Galveston's land-use decisions exposed by storm's wrath
Despite its rich and storied history, confederate jasmine-and-oleander-scented charms, 32 miles of public beaches, and a treasure trove of Victorian architecture, Galveston has one irremediable flaw: 169 years ago, it was incorporated on the shifting sands of a barrier island.
As coastal geologists explain, the natural order of things is for these slightly elevated sandbars to roll over, inch by inch, foot by foot, from seaward to landward as every breeze and gale blows sand inland. Hydrologic processes ranging from tides and thundershowers to leviathan storm surges also are changing the island's features, rebuilding beaches and dunes farther inland.
Because they are in constant, if slow, motion, barrier islands are inhospitable places to build cities, or even beach houses. That, plus their natural propensity to flood – now intensified due to gradually rising sea levels – is why the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change strongly opposes infrastructure development on barrier islands. As the Gospel of St. Matthew recapitulates the age-old wisdom, only fools build their houses on sand.
On the second week of September 1900, a monster storm that today would be classified as a Category 4 hurricane blindsided and devastated the island city in what is still the deadliest natural disaster in American history.
Here's the dirty little secret about Galveston's two most devastating storms: Long before the 1900 hurricane and again decades before Ike made landfall Sept. 13, the community's political leaders were warned of the dangers and advised how to mitigate them – yet they did nothing. In this era of worldwide climate disruption, these are sobering and cautionary tales for us all.
This time, thanks to modern meteorology, the mayor was able to order a "mandatory evacuation" of the city two days before the hurricane made landfall, and an estimated 60% of residents were gone by the time the storm hit. For that reason and because the storm surge on most of Galveston Island was only 12 to 15 feet, rather than the predicted maximum of 25 feet, only 19 people on the island died as a direct result of Ike, and 10 more are still missing from Bolivar Peninsula. Flooding was intense, afflicting three-quarters of the city's structures.
Across the bay on Bolivar Peninsula, the storm surge flattened the fishing village of Port Bolivar and wrecked the resort community of Gilchrist, as well as many vacation homes on West Galveston Island and homes and businesses in Bacliff, Kemah, and Seabrook. The storm also mangled popular Galveston tourist attractions such as Moody Gardens and Schlitterbahn Waterpark. Only Moody Gardens has reopened.
Meanwhile, in Chambers and Jefferson counties alone, Ike killed an estimated 10,000 cows and calves, according to Monty Dozier, regional program director for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. Hundreds of acres of pastures were damaged by the saltwater flooding, and Dozier estimates that it may take them six to 18 months to recover.
Rice farmers were hard hit. In Chambers County, east of Houston, an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 acres were inundated, said Thomas Wynn, director of market development for the Houston-based U.S. Rice Producers Association. Collectively, one industry expert said, the storm easily will cost Texas rice farmers millions of dollars, and the salty soil may cause trouble for several growing seasons to come. Ike also caused "tremendous habitat destruction" for birds, said Winnie Burkett of the Houston Audubon Society. Two days of saltwater inundation across tens of thousands of acres wiped out virtually all the insects, plants, and seeds that migrating birds live on.
Some stretches of beaches roiled by Ike may be gone forever, and some Galveston neighborhoods may never be rebuilt.
If you assumed that this storm, like so many others, had come and gone, causing only some minor flooding and broken windows and ripped-off roofs – well, that's what a lot of officials are hoping you'll think. People in Washington, D.C., and at the governor's office in Austin aren't eager for Texans to realize the extent to which the Galveston and coast they've known and loved is damaged and changed, perhaps forever.
Before Sept. 8, 1900, Galveston was Texas' fourth-largest city, a fast-growing metropolis of nearly 38,000 people perched on the east/northeast end of Galveston Island. It was a thriving resort, a center of banking and commerce, and the most important U.S. commercial port between New Orleans and San Francisco. Galveston wanted to be seen as the Manhattan of the Gulf. The city boasted more millionaires per capita than Newport, R.I., and it aspired for the Strand, its financial heart, to be recognized as the "Wall Street of the South."
