeks. People in New Orleans were standing on top of the Superdome and the devastation of that city was kept in the public light and in the front of people’s minds for a long time,” Mr. Myres said.

“With Ike, it wasn’t that way. Folks were not seeing the devastation here every day or understanding the plight of what folks here were going through. The response, even though it was good, was less. Obviously, we had the market meltdown, the banking crisis and the economy going south and so the media did not keep the devastation in the newspapers and on television like it did with Katrina and Rita.”

Still, he says, many people reached out in support. Singer-actress Beyonce Knowles, a Texan, donated $100,000. Music star Neil Diamond raised $1.8 million through a portion of tour receipts to help repair flattened Oak Island on the east side of Galveston Bay where 300 homes were lost, Mr. Myres said, heaping praise on the singer who he said went out of his way to help.

But nearly a year after the disaster, housing continues to be crucial, officials said. Some families still awaiting insurance settlements have moved to apartments in nearby communities like Clear Lake while work is completed on their damaged island homes. While victims of Katrina were displaced far away from the comfort and community of their neighborhoods, Galveston’s victims were luckier with nearby Houston, less than an hour away, able to assist them until they could return.

“I think if you look at what is happening now, the housing situation is still problematic. You have a lot of people who have not returned,” Mr. Myres said.

“Galveston is still a ways off … and infrastructure is still lacking.”

Adds Ms. Massey: “We’ve got a huge amount of people who had no flood insurance. They may have been insured for the wind but not flood. [Grant monies] will help them repair, elevate, and in some extreme cases, tear down and rebuild.

“We are also looking at repairs for landlords who rent to low-income residents,” she said. More than 560 units of public housing were destroyed by the storm and must totally be rebuilt, displacing hundreds of families and low-income residents across the area as they await a place to return home. According to FEMA, roughly 2,700 households are still utilizing temporary housing units, which include park models and mobile homes.

“They are all over,” Ms. Massey said of those who have lost their homes. “Some are in public housing developments or in Section 8 housing, using a voucher system. Some are living in Texas City, some are in San Antonio, others in Dallas, living with friends or families.”

“We hope that that money will soon get into circulation,” she said of housing funds. “Right now, it’s at the state level.”

As many remain displaced or straining to rebuild, the city’s faith-based and social service groups also continue to struggle. While the need was great even before Ike, the aftermath added a major burden as the emotional and physical toll of loss and uncertainty continues. The city has very little middle class, with a high population of people living in poverty as well as many others on the top end of the economic scale.

“There was a lot of poverty before the storm and now it exacerbates it,” Mrs. Toberman, the head of Help4Galveston, said. “If you were poor before, you are really poor now. That is why services are so important.

“Senior citizens are overwhelmed,” she added, noting that some lacked the understanding on how to fill out paperwork or pay contractors appropriately. Small business owners have closed, and some have not yet been able to return.

“The local paper did a story on the increase of obituaries,” she said of the storm’s lingering stress. “People here are sick, they are tired and any previous illnesses have been exacerbated. We are seeing a lot of community members not sleeping well and many either undereating or overeating and a lot of increased drinking.

“Just about everyone knows someone who has gotten divorced or separated,” she said, noting that work performance has been impacted and businesses are struggling to handle the cost of finding new employees willing to come back to work.

The University of Texas Medical Branch, an academic and medical center and the city’s largest employer, was heavily damaged by Ike and laid off nearly 3,000 workers. It has since reopened along with its emergency room and trauma center, which began to welcome patients in early August. The center’s psychiatric in-patient facility, however, is not expected to reopen for several years, forcing clients to Houston and others to local mental health facilities around neighboring counties.

“There are still a lot of people who will never be the same again,” says Mike Winburn, executive director of the Gulf Coast Center, which serves the community mental health needs of Brazoria and Galveston counties. Plenty of people, he observes, have not come to terms with their very real losses. Suicides, domestic violence, crimes and other mental health-related issues have all been on the rise since the storm, he added.

“We expect that we have not yet seen the worst of the emotional impact on our community. Lots of people are frustrated. They are not back in their homes. In a very real sense, when you lose so much, it’s like you have nothing to be connected to,” he said. “We still have a lot of young kids who are very anxious that had to be displaced. Many had to move away and that has created a lot of mental trauma.

“I think it’s going to be a while until this community is back in place.”

