Galveston scrambles to heal beaches after Ike

By: AP
By: AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While most parts of the beaches along the seawall are mainly clear of trash, debris submerged in the shallow surf in some areas could be dangerous to swimmers. Close to a month after Ike hit, a no-swimming ordinance remains in effect on the island.

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

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

Attaway, 55, from nearby Santa Fe, Texas, used to own a home nearby and knows this stretch well. But on this day, the beach - covered with splintered wood, jagged chunks of concrete and other debris from destroyed homes, as well as 20-foot high piles of sand that had been blown inland by Ike's winds - made it all seem unfamiliar.

"We probably lost about 7 feet of sand on beaches," Attaway said. "I'm all for building back as much of the beach as you can. I know it's extremely pricey, but it's one of the biggest draws of Galveston."

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

It's unlikely that Congress will pony up $100 million for the beaches during the current national economic crisis.

But if the beaches are not restored, it could be devastating to the local economy. Tourism brought in more than $705 million to the island in 2006, easily the leading engine of the local economy.

Last week, the Texas General Land Office authorized a $6 million emergency project that will replenish about 2 miles of the most popular stretch of beach, as well as reinforce Galveston's 10-mile-long seawall.

The 17-foot high seawall has protected Galveston from storms since 1904, but it is probably the beach's worst enemy, said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of professional geoscience programs at the University of Houston.

All the energy from the storm's surge bounces off the wall and carries the sand offshore, he said.

"It can be a very futile process to try and maintain a beach in front of the seawall," said Van Nieuwenhuise. "I know how important that beach is to their economy. I enjoy the beach as much as the next person."

For all of Ike's fury, officials say it could have been a lot worse.

"We didn't lose as much as we thought," Davis said as he looked over a stretch of beach along the seawall that was swept clean by the storm. "I kind of wish they looked this nice all the time, to tell you the truth. There is not any seaweed, no trash."

And no crowds.

Blythe Bolton and her 5-year-old son, Mackenzie, were in no hurry for things to get back to normal. Except for a few people fishing off nearby rock jetties, Bolton and her son had the beach to themselves last week as they looked for crabs in the sand.

"I kind of like it like this," said Bolton, 45, of Galveston. "Hopefully the next time I come, it will be in a bathing suit."

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