Battered Galveston ready to rebuild after Ike

By: AP
By: AP

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) -- The eight-pointed star on the wall outside Trey Click's office marks it as a "survivor." The squat, orange building withstood the ravages of the 1900 hurricane, which nearly flattened this barrier island city and still stands as the nation's deadliest natural disaster.

Click was born on the island. His great-grandparents were among the thousands who ignored warnings that a massive hurricane was pushing a wall of water toward Galveston, and still made it out alive. Last week, thousands stayed behind as Hurricane Ike battered the city with 110 mph winds and a 12-foot storm surge, chewing up landmarks, leaving hundreds homeless and preventing others who fled from returning to the stricken city.

Ike was another tragedy for a place that's had more than its share. But to Click, who publishes a monthly entertainment paper called "The Parrot," the Category 2 storm is just another hiccup in his city's long, slow rebirth.

"Galveston's going to survive because it's an island and it's on the water, and people want to be on the water," Click said as he aired out his muddy, moldering office. "It's going to be a different Galveston at the other side of this, whenever that is."

Galveston, population 57,000, has always wanted to be a glamorous beach resort, but somehow never quite made it.

In the early 19th century, the island was headquarters for the pirate Jean Lafitte, who had been expelled from New Orleans despite his role in winning the War of 1812. A cannon mounted on the upper story of his mansion, "Maison Rouge," gave him command of Galveston Bay.

As the 20th century dawned, Galveston's future looked boundless.

Blessed with the natural harbor of Galveston Bay, the island became one of the nation's largest cotton ports, rivaling New Orleans. It was a popular bathing spot that boasted more than a dozen newspapers. And with 37,000 residents, it was Texas' largest city - far and away eclipsing the grubby oil town of Houston.

All that changed on Sept. 8, 1900.

Early that morning, winds gusting at an estimated 125 mph pushed a wall of water 15 feet high across the unprotected city. Houses were splintered, and the slate shingles flying from the roofs "became whirling scimitars . . . eviscerating men and horses," author Erik Larson wrote in the book "Isaac's Storm."

"I have passed through the most trying, horrible thing in my life," one survivor wrote to his wife. More than 6,000 people died - at least twice as many as perished during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Between 1902 and 1904, a 17-foot-high seawall rose along the Gulf. When another catastrophic storm hit the city in 1915, fewer than a dozen people perished.

The city rebuilt behind its protective armor. But Galveston never regained its former prominence, its reputation that of a kind of low-rent Riviera.

From the '30s to the '50s, one writer observed, Galveston was "every bit as thoroughly controlled by the Mob as Atlantic City." Much of that alleged activity revolved around the famed Balinese Room, a nightclub and casino that hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers.

The nightclub stood at the end of a 600-foot pier, just beyond the flood wall. As the stories go, by the time raiding police officers made it to the end, the doorman had tipped off the revelers, and roulette wheels were flipped over to reveal ordinary looking dining tables.

The Balinese Room didn't survive Ike.

A couple of years ago, the city hired a marketing firm to help improve Galveston's image. In interviews, tourists and even locals repeatedly cited "dirty beaches" and the town's "unclean feel."

The firm's report advised: "Flaunt the uniqueness of your island. Your beaches and island are not dirty - they are colored with stories, history and culture."

Ann Leocadi has fond memories of coming to Galveston as a child from Houston and staying at the old Jack Tar Motel, a working-class getaway on Seawall Boulevard, where her family enjoyed the swimming pool and beach, then ate at Gaido's, a popular seafood restaurant.

"Growing up, that's what I liked," says Leocadi, a prison social worker who now lives within sight of her old playground.

This March, the 15-story tower Emerald by the Sea - with green-tinted windows and unit prices ranging from $375,000 to $1.5 million - opened where Jack Tar once stood, and survived Ike almost unscathed.

Galveston was slow to follow its Gulf Coast neighbors in embracing the high-rise luxury condominium boom, but it's making up for lost time. "It's inevitable," Jim Gaines, research economist for the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, told the local newspaper. "You can see it coming."

The well-off and the poor coexist in Galveston, which has a poverty rate of 22 percent, just behind that of New Orleans.