But Galveston's fin de siècle economic boom and particularly its burgeoning tourism industry had already produced the seeds of the city's near-destruction. "In its natural state," said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a history of the island's seawall, Galveston's gulf shore "was bordered by an area of sand dunes rising to heights of 12 to 15 feet above the natural surface of the island." The dunes protected the island from hurricane tides, the Corps history said, but by the late 1800s, development had led to removal of the dunes. The resulting danger "was realized by many people, and several plans for storm protection had been developed; however, because of financing difficulties and general public apathy, none of these plans was carried out."
In other words, the storm's huge death toll and devastation were not only natural disasters but also environmental ones, aided and abetted by human shortsightedness, avarice, and criminal stupidity. Much of the hurricane's carnage was entirely predictable and could have been avoided, but Galveston's wealthiest citizens thought it cost too much, and the public cared too little. What did American poet and philosopher George Santayana say about those who fail to learn the lessons of history being condemned to repeat them?
The 1900 storm's 15- to 20-foot tidal surge drowned 6,000 to 8,000 people, demolished more than 3,600 houses, cut the city tax rolls in half, and put Galveston in the history books in a far different way than its leaders had hoped. Afterward, the Corps of Engineers designed and built a 3-mile-long, 17-foot-high seawall that protected the most densely inhabited part of the island from the worst effects of storms for many years. Meanwhile, Galvestonians undertook a heroic project to raise the island's grade, jacking up existing buildings and pumping in fill beneath them. The resulting elevation was sloped so that any storm water from the Gulf that overtopped the seawall would flow northward downhill to Galveston Bay. The seawall was later extended to 10 miles, but its effective height was eventually reduced by 2 feet, due to subsidence from the extraction of oil, gas, and water beneath the island by a newer generation of robber barons.
After 1900, Galveston eventually revived and rebuilt, growing modestly to a peak of around 60,000 residents in the early 1960s. But it never achieved its earlier ambition and never became a major Texas city or regional financial center. Commenting on its 19th century architecture, saved largely because of the island's ensuing economic stagnation, the novelist Edna Ferber once memorably compared Galveston at mid-20th century to a fly encased in amber.
City leaders apparently had another chance to bolster their island's defenses. According to an article in Galveston's Daily News, the Corps of Engineers in 1979 had described in detail the possibility of a dangerous storm that, like Ike, flooded Galveston from the bay forward rather than from the seawall back and had recommended a federally subsidized solution: a 12.5-mile ring levee system, up to 19 feet high, running from the ends of the Galveston seawall north and curving back along Harborside Drive. Essentially, this would have encircled the southwest and northeast flanks and rear of the parts of the island unprotected by the seawall. That proposal, with an estimated cost at the time of $94 million, was strongly backed by longtime U.S. Rep. Jack Brooks of Beaumont, the powerful congressman who represented Galveston and chaired the Government Operations Committee. For that reason alone, the then-Democratic Congress almost certainly would have passed it.
But the plan required Galveston County to pick up 30% of the tab, plus provide a $120,000 annual maintenance budget. Galveston County commissioners balked, looked at cheaper solutions, and ultimately did nothing. Or as the Corps had written about earlier warnings that were likewise ignored, the plan was dropped because of the expense and "general public apathy."
The Road Not Taken
Long derided as the tacky little beach town in Houston's back yard, by the summer of 2008, Galveston finally seemed to have won some of the respect its business leaders had sought so desperately for so long. Most of its Victorian houses in the East End and Silk Stocking historical districts, many of them crumbling wrecks as recently as the 1960s, had been handsomely and lovingly restored. When the azaleas, crepe myrtles, and other blooming trees and vines were in full flower, those neighborhoods rivaled New Orleans' genteel Garden District. Tourists flocked to ogle selected examples on popular Mother's Day weekend tours sponsored by the city's premier social charity, the Galveston Historical Foundation.
And when these 19th century places were advertised for sale for $200,000 to $400,000 or more, they still seemed like steals to well-heeled out-of-towners compared with, say, similarly sized period pieces in Houston's Heights or Austin's Hyde Park or Clarksville.
These new haunts of the superrich were celebrated, in the real estate pages of The New York Times and elsewhere last year, as Texas' version of the Hamptons. Dissidents, including coastal geologists, warned that the entire island was a geo-hazard subject to catastrophic flooding. Others fretted that by surrendering much of its housing stock to largely absentee owners with primary homes elsewhere, the community was losing its middle class and, perhaps, its soul.
