Q&A: Austin’s Coastal Neighbors

How Galveston looks to its past to prepare for its future – and what that means for Austin

Sculptor David W. Moore's 1900 Storm Memorial was dedicated in 2000 on the 100th anniversary of that calamity; uplifting and vital today, it commemorates one year since Hurricane Ike.
Sculptor David W. Moore's 1900 Storm Memorial was dedicated in 2000 on the 100th anniversary of that calamity; uplifting and vital today, it commemorates one year since Hurricane Ike.
Photo by Jana Birchum

Austin has an established agreement with the city of Galveston to receive evacuees by bus during times of crisis, thus the emergency management decisions and plans of both municipalities are intrinsically linked. I spoke with Scott Swearengin, assistant director of Austin's Office of Emergency Management, about how Austin prepares for hurricane season and the lessons of Hurricane Ike. I also spoke with Galveston Public Information Officer Alicia Cahill about the logistics of communicating with the public during emergencies. Brief transcripts of both interviews can be found below, after the full transcript of a May 22 conversation with Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas, City Manager Steve LeBlanc, and Deputy City Manager Brandon Wade on the city's recovery since Ike and the lessons learned.

Lyda Ann Thomas, Steve LeBlanc, and Brandon Wade

Evacuation

Austin Chronicle: Let's go back to last year when Ike hit. Do you feel that the procedures you had on the books and the decisions employed at the time Hurricane Ike hit were successful?

Lyda Ann Thomas: I don't think you can ever call a plan that has to do with a catastrophic event a success. I would better describe our plans as being longtime in the making. We have hurricane preparedness plans that are at least 25 years old. We review them every year, and we adjust them according to whatever happened the year before. Anybody's hurricane preparedness plans or catastrophic plans have to be flexible. Ours are. Putting plans into effect has to do with the event: How big is the storm? Where is it? Is it coming here? Is it going somewhere else?

There are several pieces to our plan that don't change: One is that as the weather approaches, the call for voluntary evacuation is something that is interrelated to the state rules and regulation, which impact any county and city that's in the path of the storm. There are definite time frames to call for voluntary evacuation, and then the next call is for mandatory evacuation. We stay prepared for both of those calls, and by that I mean that when we call for a voluntary evacuation, the first call is for the West End of the island, which is not protected by the Seawall. If the tide goes beyond over three feet there, we call for voluntary evacuation of the West End of Galveston island. As the tides begin to rise, we then call for a voluntary evacuation of the entire city. Then the third call, the mandatory call – when that call is made, all hotels, stores, businesses absolutely shut down immediately. Now when we make a mandatory call in this country, we also have to say to our citizens, "If you stay, we warn you, that you stay at your own risk." There will be little or no medical service, certainly no city services, possibly no lights, no water, no gas, all of which happened during Ike – did not happen with Rita, did happen with Katrina. So for recent times, we used Katrina as an example of what could happen to Galveston should the storm be that bad. Rita missed us, but we did evacuate. Ike hit us and hit us hard, so that part of our planning – the evacuation part – is serious and very basic.

As we approach storm season every year, we have what we call the Mayor's Emergency Preparedness Partnership Meetings. I started those meetings immediately after Katrina, actually. We meet once a month with our partners beginning in January/February of every year, preparing for storm season, which begins in June. Our partners include the National Weather Service, our county emergency planning team, we have a representative from the state emergency planning team, we have our medical – UTMB [University of Texas Medical Branch]. We have the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, MHMR [Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation] – which here is known as the Gulf Coast Center. We have the Coast Guard, the Corps of Engineers, the port, all of Mr. [Steve] LeBlanc's department heads, Galveston Independent School District, and others.

Each month we meet, and we review the city's preconditioned contracts, which become very important, and those were put in to place after Katrina and Rita. We review our transportation system, because the city of Galveston does evacuate 3,500 to 4,000 individuals who depend upon public transportation here. We did it during Rita, on school buses. We've gotten a lot better at it – we have precontracts now with Houston Metro so that those buses are air-conditioned and have restrooms on them, which we didn't have during Rita. That's a big, very important change. ... We have preconditioned contracts with the city of Austin to take our people to.

These are all firsts in disaster planning here in the state of Texas, and we have become a national model because of the way we plan. We have contracts with our fuel supplier to bring fuel onto the island by barge if we can't get through on the bridges or the ferry. We find out from MHMR and from our Galveston Housing Authority, which is also on the list. "Are there buses lined up? Where are they going to take their clients? And residents?" The Red Cross and Salvation Army, they vacate the island. They will not come back until after an event. But where are they? Have they staged their supplies to come in here, and how close is it? So our planning process, our emergency preparedness process, is very well structured – and very serious. One of the most important things we have to have here is communication with our partners as well as our citizens, and we have already started as we do every year, reminding our citizens of what they need, whether they stay or go; they need certain things in their lives in boxes or suitcases ready to go. And those include insurance papers, medical considerations. We ask our citizens to get at least a 30-day prescription from their doctors so that when they leave, they can be refilled. Flashlights, food, canned food, diapers, dog food. The citizens of Galveston have gotten very serious about this. They pay more and more attention to those preparations, particularly since Rita, than they ever have before.