Last week on The Strand, a trendy boulevard of shops and restaurants a couple of blocks from the harbor, Isaac Bennett, an arthritic 69-year-old, peddled his bicycle past the brick and wrought-iron facades. He was towing a wagon crammed with a crushed aluminum tub and twisted aluminum chair frames.

"I do it every time they have a storm," he said, flashing a nearly toothless grin. He'd sell the load, he said, figuring it would fetch $18, maybe $20.

Shotgun shacks and million-dollar beach homes felt Ike's wrath.

At Ashton Villa, an Italianate antebellum brick mansion with cast-iron balconies, 3 feet of water invaded. (In 1900, the surge was even worse, reaching the tenth step of the grand staircase.) By Thursday, fuzzy white mold had already begun sprouting on a Victorian settee that had floated to rest on its velvet back. Workers ripped up Oriental carpeting and scraped up the sodden padding to save the warping wooden floors.

"Heartbreaking," Denise Alexander said as she pushed aside her dust mask with a rubber-gloved hand. "There's not a lot else to say about it."

Murdoch's Bath House - which once housed a ballroom, bingo parlor, arcade and portrait studio - succumbed to the pounding surf.

"We lost a lot of things on this island," William Cottingham said in a choked voice as he stood on the seawall and peered at the tattered remains of the Balinese. "And I'm really sorry to say that it ain't going to be the same."

Residents have been told that it may be months before power and other services are restored, and Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas has asked those who stayed behind to leave the city. But she is eager for the world to know that Galveston's future is secure.

"The city of Galveston is not in ruins," she said. "It is recovering according to a well-established plan."

Some don't plan to be a part of that recovery. Click says two business owners have already told him they won't rebuild. But new blood will come in, the fourth-generation islander insists.

"We're not out. We're down," says Click. "And it'll be picked up and cleaned up and scraped off, and we'll rebuild something that's not exactly what it was, but something that might be better."

After the 1900 storm, wealthy families like the Moody mercantile clan poured large sums into rebuilding the city. Leocadi expects the same to happen this time.

"There's money here - monied people enough," she said as she stood with her video camera and watched a bizarre sight - Navy landing craft depositing amphibious trucks on the beach across from her home. "They'll make it come back."

Newcomers, too, will help keep the city alive.

Sitting in line at a mobile Federal Emergency Management Agency aid station, Melinda Frazee savored her first cigarette in days. The 51-year-old maintenance engineer grew up in western Kansas, where she says "nothing ever happened." It had been a lifelong dream to live near a beach. A year and a half ago, she and her son rolled into Galveston, and drove to the seawall. They got out and took a walk on the dunes.

"My son looked at me and he said, `I've never seen you smile so big in your life, Mama,'" she recalled as she sat with a dirty rag around her neck. "He said, `Is this it? Is this where we're going to stay? I said, `This is it! This is the place.' ...

"Nasty, filthy, trashy little tourist town. And I love it."

Already, Galvestonians are putting on a brave face.

On Thursday, rows and rows of tables covered in gleaming white linen tablecloths and napkins appeared in front of Gaido's restaurant, which first opened on Murdoch's pier in 1911.

National Guard troops, electrical workers and other first responders filed in for plates of Gulf shrimp and red potatoes boiled over propane flames as the Beach Boys played over the loudspeakers. Big black letters on the marquee declared: "We Will Return/So Also This Island."

"We realized that if we made it really nice and it became a bright spot in everybody's miserable week, then it gives you a sense of normalcy," says Mary Kaye Gaido, the restaurant's wine buyer. "Somebody said to me today, `It was so great to hear music. We haven't heard music in five days.'"

Taking a page out of the New Orleans restaurant industry's post-Katrina playbook, Gaido's hopes to reopen soon in a smaller location with a limited menu.

"We're here for the long haul," Gaido says.

Galveston goes on.

Tilman Fertitta, who owns five beachfront restaurants and three hotels in Galveston and an entertainment complex in suburban Houston that was submerged, vowed that spring would bring resurrection to the island.

"Anybody can come to Mardi Gras in February, and I will guarantee they will be able to say Galveston is back. That's a guarantee," he says.

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