"The city government has been subsidizing resort developers through tax-increment reinvestment zones, known as TIRZ," said City Council Member Elizabeth Beeton, a strong critic of these practices. "The city has also asked its middle-class residents behind the seawall to subsidize very expensive sewer systems on the west end of the city" beyond the seawall. She complained that the city also issued permits, with terms favorable to builders, for resort developments on the island's west end. These practices – reflexively backed by Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas and most of Galveston's exceptionally parochial City Council – have "got to stop," Beeton argued.
Because there was money to be made and hefty property taxes to be garnered, most of the city's elected leaders seemed to adopt "caveat emptor" as Galveston's unofficial motto. Until the bursting national real estate bubble brought things to an abrupt halt earlier this year, the breakneck vacation-housing boom continued apace on the approximately 18 miles of Galveston Island west of the seawall's end – including bay houses, some with networks of canals that, geologists warned, could effectively split the island in two during storm surges and backwashes. Moreover, the beaches of the west end, even before Ike, were fast eroding, despite various efforts to stem the retreat. Experts recommended withdrawing much of the west end from further development, citing flooding dangers and the prospect that the highway serving the area was expected to be under water within the next 30 years or so.
The city didn't totally ignore its land-use problems. It commissioned a study by the University of Texas' Bureau of Economic Geology. Those researchers advised creating buffer zones to shield beach fore-dunes, safeguard new wetlands, and defend a protective central ridge. All these measures were designed to spare Galveston from being broken apart during the next big storm.
However, blinded by the prevailing development-at-any-cost mentality and their woeful ignorance about the environmental processes governing barrier islands, the council whiffed. In May 2007, instead of embracing the suggested land-use curbs, they voted to let those innocent new buyers of west-island properties read the study if they chose to do so, pay their taxes, and take their chances with Mother Nature.
Through 2007, Galveston's seawall admirably served its purpose, protecting the city from the worst effects of the major storms that, on average, have come ashore there every 20 years or so since 1900. But the wall also acted to interrupt the usual rollover that is an integral element of a barrier island's nature. Because of that blockage and other barriers – most notably the changes in the way the Mississippi River's and the Brazos River's silt load is dropped – the beaches beyond and beneath the Galveston seawall shrank and in some places have entirely disappeared (except for Galveston's East Beach, which is growing thanks to prevailing northeasterly tides and the jetties' action in capturing sand escaping from the western part of the island). Satisfying beachfront hoteliers' and others' demands for public beaches in front of the seawall requires periodic, expensive, and only temporarily effective beach renourishment projects. Even at its best, the seawall can do only what it was designed to do – protect the city from the Gulf's frontal assaults.
Fortunately, Ike defied the predictions, broadcast repeatedly in the days leading up to landfall, that it might strengthen to a Category 3, meaning Galveston would have faced a 20- to 25-foot storm surge. The surge actually reached 21 feet at a Texas City levee. Because about 20,000 Galvestonians had defied the order and stayed home, a slight westward adjustment in Ike's course could have turned a disaster in Galveston into a catastrophe.
Why did 40% of the city's population ignore the mayor's evacuation order, issued 36 hours before Ike's landfall? Perhaps it was simply because a Category 2 storm doesn't sound so bad. A quarter-century earlier, many longtime Galvestonians, including me, had stayed in Galveston for the low Category 3 Hurricane Alicia without lasting ill effects. Or perhaps many others, like me, were suffering "evacuation fatigue" this time, having fled over the Labor Day weekend less than two weeks earlier from Hurricane Gustav, which ended up veering into Louisiana and battering Baton Rouge. (Finally I too fled from Ike, heading for Austin 19 hours before it made landfall.)
A week after Ike's landfall, I visited Galveston for four hours as a reporter, leaving just ahead of a 6pm curfew. I returned nine days later, when residents were being allowed back onto the island despite the absence of electricity, natural gas, potable water, and most medical services. And in those two visits, I began to comprehend the extent of the blow the island had sustained.