We also have a town meeting. Very few people used to come. Now it's 500 to 600 people, sometimes more [referring to a June 3 meeting]. We have the weather service here, we have the state, we have the county, and we go over all of these preparations with our citizens. For our special-needs population, we have helped put more and more focus on special-needs evacuation. Those citizens, we have a Mayor's Response Team [which signs up special-needs citizens for early evacuation] and a Citizens Response Team [volunteer liaisons between the city and neighborhoods after citizens return from evacuation], which we initiated, again, with Rita. So our Galveston citizens, particularly our volunteers here at City Hall and from our medical branch who actually get on the buses with our citizens and stay with them in Austin. If they are on oxygen, we know that – we put them on special transportation. If they're diabetic. If they have cancer [and require] necessary cancer treatment, we know that ahead of time, because the Citizen's Response Team, they are already on the phones, calling our citizens from the last list. We ask our citizens publicly; there is a special number for them to call. The reason we do this is because our citizens need to be reassured: When they leave here, they are going to be cared for. And we're going to get 'em back as soon as we can. And our citizens also need to know that the city's going to do everything we can to protect their property. So, the preparedness piece to this – in this city, and really I think it's becoming more and more evident along the Gulf Coast – is extremely important.

We got hit for the first time in a long time, but in between these storms people become, you know, they just become sort of apathetic: "It's not going to happen here." We don't let our citizens fall into that trap anymore. Now if they do and they don't pay attention to what we are talking to them about, then again it's at their own risk. So, I think that covers your question about preparedness. But I always like to tell this part of our story, which has to do with why we're prepared the way we are. And when I stop talking about our history, then you may want to hear from Mr. LeBlanc about the financial piece to this. ...

In 1900 we were hit, and Galveston looked in 1900 like New Orleans did after Katrina, but because of the history that's been written about the 1900 storm, some of us – as the leaders did then – we looked back at the 1900 response and recovery, and we used what happened financially to the city and the recovery of 1900 to recover again. And that has to do with the fact that the financial leadership of this city at that time used their own good faith and credit to borrow money and to collateralize bonds so that the city could keep operating. Part of those bonds were used to build the Seawall. If we didn't have the Seawall today, with the aftermath of Ike and that, we would not be here talking to you. So we rely on past events all the way back to 1900 in our planning process. And one of the pieces that is helping Galveston recover now is the financial – the thinking ahead, the planning ahead that we did immediately following Katrina. And I can assure you that those financial considerations and the reserves that we set up are the only reasons why this city has any operating money today.

AC: Well you've just torn through questions one through five! [Laughter]

Thomas: Well, I like to save time.

AC: Very effective. That said, I do have a few subquestions to insert: The planning, the constant reviewing that you are doing at this point – now looking back, specifically on Ike – are there immediate things that you would tweak and do differently at this point specifically regarding the response to Ike? What's the number one lesson of Ike?

Thomas: One is communications. We can always improve communications. We did not, but we do now have what I call an "off-island website." With the mandatory evacuation – and in particular with Ike, though – the inability for us to let our citizens return meant that they were scattered all over the country. ... They got plenty of information from the media, but it was not Galveston information. Steve can tell you what we are doing about that, but this is going to be a website – or is a website, I don't know how far with it yet – where people, if they are in New York or Europe, they can get the Galveston website, which allows us then to feed very important information in great detail.

AC: And immediate timeliness?

Thomas: Yes. Now the other piece that we faced that we were not well-enough prepared for was this 14-foot surge from the north side, from the bay. The National Weather Service admits that they did not and have not concentrated enough on the dangers of a surge. What Galveston was left with was an ineffective re-entry plan. We have to get our re-entry plan down to a science. So communications and a re-entry plan, to my mind, are ... the two – there are many – of my priorities for this season.

Steve LeBlanc: The city of Galveston has a website, and actually it was up and running the day after the storm. There's a link you could have gone to to get the information, but that was difficult. What we'll have in place this time is we'll have a ghost page that as soon as we go to this mode, that if you type in "city of Galveston," it will immediately have the information needed that will be timely for our citizens who were scattered all the way to New York. Basically, it will be managed off-island. All that's in the works and will be up and running.

AC: Will you all be working with Guidry [online news service], with The Galveston Daily News? What sort of partnerships are happening with them and/or other media outlets?

LeBlanc: First of all, every one of those are linked or will be to us so that in the event that somebody wants to go on Guidry, they'll immediately be able to link to Galveston and this ghost page which will have all the information and all those contacts have been made. They are in the works, if not already up. [See interview with Galveston Public Information Officer Alicia Cahill.]

Regarding re-entry, the last time [during Ike] one of the reasons it was so ... I hate to use the word "screwed up" in an interview ... but ... "didn't work well" might be a better way – we had so many agencies involved. We had the city of Galveston. We had Tiki Island. We had state highway patrol. We had the Texas Rangers, we had too much help, in a sense, that was not coordinated well. It was not coordinated well at the checkpoints. And, of course, each of these entities, when they're out on the road, they think they're king of the road.

