Saturday, January 24, 2009

A sad report on Galveston and Chambers County

From Bill King, in an e-mail entitled "Driving Bolivar":


... Currently, there are about 38 persons confirmed to have been killed by the Hurricane Ike with about 40 others still missing. The governor's office estimates the total economic impact of Hurricanes Ike and Dolly to be a staggering $29 billion. To put this in perspective, it is $4 billion more than the automakers' proposed bailout.

We also went on a bus tour of some of the damage, including a stop at UTMB. (Click here for a video clip). The physical damage is extensive, but the economic impact is overwhelming. On the Strand, we passed business after business that were still boarded up. The City of Galveston estimates that is has lost almost a third of its pre-Ike population of 57,000. UTMB, the island's largest employer has cut its workforce from 12,500 before Ike to 10,000. It will clearly take years for Galveston to recover from Hurricane Ike, a process that is being further handicapped by the larger economic woes.

One of the more intriguing issues discussed during the day was the so-called Ike Dike. This is a proposal to extend the existing Galveston seawall from High Island to Freeport. Preliminary costs are estimated at around $4 billion, which is a lot of money, but when compared to $29 billion in damages it looks like a bargain. My friends in the environmental community are greatly concerned about the environmental impact of such a project and rightly so. However, hurricanes also do a great deal of environmental damage to the bay system. In any event, it will be fascinating to follow this issue.

After the commission meeting I decided to drive back to Houston through Chambers County and see Ike's impact on Bolivar peninsula for myself. During the day, county judge Jim Yarbrough had shared with us that approximately 80% of Bolivar's 5,300 structures had been destroyed and showed a number of aerial photographs of the damages. However, that briefing did not prepare me for what I saw. The extent of the devastation can not be truly appreciated without seeing it personally.

On exiting the ferry, the signs of damage are immediately obvious. But on that far west end, many structures survived. As you drive farther east the extent of the damage worsens. By Gilchrist, which is a little over half way to High Island, it is nearly complete devastation. I counted only eight houses still standing in Gilchrist.

Before Hurricane Ike, Rollover Pass (which is the only waterway between the Gulf and East Bay and located in Gilchrist) was a hub of activity on the Bolivar Peninsula. It was a favorite of fishermen with a number of bait camps, docks and "joints." When I crossed the bridge at Rollover Pass on Friday there was nothing left. In fact, there was hardly any sign that there had ever been anything there.

The one encouraging note I have to offer is that in both Galveston and on Bolivar the newer buildings that had been constructed to more rigid building codes appeared to have survived the storm with relatively little damage. All of the homes that survived near Gilchrist were newer structures.

As I turned north into Chambers County I saw about a dozen plumes of black smoke on the horizon. Earlier in the day, County officials had described a bureaucratic dilemma that accounted for these plumes. FEMA will not reimburse local governments for removing debris from private property. If the property owner can push the debris on his/her property to the public right-of-way, FEMA will pay for the removal. The problem is that in Chambers County ranchers and farmers have debris fields that go on for miles. Just moving the debris to a public right-of-way would bankrupt these folks. One official told us that he expected to see a good deal of "accidental" fires. And there they were.

As you can easily imagine, burning the debris is not helpful with our air quality problems. Much of the debris fields are made up of "treated timber." Burning treated timber is particularly problematic. Once again, our government agencies are working at cross purposes . . . FEMA imposing a moronic rule to save an insignificant sum of money and the EPA beating us over the head and shoulders about our air quality.

As I turned back to Houston, my thoughts were on the 40-80 souls lost in the storm. Most have lived, and died, within a few hundred feet of the route I had just driven. The recovery challenges facing this community are daunting, but they will be overcome. The loss of these individuals was, for the most part, avoidable. It is always difficult to understand why some people stay in harm's way notwithstanding the warnings available today.

When preparing this blog entry, I checked the list of those persons still missing from the storm maintained by The Laura Recovery Center. There photos and some personal information posted on eight victims. Several were elderly. As I was looking at the faces of these individuals I began to get a sick feeling in my stomach, wondering if they stayed voluntarily or if they had simply been unable to evacuate themselves.

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