Some homes and businesses were buried for a time beneath 13 feet or more of water, which often was diesel-laced and evil-smelling. The surge crushed or dismantled a number of structures near the water, especially those beyond the seawall and along it – including the Balinese Room, remnants of which ended up on Seawall Boulevard, and Murdoch's Pier, which held fast to its pilings but lost many of its walls, its contents disgorged into the water below. Ike also wrecked nearly every business in the Strand Historic District.
Almost every house had the water-stained possessions of a lifetime – furniture, beds, appliances, books, drapes, rugs, art, stereos, computers – piled outside along the curb. Every day for weeks, the old piles would be hauled off, and new ones would miraculously appear. Then came the water-damaged Sheetrock and other building material.
As with Katrina, residents are dealing with a sometimes feckless Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA started off strong, but its bureaucracy has increasingly seemed to aggravate business owners' and residents' multiple frustrations in trying to return to normality.
The storm also seriously wounded a major Galveston institution and economic sea anchor. A few days after the storm, word leaked out that the regents of the UT System were leaning on the Medical Branch – the state's oldest health sciences university – to lay off almost a quarter of its staff of 12,000 due to heavy and mostly uninsured damage to the 84 buildings on its sprawling campus. UTMB, the city's largest employer, also plays another key role on the island: providing medical care to Galveston's many poor and uninsured residents. The layoff decision came Nov. 12, with regents voting to terminate up to 3,800 workers.
The Rest Is History
On a Tuesday in mid-October, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton stood on the badly eroded shoreline amid the wreckage of a west-island subdivision called Bermuda Beach. There, for the benefit of reporters, TV cameras, and newspaper photographers, the former presidents formally launched their Bush-Clinton Coastal Recovery Fund, designed to raise private contributions to aid victims of hurricanes Gustav and Ike. It was a reprise of their efforts in 2004 and 2005 to assist victims of the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, but whether it will be as successful during a financial meltdown is problematic. With his arm draped around the shoulders of the Galveston mayor, Clinton said, "I don't think the American people understand how much [help] you still need here."
Clinton was certainly right about that – although he seemed unaware of how much of that public ignorance is owing to the actions of the mayor and the federal authorities who hunkered down with her and the media in the fortresslike San Luis Hotel during and long after the storm.
The day after Ike struck, the mayor forbade all city employees except the city manager to talk with the media. She didn't seem to want Galveston's own citizens, much less the media, to see the island in its sad dishabille – a decision that made it much harder to generate the sustained public sympathy needed to influence politicians in Austin and Washington to come across with major disaster aid. Predictably, then, almost as soon as Ike was gone, public attention was diverted from Galveston's disaster. Without a compelling picture of the city's destitution before it, the national media seamlessly shifted its focus to the world financial meltdown and presidential election.
Galveston County engineer Mike Fitzgerald says the levee ring project proposed in the Seventies, which would cost $800 million today, would have spared Galveston 90% of the damage it suffered from Ike, including a huge percentage of the $700 million in losses at UTMB. Meanwhile, a levee system built in the Galveston Co. community of Texas City to protect its oil refineries and other industries after they were flooded by Hurricane Carla in 1961 has stood up to every storm since.
The costs of repairs from the major storms that regularly pummel Galveston are increasing. Ike will be the costliest yet, in part because properties on the west end last year were worth a total of $1.6 billion, according to the Galveston Central Appraisal District – four times the value of all the taxable property behind the seawall. But as Ike's flooding demonstrated, not even property behind the seawall is safe when a hurricane enters the chute between the northeastern tip of Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.
Ten days after the storm, Mayor Thomas testified before a disaster-recovery panel of the U.S. Senate, asking that the federal government pump an extraordinary $2.2 billion into rebuilding the stricken city. In her testimony, Thomas described Galveston not as the environmentally fragile barrier island that it is or the rare and quirky end-of-the-road community its denizens treasure but in more commercial and less spiritual terms as "a viable, valuable piece of real estate" – a phrase the city's plutocrats at the turn of the century or the county commissioners in the 1970s or the City Council majority today would understand.
A levee system, however, was not part of the mayor's wish list.
A longer version of this story first appeared in the Fort Worth Weekly.