AC: Martial law? That's what we experienced while attempting relief work.

LeBlanc: There really was a lot of battling going on right there on the street on who was in charge. And the one thing we knew was that we had control at least up to our city limit line. But beyond that, we couldn't control anything. So what happened was these other agencies set up just outside of our reach, so to speak. What's happening now is all these agencies here to help us ... have agreed that the city of Galveston police chief will be the central and only person – or his designee, one of his captains, if he's not there – who will make the call on any re-entry. Period. So all of them will be subservient to us, and that solves the problem. That's the number one thing that happened.

AC: So are you saying you feel that certain types of coordination and relief effort were not getting as far into the island as you all would have wanted?

LeBlanc: I think it was slowed down. I think it ultimately got in, but it was slowed down.

Thomas: For instance, the medical UTMB needed – they had trucks out there with certain kinds of supplies and medicine, and they couldn't get through because the lines were so long. Once they got to a certain point, with the traffic backed up to I don't know where – Clear Lake or somewhere – all kinds of supplies got slowed down. They finally got here, but we had an emergency lane for medical and first responders, but everybody else was using it, too. It was too much confusion. There were a lot of people saying, "Well I'm someone." You know the drill. Now we'll have the chief of police of Galveston at the causeway.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas
Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas
Photo by Jana Birchum

One of the important pieces of recovery – actually one of the important pieces of the entire preparation, and we've worked with the state on this, and they fully realize it – certain decisions have to be made locally. They cannot be made by the governor, they cannot be made by FEMA [Federal Emergency Management System], and the state recognizes that. That it is the mayor and the county judge of any city that's hit by one of these events, they must have the final authority. If it's re-entry, re-entry. If it's evacuation, evacuation. The way that works, however, is for all the counties and cities along the way to be in communication. So again, the communication has certainly improved since Rita and gets better every year. But if we had had better communication [with these agencies during Ike], our re-entry process would have gone a lot smoother. Some of that communication has to be between the city and our citizens. They also have to understand and realize the process that they have to go through to get back onto the island.

Re-entry

AC: From the point of view of many islanders, the main issues seemed to be around re-entry. But knowing what you know now [experiencing the surge from the harborside], do you regret not calling for an earlier mandatory evacuation? Was there any way to know or tell?

Thomas: There is no way to know or tell with these storms. Ike, in particular, when it came into the Gulf [the projections] went south, went to Padre, went back again, to Matagorda – when these evacuations are called, they are called by a team of people. The mayor certainly – not this mayor – does not arbitrarily make a call like that. Our considerations had to do with advice from the National Weather Service, local weather service, county judge, what was going on in Houston, our medical people. Sure, I could have called it earlier. But was that the right thing to do? When I called it – was that the right thing to do? The call was made based on the advice and counsel of a team. The Galveston team consists of the city manager, the mayor, the assistant city manager, the city attorney, our HR director who is in charge of volunteers – she is the lady in charge of the evacuation of our special-needs people. I've been asked that question before, and the answer is [that] I could have called it earlier, but where was Ike at the time that somebody else called it? We called it when we thought the time was right. Now if someone calls an evacuation two or three days ahead of time and everybody hauls out of here and the storm is nowhere in sight – you talk about some mad people. It's a judgment call right up front.

AC: Is there layering in the evacuation plan, evacuating the island before surrounding communities, for example?

LeBlanc: Actually, we already have that.

Thomas: After Rita, we have every assurance we can possibly get: Galveston has to go first. Now that's where the state comes in. Once you hit the state highways, they're in charge.

AC: The contraflow [emergency traffic lane reversal] signs are up [along I-10]. How does that affect ...

Thomas: That's all on the other side of Houston; we don't have anything to do with that. But they did not open the contraflow in time for the Rita event. So again, yes, it's well understood, Galveston goes, then Tiki Island, then Texas City, and all the way out. But this is the United States of America, and Mr. and Mrs. Jones decide that they're going to take their four dogs and six boats and two cars and Grandma and Grandpa and get out on that highway before they have to, there's not a darn we can do about it. So, there is a piece to preparedness that I call "citizen responsibility." And I'll be talking a lot about that this year. We haven't talked a lot about it before, but we know that citizen responsibility is something that citizens need to not only know more about; they need to become a part of the process. You cannot leave everything in your life up to the city and state and federal government. So I'm hoping that after we have our town meeting, we are going to talk about citizen responsibility. What do they have to do, and what can they do to help not only themselves but their neighbors and friends work through this process.

AC: I'd like to ask about another link in that chain: corporate and business responsibility. Receiving people at the Delco Center [in Austin], we heard stories from folks who did have to evacuate early because they had a baby or a grandmother. We heard stories that people were told that if they leave, unless the mayors call for mandatory evacuation, they will not have jobs upon their return. Did you hear stories about this? Is there any sort of oversight to address this? Are there plans to partner with these corporations and businesses? These mixed messages create as much chaos as any lack of preparedness.