In the aftermath of the storm, his mental health center’s 500-plus patient records were stuck inside an aging administration office building that flooded with about 12 feet of water. Because doctors needed to assess medications and other timely patient concerns, 30 employees of his center, who arrived back in the city after the storm under police escort, joined to form a human chain to climb up seven flights of stairs. They sloshed through fetid water and debris in oppressive humidity to retrieve those patient charts and get patients back on track. Their efforts to look after their clients also included door-to-door searches in the immediate aftermath to locate people who were under the center’s care to make sure that they were all right, he said.

“It was quite an adventure,” Mr. Winburn recalled. But mental health workers were able to eventually start up a new clinic on the mainland where a new in-patient crisis center is now established at a hospital in Houston. A federal grant has also allowed the center to set up ongoing crisis counseling in the area and to put in place 10 counselors who work with kids, schools and anyone who needs help, he said.

Plenty of need remains even as the one-year anniversary of the storm drew near, locals say.

“I’m still waiting on Oprah and President Obama,” jokes Mrs. Toberman of future high-profile saviors.

First lady Michelle Obama made a 2008 campaign stop at the city’s historic Opera House, which took on water in the storm. Mrs. Toberman says she wishes Mrs. Obama would return as a way to draw attention to the lingering needs there.

While NBC weatherman Al Roker visited Galveston in June with a welcome and surprising $540,600 donation of supplies for her nonprofit group, Mrs. Toberman welcomes other celebrity interest and anyone whose profile could call a need for money and help for a city she calls rich in arts, heritage and heart.

Unlike Katrina, where many complained of the speed of federal response, officials said FEMA response has been relatively quick, with more money from community development block grants expected later this summer.

FEMA says Ike relief remains a priority as lessons are learned from previous relief efforts.

“FEMA has made great strides over the last few years in regards to its preparations for and response to disasters, including strengthening our partnerships with the state and local leaders we support,” FEMA spokesman Clark Stevens said. “Under the leadership of the new administration, Secretary Napolitano, and Administrator Craig Fugate, these efforts to build a stronger response team have increased.

Steve LeBlanc, Galveston’s city manager, said FEMA has obligated about $95 million in new funding. “It’s in the cue approved and ready to come as soon as projects get completed,” he said. “That’s been a huge help for us.”

Another $267 million from the community block grants the city applied for is also on its way, which Mr. LeBlanc said he greatly appreciates.

“It takes a lot of time to get this. It’s a slow process, but we’ve got almost $300 million plus that is obligated to come our way. I think we’ve made good progress considering the amount of devastation.”

About 75 percent of the city was impacted by flooding with total storm damage estimates for Ike in the United States hitting about $24 billion. By contrast, damages from Katrina totaled $81 billion.

A year later, area leaders are engaged in not only rebuilding efforts but strengthening outdated infrastructure and strategic plans.

Galveston Island, a port city, is focused on sewer and water overhauls, long overdue, as it makes post-Ike improvements. It is also invested in projects for children and education. Ms. Massey said two elementary schools and one middle school remain closed, but she lauds one bright spot: KIPP Academy, a well-known charter school organization, will open the area’s first charter school within an existing school this fall.

“We are an amazingly resilient community,” she said, even as some anxiety remains.

“We’ve been coming back fast, but this is still all this stuff festering under the scab. August and September are two of the scariest months in hurricane season. As we cross that threshold into the Sept. 13 date, I think people are nervous. We are going to hear more and more ‘I can’t go through this again.’”

A sign outside of an outdoor blinds company on a main Galveston drag bears a cryptic warning: “It’s here. Are you prepared?” The “It” of the message has taken on a greater meaning in a city frayed and worn but still watching the coastline and fickle Mother Nature with great alert.

In spite of the fear, city leaders put on a brave face as they look ahead at rebirth and a better day. Most see opportunity in the overhaul to revamp outdated 1960s and ‘70s-era land-use ordinances and redo their comprehensive plan and codes, along with zoning ordinances — something that most cities could never change because of time and money.

When the fixes are complete, trees will be replanted more strategically, better parks will emerge, new and architecturally pleasing housing developments will go up as the slate has been wiped clean by tragedy for a municipal do-over of sorts, Ms. Massey said.

“This is our chance to do things better,” she said optimistically. “All those things you wanted to change, physically and economically, Ike has moved a lot of the mountain for us in a sense.”

• Andrea Billups can be reached at abillups@washingtontimes.com.

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