As the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Ike’s September 13 landfall approaches, most Galveston homeowners who still are engaged in rebuilding and reconstruction don’t need any reminders about the complexity or frustrations of the process. Still, reminders are everywhere, posted primarily by high-minded attorneys concerned that the poor, benighted people of the Texas Coast understand the statute of limitations and its role in ensuring they receive fair and just compensation for their losses.
There’s nothing wrong with a gentle reminder, or with fair settlements for that matter. But this is America, and contingency fees being what they are the attorneys’ messages have taken on a distinctly apocalyptic tone. Every local freeway and road that skirts the water has at least one of the fervent billboards: The end is near! Are you prepared? Time is Running Out! The door is closing! (Request a free case review now!!!)
Reading them, it’s impossible not to think of tent revivals and tv hucksters. The billboard advertisers seem to suggest they can save our psyches and mop up lingering insurance messes with the legal equivalent of the ShamWow, but Galveston residents aren’t naive. There are some problems no amount of legal wrangling – or money - can solve.
As the remnants of Ike headed north, the problems he left behind were obvious. Within hours, the cleanup began. Within days, reconstruction was being planned. Over the coming months, debris disappeared, houses were re-built and businesses re-established as people waited, holding their breath to see how the trees would respond.
Galveston’s trees were her pride. Many had been planted after the Great Storm of 1900 decimated the island, and for decades their growth contributed to the exquisite beauty of the historic neighborhoods. Broadway, the primary route to the beaches and seawall, was famed for its trees as much as for the Victorian homes that line its route.
Many of the historic live oaks were left standing after Ike, albeit without their leaves. Denuded, they gave the island the appearance of the midwest in winter, a strange and unsettling sight for residents accustomed to year-long greenery. Throughout the long, island winter, people waited for spring and watched the trees, desperate for a first sign of growth. In the end, what the wind was not able to destroy, the storm surge did. Salt-saturated soils, denied any natural flushing through a terrible, post-hurricane drought, could not be overcome. Nearly 40,000 trees had died, and they would need to be taken down.
The experience was traumatic beyond the telling of it. People wept, argued with local officials, bargained with God and swore to everyone within earshot that their tree was the exception – that it was strong enough, determined enough to live. Not only the 1900 Storm oaks were at issue. People had planted trees for children, spouses, neighbors and neighborhoods and watched them grow. Their pain at the thought of losing them was nearly unbearable. “Like everybody else, it just makes me want to cry,” said Steve Broadstone, 68. “It’s just like cutting off an arm or a leg.”
The City did what it could, putting off the removal of the Broadway trees until the very end, knowing the kind of wound it would inflict into an already suffering community. Some people became paralyzed by the thought of it all. Some moved from the island, bitter because of the drastic and irrevocable changes that had come. But others, more resiliant, more creative or perhaps simply more desperate, began to think: “What if…” What if some of the wood could be saved? What if it could be put to other uses? What if some of it could be preserved in some way and become part of Galveston’s heritage?
Eventually, the questions began to be answered, and quite remarkably, not a sliver of the first 10,000 trees removed ended in a landfill. Quentin Snediker, shipyard director at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut, arrived in Galveston to hand-pick trees to be used in the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, an 1841 whaling ship. Wood turners began producing bowls and objects d’art for local galleries. And some homeowners, contemplating the remains of their trees, recognized their unusual potential.
Galveston artist Earl Jones, Houston’s Jim Phillips and Dayle Lewis of Richmond, Indiana soon became the chainsaw-and-chisel crew responsible for one of the most delightful post-hurricane transformations possible. Working primarily in Galveston’s East End, they turned homeowners’ deeply personal visions into a gallery of public art. The mermaid and conch shell at the top of this page is a detail from Jones’ larger sculpture at 9th and Ball, representing Elizabeth Wilson’s children.
Just down the street, an equally intricate carving contains a dolphin, a dorado and a moray eel, a particularly nice tribute to the abundance of life found in Gulf waters. (No amount of looking turned up a Portuguese Man-O-War or other jellies among the carvings, even though toads and ladybugs clustered around some trunks. Apparently not everything is worth preserving in wood.)
Not every carving is obviously related to Island life. The Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz is found at the East End birthplace and home of King Vidor, the American film director who directed the Kansas scenes in the 1939 movie but never earned screen credit. Not far away, a lovely and dignified geisha stands watch.
Not only humans love their trees, of course. Both artists and patrons paid their respects to other creatures who lost homes and landmarks when Ike scoured the neighborhoods. A squirrel, an owl and a Great Dane all long for their trees and provide a smile in the process. Seeing the dog in person, it’s impossible to keep from laughing out loud at the sight, and nearly impossible not to look around to see if his master might be coming down the block.
As for native birds, they are among the most elegant and graceful of the sculptures. A pair of great blue herons, a pelican with his portion of fish, another pelican flying nearly free with his seagull companion ~ these have become treasured representatives of the flocks now finding new homes between the Gulf and the Bay. As the marshes renew and the rich, teeming waters around the island recover, the air resounds with the chitter and cries of seabirds while the egret and heron step through their pools, patient and purposeful as ever.
There are, of course, the traditionalists, those who feel a true memorial requires a certain seriousness, a statement of fact in order to be complete. On Winnie Street there stands such a monument. Simple and direct as any gravestone, absent any date of birth but bearing for all to see the date of death, it proclaims its fact: In Memoriam ~ Galveston’s Lost Oaks ~ September 13, 2008. The irony, of course, is that the memorialized trees were themselves planted by a generation which had suffered great loss at the hands of a nameless hurricane. The thought gives pause, just as it gives hope to a community charged with re-planting for future generations, even in the face of storms yet to come.
Finally, there are the angels. One, solitary, holds a tiny rabbit in her hands. This pair, known as the Sister Angels, seem as contemplative as the heron is alert. Lost in admiration, I didn’t notice the passer-by who stopped until he spoke. “I walk by here and look at them every day,” he said. “We think of them as our angels, the angels who protect the Island. I think when the next disaster arrives, they’ll fold us into their wings and keep us safe.”
Perhaps they will. I hope they do.