Thomas: I'm not well-informed enough to answer that question. Our corporate base is small here in Galveston compared to the refineries from Texas City on up through Houston. I have no idea what these corporations do or would do. I know that we ask that people have an opportunity to come back to their jobs, but as far as the city mandating that from a private corporation, we can't involve ourselves in that. We didn't have any of that here.

I think in terms of jobs, Galveston's piece of this had to do with the UTMB and the UT regents coming in here – what, a week, two weeks after the storm – and laying off 3,000 people? When we talk about evacuation and people wanting their jobs back, I feel reasonably certain that everybody who evacuated and worked at UTMB felt sure when they came back that they were going to have a job. When in fact as it turned out, they did not. I can tell you that in terms of recovery from a catastrophic event, the UTMB regent issue has been as serious an event for Galveston as the storm itself. That was tough. [Said under her breath; shakes her head.]

Reconstruction

AC: Let's move on to reconstruction and getting the island back on her feet. Regarding building codes: Are you all working with builders/rebuilders to create stronger, more resistant codes?

Thomas: The answer is yes to your general question, and I'll let Steve fill that in.

LeBlanc: First of all, a couple of years back, we adopted the new international building codes, the 2006 version, and quite frankly it has served us very well. And as testimony to that, if you look at the homes that were built after our codes were put in to place, they did very well during Hurricane Ike. We will be asking council to approve Community Development Block Grant funding so that we can update a number of other codes, that will only further strengthen our community as we go forward.

Brandon Wade: One of the things that I think is extraordinarily important is the fact that our newer codes were very successful. We apparently knew how to build a house very well 100 years ago. My house was built about 10 years ago, and I had some cosmetic damage. More or less, mine was fine, and I actually live on the West End. Those houses that had the newer codes did very well. There was a period of time in there that I think we forgot we were a barrier island – maybe 1960s to '70s where we had some really, really awkward construction. Perhaps the construction would have worked very well in suburban Houston but didn't work so well here. We saw the results of those damages. One of the things that we have found that we have been planning – then again it all has to do with money – is revamping our subdivision ordinance and our zoning ordinance and so forth. We're going to be looking very seriously, very soon, at completely revamping our subdivision ordinance and our zoning ordinance and our various codes – wetland setbacks, beach dunes setbacks, and so forth – to make sure that we have in place the rules and regulations necessary for us to look forward to the future and mitigate against future storm damage.

AC: Can you give some more examples beyond setbacks?

Wade: Certain things such as building roads perpendicular to the beachfront as opposed to parallel to the beachfront is what we really need to be doing. If you have roadways that are parallel, you have the tendency to lose your infrastructure in such a way where you can't break it off, so to speak. But if you build it perpendicular to the beachfront, then you can have a circumstance where it's easier for us to recover. In addition, the wetland setbacks, as an example, are very important for us to be able to have those buffers on the West End. In much the same way we have the Seawall, these wetlands and dunes are very important for us to be able to do that. In addition, our densities are something we have to look at very, very carefully relative to the overall densities on the West End on whether or not we can support that.

AC: Can you sum up the damage fallout between East versus West and old versus new?

Wade: My thought processes were, I guess you could say, 100 percent wrong. I didn't expect to have a house, and right immediately after the storm, I had to be talked into going out to the West End and looking at my house, because I didn't think it was going to be there. But when I got out there, I found out my house – it was new; it's elevated – I lost everything on the first floor, but I expected that. My house turned out fine. But others did not. Older houses, those that weren't elevated very high, took in incredible damage. I think that there was that idea that because they were behind the Seawall, that they were fine. ... Old versus new is very critical for us. I want to take that one step further – the very old, in some instances, were fine.

LeBlanc: It all boils back down to what the mayor said: This storm a was a surprise because of the surge. It was only a Category 2. That's the most it ever got to.

Thomas: And we don't evacuate for a 2.

LeBlanc: When do you call evacuation? Well, some of the thoughts were, well, it was a Category 1 for a long time. Once it came over Cuba it stayed at 1. Everyone thought it was going to get to a 4 or 5, but it never did. The worst it ever got was a 2. And it waffled around all over the place. And that's why it was a little difficult as advisers to the mayor, who does make the call, whether or not it was really necessary to evacuate, because people didn't want to sit in those long lines again like they did in Rita. It made it difficult. Tying that back in to your question: How did it fare? It all related to the surge. I was one of those victims of higher water. My house sits at 11 feet, but the surge got up to 14. So I had three feet of water in my house. If you were above that, which Brandon was – his ground floor is at five, but he's elevated so he has a house on stilts, and Lyda Ann's house is in the inner core of the city, which was higher – [then you fared better]. Tying this into her comments earlier, not only was there a Seawall, but there was a grade raising [mandated after the 1900 storm, which makes parts of the island higher than others]. And that grade-raising combination – Seawall, which was the frontline, and the grade raising, which was the reinforcement, so to speak – [meant that] anybody that was in that area [was okay], and I have a rent house in that area, which did perfectly fine. And it was built in 1942. So the older homes did better; it depended on the location. And where it was relative to the elevation of the surge.

AC: Is it safe to say that modern ... current business construction along the Seawall contributed to this? One of the main differences between this storm versus the 1900 storm: You didn't have a debris line coming in cutting across with the surge.

LeBlanc: That's true. That battering ram [of debris] did not happen.

AC: Just to be clear on distinctions: Where do you all consider the east/west divide? Moody Gardens? Was it flooding on the east and wind damage on the west? Or did it flood across the entire island?

Thomas: We had flooding everywhere.

Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc
Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc
Photo by Jana Birchum

LeBlanc: Seventy-five percent of the island was flooded. That included the entire West End, and lots of the central area north of Broadway got hit real hard, because the island slopes back to the channel. The East End probably fared a little bit better. I know the historic district had some flooding. But the far East End – my parents live down there – they were perfectly fine. So it was a very unusual sort of situation.

Resilience

AC: I think we can all concur: Hooray for history. What was enforced post-1900 did what it was supposed to do.

LeBlanc: We could have looked a lot more like Bolivar had we not had the Seawall and grade raising. [Galveston County Judge] Jim Yarborough and I were jumping up and down when the eye came over us [a two-hour eye]. It made the world of difference. Hit me with the eye! We weren't on the dirty side. Thank God.

Thomas: It would have compounded the problem, because the surge itself was 14 feet.

AC: Learning from history, is there a plan to employ another massive project like the grade elevation or the Seawall? Are there plans for a system of levees and dikes?

Thomas: There are no set plans. In learning as we've learned from these various events, shoreline protection is on the frontline for future consideration. Not just Galveston, but the entire Texas Coast. The governor has a hurricane preparedness planning committee that's headed by Judge Robert Eckels in Houston. In their considerations, at their meetings, shoreline protection is something that is being talked about. Now what form that protection takes, we don't know yet. I'm not an engineer, and I don't know about a lot of these things. The general consideration for shoreline protection is very much in the thought process with the General Land Office, with FEMA. I've been in Washington several times with our delegation. Don't know where it's going to go yet. There are levees. There are revetments. Actually, the Dutch designed and helped us build the Seawall. So you can see what good that's done. I can't really speak to any particular kind, because there are so many different options. Now as far as funding is concerned, one reason to move these shoreline protection concepts along has to do with the stimulus packages that are coming out of Washington. The Corps of Engineers obviously is where this kind of planning will go, and I think they're looking at it, too. Whatever the corps can throw into the mix, they're certainly going to be a part of it. But that's where the funding would go. It would go from Washington to the Corps of Engineers.

Army Corps of Engineers

AC: Do you trust the Army Corps of Engineers?

Thomas: What can I say about a question like that? I can only tell you what they've done in Galveston. Our Port of Galveston – and Galveston is fortunate to have 45 feet of water, one of the deepest water ports this side of the Mississippi – that channel has to be dredged consistently. Over the years, we have had a good working relationship with the Corps of Engineers to help us along our waterways. But they're no different than the Texas Department of Transportation or the federal Department of Transportation. It takes time to get through the bureaucracy. It takes time. When we live where we live in Galveston – and we depend upon our Corps of Engineers to protect our waterways to deepen our harbors – we know the process takes time, so we've learned over the years to work through it. I think we've been reasonably fortunate to have the Corps of Engineers pay attention to us, and Washington has put the necessary funds here. Could we use more, and could we get it faster? And do we want it faster? Absolutely. I think that working with any federal agency – whether its the corps or FEMA or TX DOT or the Federal Transportation Department – it has to do with how the local elected officials interact and communicate with those agencies. If you sit around and criticize them and get mad at them, then you're going to get a lot less consideration than we've gotten because of our relationship and the way we've dealt with the bureaucratic process. It's a mind-boggling, delaying process. But that is the process. And as mayor and, I think, Steve as city manager and all his team, we have had to work through the process. I'm not going to let Brandon talk to you about the process, because he's been most frustrated. [Laughter] But he's learned. You know, we've learned. I'm gonna let him talk to you about how we do these things.

Wade: One of the keys to re-entry is making sure our infrastructure works. Primarily you have to make absolutely certain that your water and your sewer and to some extent your traffic signals [are working] and to some extent the debris is pushed out of the way in order to have a successful re-entry. I'll tell you that the most horrifying thing I heard during the entire storm was as the sun was coming up and the storm was trying to pass, someone coming to tell me that we had no water pressure in the place that we were staying. It was shocking to me, and to be quite honest with you, I was briefly in denial. I was wondering what it was that the hotel had done to cause them to lose water, because I just really didn't expect that we would have lost water. And then when I was starting to understand: We actually operate the second oldest water-pump station in the United States, and that pump station, with the exception of the 1900 storm, when it was destroyed, after that, that pump station really hasn't failed to speak of. It was an incredible shock. However, it got dumped in the water, is kind of what it boils down to.

Now one of the things that we have been doing: Steve was director of Public Works when he first came to work here. One of the things Steve started when he got here was this tradition of building up bulkier, hardened infrastructure. And one of the things that we were able to do is – I guess it was completed a couple of years ago – it was the Terramar Beach Wastewater Treatment Plant. This thing is on the far West End. It's about 20 or so miles down the island from here [downtown]. We had just finished the thing; we had replaced an old tin can as a waste water treatment plant. The only reason [the new] wastewater treatment plant failed is because it ran out of diesel with the backup generators, and we couldn't get to it because of all the debris. That thing functioned like a trooper right on through the storm and right on beyond and kept on going. We had started, prior to the storm beginning, a reconstruction of the 30th Street water-pump station that failed. It's two blocks north of the current 30th Street water-pump station. Had we been fortunate enough to get that pump station in business, online before that storm hit, we would not have lost water pressure during the storm. Had we not lost water pressure during the storm, there's a great deal of misery that we would have been able to avoid. So we're well on the way with getting our infrastructure in place, so that's why – while that's not the "Ike Dike" [for background on the Ike Dike, see hydrology.rice.edu/sspeed/project_dike.html] – it's smaller critical notes of keeping our infrastructure functioning. We're looking at reconstructing our waste water treatment plant so it will continue to function. We have started building tougher traffic signals so that those things can be put back into business, and they go.

Thomas: I think that the point that we need to make with regard to shoreline protection. I was on a panel at Rice University not long ago with [Houston] Mayor [Bill] White, and one of the people in the audience said: "Well, mayor, if we come to Galveston and we want to make a $200 million investment and economic investment, what are you all going to do to help us protect that investment? Shoreline, what else?" Well, Brandon's point is that shoreline protection is only the beginning of the kind of protection that we have to consider if we are going to rebuild this city to attract economic development, because if our infrastructure is not rebuilt and we don't harden our light fixtures and our water and so on and so forth, then the shoreline protection is only good for that part of it. So I want to tell you that when I speak to people now and we talk about shoreline protection, we also have to talk about infrastructure protection.

The Stimulus

AC: What sort of coordinated efforts with other agencies are in place? Are there specific items, for example, within the Federal Stimulus Package that you can apply for, or have applied for? You spoke of spending considerable time in Washington, D.C. – what are you tapping into?

Thomas: There are a number of opportunities in that package that Galveston could be eligible for. I'm going to let Steve speak to that.

LeBlanc: First of all we have already tapped into one part of it, and that's the assistance to hire additional law enforcement officers. Council has already approved the process and application, and we will get funding for 15 additional police officers. That's going to help us out tremendously. There are other components that are part of that. One is the fire stations [which] we are looking at very seriously right now. Our need has really been on emergency medical service, and that's semi-tied into fire service. In a lot of areas of the country, those two are connected – not so here. However, we haven't been able to find a direct allocation for operations of EMS, so what we're looking at is the possibility of funding fire service, at least the capital needs, etc., so that in the interim we can shift our money from fire [so that] we can use it for EMS. We're working through that right now, as a matter of fact. So that's a second area that we're looking at. A third area is trees. One of the big problems that we have right now is that a lot of trees are dead due to the storm. Although they're not an immediate problem right now, they are going to be probably very soon. They are going to break; they're going to fall; they're dead. They need to be removed; they need to be replaced. There actually is a program that we're exploring what [options we have].

AC: Have you all connected with New Orleans or other Gulf Coast communities to compare notes on post-recovery? Is there any sort of consortium or group where Gulf Coast mayors, etc., come together on issues such as these?

Thomas: [New Orleans Mayor Ray] Nagin called two or three times, and he wanted to come to Galveston, but our schedules never got put together. But we went to New Orleans after the storm, and we spent a lot of time talking to their emergency management head, and we toured with them. I haven't been in touch with them since. One of our greatest sources of info and support has come from Biloxi, Mississippi. There is much more similarity between what happened here and there, and Brent Warr, who is mayor of Gulfport, came right after the storm with a team of people to give us his advice. ... Our Galveston housing authority people and others, including some of the folks interested in shoreline protection, have gone to Gulfport and met over there. Yes, not New Orleans as much as Mississippi. New Orleans had a levee problem, which damaged them possibly more than Katrina itself. We have the beach – we're a little bit closer to what happened in Mississippi than what happened in New Orleans.

Life After Ike

AC: What is the political landscape like, post-Ike? How has this event affected local politics – locally versus nationally versus state?

Thomas: Let me talk to you about the people first, because they're most important. I think that all of us and all of our citizens were in a state of shock after Ike. I don't have any question about that, because the damage was so widespread. We've had storms in Galveston forever. Generally people have been allowed to come back two to three days after a storm ... maybe without power, but there was enough water, and so on. So people left with the expectation of coming back within a couple of days, maybe three days, and we kind of thought that ourselves. What happened is that I think it really crushed the citizens ... not necessarily their spirit but their overcoming the surge and the storm itself had to do with the fact that we had no water, no power, no gas, no grocery store, no drug store, and certainly no medical care. And the public health officials from Washington and from Austin and certainly from the county said to me: "Your citizens cannot come back." And they were at the gate. Well, I had to say, "You can't come home." Now what that did was create a lot of frustration and anger because it only takes two or three days for the mold to begin to grow. And it also meant that the citizens who were staying in condos or apartments or with friends or if they had rented something, not only were they paying mortgages and insurance here, they were paying rent wherever they were. And they couldn't come back until about 10 days after the storm.

So the effect of the storm itself, the laying-off of people at UTMB, and the damage that was not only caused by the storm but that grew even greater after the storm – before our citizens could come [home] and do something about it – created anger ... resentment: "We're never going to go through this again." "To hell with the mayor; to hell with the city manager." Now, seven months later, the people are beginning to recover from their trauma. I think there's been a grieving period here. I think not just for our citizens but for our kids. They lost their bicycles, the mementos, their pictures in their rooms. They're beginning to understand now how bad the storm was – why they couldn't come back. ...

Our people are now beginning to get the money they need to repair their houses, and people are beginning to feel better. So that's the citizens' side. And they're all beginning to feel a little bit better. The Galveston spirit that was in evidence after the 1900 storm is alive and well on this island. Because everybody I see in the grocery store, wherever we go, they're working hard. The businesses are getting loans. We have $60 million out of our banks here. Our local banks have loaned, on very lenient terms, over $60 million to our local business people to get them back into business while they wait for FEMA and the insurance, which does take too long. Way too long. But it's happening.

Now as far as our relationships with the political world, I think they're good. I feel positive from the very beginning about our relationships certainly with Senators [Kay Bailey] Hutchison and [John] Cornyn and our Republican and Democratic delegation in Washington. The lines of my communication with all of our delegates have been excellent. They've never turned me down for a phone call. They've never worked harder to help us get through the process.

FEMA can be very frustrating. I've spent time in Washington appearing before both the Senate and House committees saying to FEMA: "You've got to rewrite the Stafford Act. It doesn't work anymore." And Senator [Mary] Landrieu from Louisiana, I met with her and others – they understand this, and they are working on changing the Stafford Act. Let me tell you why this is important: This is where bureaucracy absolutely falls off the back of the truck. Our citizens need a little bit of money to get back in their houses. To get through that process, guess what they have to have? They have to have title to their home. "Do you have insurance? And who has it? And how much is it? Because we're not going to give you any money," FEMA says, "until we know who else is going to give you money. We want your pay stubs." These folks lost everything. Nothing is left. Sure, some of them took these things with them, but not everybody thinks about that when you're trying to get out of the storm's way. FEMA has to stop doing that. And I've told them that. And they're working on that. On the other hand, their response immediately following the storm cannot be faulted. They came in here with generators the size of this building. They came in here with pods with water, with the medical care [units] for UTMB. Their immediate response to an emergency is good. Everything can always be better, but it was good. But their response to the citizens needs to be reviewed and amended.

AC: Have you taken a role in addressing the windstorm insurance issue?

Thomas: We have a windstorm insurance committee here that I would not want to buck them. They're very strong. I have not personally, but we do have that representation.

LeBlanc: We've worked very hard to assure that we are not overly gouged on our insurance.

Cuba

AC: You went to Cuba, yes?

Assistant Galveston City Manager Brandon Wade
Assistant Galveston City Manager Brandon Wade
Photo by Jana Birchum

Thomas: Cuba! Cuba was very interesting. We were invited to go by the Center for International Policy in Washington – I was, among others. The people in Cuba are as warm and inviting and welcoming as they are in any other part of the South American hemisphere. ... We went to several hospitals because we talked about emergency care. We certainly talked about evacuation, because Cuba has had so many more storms than we have.

We went to the foreign ministry, met with those folks. What I brought back was several things. Number 1: They have a "know your neighbor" policy, which I've started working on here. What that is, is for citizens to take the responsibility on themselves to help the processes in preparedness for storms. In Cuba, a neighbor knows who on his or her block is disabled, who lives alone, who has relatives they can go to when an evacuation is called. What do they need? Do they need flashlight batteries? Do they need food? So the "know your neighbor" policy in Cuba is something that I have brought back to Galveston and am working on with some of our committees here.

The other piece that I found that we can do a better job has to do with the installation of generators. In Cuba the generators have been – long before this – installed in places that we don't have them, and I think we need them. One, their hospital generators are above ground. Now remember Galveston had this surge flood business before, and now we are hardening everything in the hospital, for instance, going up two stories with all of their equipment. But generators are in place, and they run on diesel, and they run 72 hours at a clip in schools, in hospitals, bakeries, fuel stations, so that they don't have to go out of commission after a storm. So, we're talking generators. Now, we don't have a shelter on the island during a storm; we just don't have them, because it's too dangerous to have people here. But if we had generators in a couple of our school buildings that you could turn on right away, so that people who didn't leave and should have had a place to go, or when we bring our citizens back, we could at least house a few people. So, those were good things.

There are other processes they have in Cuba that I don't think we can do very well, but I did learn something from Cuba. I was very appreciative of having the opportunity.

AC: Term limits notwithstanding, will you remain active in Galveston politics?

Thomas: I have no doubt that I will. Before I went on the council in 1998, I'd been on every committee, and I'll be doing that again. My family, we have the Harris & Eliza Kempner Fund here, which is a foundation. I'm president of that, and I'll revisit that as well. So I'll stay busy, and I hope to be able to share with other communities the knowledge and experience that I've had with hurricane planning, should they want it. I'll be happy to be that messenger as time goes on.


Scott Swearengin: Austin's Role in Hurricane Emergencies

Austin Chronicle: Austin is a major hub to receive and process evacuees from around the state during emergency. How does that work? Do we have agreements with certain areas to take evacuees? And how many people do we take in? How many people, for example, did we serve during Ike?

Scott Swearengin: We have a written interlocal agreement with Galveston city and county to accept evacuees by bus in [what we call] a point-to-point agreement. However, evacuees come into our community from anywhere along the coast regardless of plans. People coming in their own cars are going to go whenever and wherever they choose to go to. We received 1,500 point-to-point from Ike and 6,000 total; 18,000 evacuated from Rita. Most came from personal vehicles. During Katrina we had 5,000 at the Convention Center.

AC: In looking back on the events leading up to Hurricane Ike specifically, how do you feel about the timing of when the evacuations were called?

SS: Obviously, we'd like for them to make the determination as early as possible. However, storms don't always cooperate. We were gearing up no matter where people were coming from or when, regardless. We're just prepared no matter what happens.

AC: What goes into effect once disaster strikes and an emergency is officially called?

SS: We have [what we call a] shelter hub system. Once the state of Texas asks us to activate the system, we activate. We also have other shelters on standby so we can receive additional evacuees coming by car. We request from Galveston a count of the number of buses [coming to Austin]. Once we receive this, we handle the rest at this end. We are ready to implement [all of this] whenever necessary.

AC: Are priorities given to people coming in from certain areas? Is it coordinated that way? How do you determine who goes to which shelter?

SS: Just as we did during Rita, during Ike we accepted evacuees on a first-come, first-serve basis. [All evacuees] receive the same shelter services over all schools and facilities we use.

AC: What does your typical point-to-point evacuee experience?

SS: From Galveston? As I understand it, evacuees go or are taken to departure hubs where they identify medical special needs versus non-, and then from those hubs they are dispatched in groups on buses that depart for our area. We then establish a transportation reception center for those buses to recheck needs. Then we dispatch them on to the appropriate shelters to be served.

AC: So, beyond special needs, all other facilities offer similar services? What are those services?

SS: Our evacuee center system is designed to provide life-saving shelter for the first few days of an event. People get confused about that very quickly. We work with state and coastal communities to estimate immediate shelter needs and offer that until they can go back home or elsewhere.

AC: What could be improved?

SS: We're trying very, very, very hard to have a computer system out [there in the hubs to process evacuees]. There are a lot of moving parts. We're asking the state of Texas to establish a master Web page that will take evacuees and other interested persons to information on the status of any community along the coast – one common page as a source for everyone.


Alicia Cahill: Communication During a Storm

Austin Chronicle: How did the city of Galveston maintain its website and communication with citizens during Ike? When I spoke with the mayor and city manager, they spoke of a need to harden the systems.

Alicia Cahill: Actually we were able [during Ike] to go online via Microsoft trailers 36 hours after the storm. We were able to post the first current conditions [reports] to give people an idea about the scope of the damage. [It was, however] troublesome for those who went to Houston.

AC: Did the site go down?

Cahill: Our website never went down. Our servers are in Houston, and we have backup in Dallas. But it was never a server problem. It was an access problem. Cells, Internet, cables were down. And we couldn't post from where we were.

AC: Are you considering issuing satellite cards for the future?

Cahill: Yes.

AC: What is the status of fortifying the city's website – or as the mayor called it, the "ghost page" – and improving your ability to communicate to citizens during crisis?

Cahill: The ghost site is basically a page technology that many universities and corporations use to help push site visitors. It's a page on your website that deactivates many other pages on your website and funnels all visitors to emergency info, for example, in an easily accessible format. It has the same look, feel, appearance, and URL. [The experience is] seamless. Once the emergency subsides, the page will be available to see but [will no longer be] the default.

AC: On another topic that I am sure is on your mind: How did the summer season shake out? I remember Memorial Day weekend was packed.

Cahill: It's interesting: There were huge numbers of people coming to the beach. The numbers of day trippers coming to the island were huge. Unfortunately, those numbers were not reflected in hotel occupancy. A number of hotels have responded with rate adjustments, special packages, a special volunteer rate for people who wish to volunteer to help in recovery.

  • More of the Story

  • A Year Later

    Galveston marks Ike anniversary with celebrations of recovery and rebirth
  • Ike and the 81st Lege

    How did Galveston fare at the Capitol?
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