Two months after Hurricane Ike ravaged the Texas Coast, ferry service once again connected Galveston Island with the Bolivar Penninsula. The primary link between the island and coastal communities to the east, the ferry is both a luxury and a necessity. Each trip carries a combination of residents, fishermen, commuters, and sightseers intent on nothing more than the simple pleasures of crossing the water: feeding seagulls from the after deck, or watching dolphins off the bow.
Hurricane damage to the ferries and their landings was significant after the storm. Even the channels required dredging, filled as they were with sand and silt deposited by the surging water. The need to transport heavy equipment and emergency supplies to communities like Crystal Beach and Port Bolivar was primary. But in time, even before full service was restored, anyone could come along for the trip.
One day, a woman ahead of me in a grocery line mentioned to the checker that she’d made a special trip to Galveston to ride the ferry, I asked her why. “Because I could”, she said with a laugh. “It sure felt good.”
In the beginning, there was much that didn’t feel at all good. Twenty-foot-high piles of debris weren’t good, nor were the boats dry-docked in front yards and parking lots. Homes reduced to empty, concrete slabs evoked despair in families displaced without adequate temporary housing. The bureaucracies drove everyone crazy, and more than a few people became convinced their insurance adjusters, FEMA officials, or state insurance pool administrators were the devil incarnate.
But in time, the mountains of debris began to disappear. Waterways were cleared, and marina slips sounded. Shrimp boats began working the bay, and new fences appeared around yards. Young, wind-bent trees were straightened and staked, even as leaning and broken power poles were replaced, one by one. Though individuals continued to suffer, and suffer grievously, it became clear: for the communities of the upper Texas Coast, the time for relief efforts was over. The road to recovery had begun.
Portofino Harbor ~ September 15, 2008
Portofino Harbor ~ November 15, 2008
Shocked by the level of Ike’s destruction, many people initially had despaired of recovery.
Entire neighborhoods had been wiped off the map. The Topwater Grill in San Leon was gone, as was the fishing fleet that supplied area restaurants. The Classic Cafe, Skipper’s Café, Okie’s Liquor, and Joe Lee’s restaurant were nothing but shells. Even Maribelle’s, an infamous waterfront bar with a history of dead bodies in the restrooms and live bodies competing for the title of “Miss Wharf Rat” was swept into the shallows of Galveston Bay.
But by November, despite some small business closings, the Classic Cafe had reopened, the Topwater Grill announced plans to reopen, the shrimp boats were trawling, and regular progress reports were being posted throughout the area.
As restaurants began re-opening in Galveston, an important announcement was made. One of the Island’s traditional holiday events, Dickens on the Strand, would take place as usual, though events would be limited to daylight hours, partly to allow people to see the progress being made toward restoration of the city’s justly famous historic district.
Even in small communities like San Leon, Bacliff, Crystal Beach, and High Island, restaurants and gas stations opened. High-end bed and breakfasts may have been traded for rows of mattresses with granola bars tucked under the pillows, but time and effort were stitching life back together.
Once basic services were restored, an unorganized but effective grass-roots economic recovery movement developed, as people began to put dollars available for hurricane relief back into the local economy.
Groups with regularly-scheduled luncheon meetings traveled to Galveston, and ate in the reopened restaurants. People made a point of heading to the Island for weekend recreation, buying gas for their cars in the little towns along the way, or in Galveston itself. Needing something from the grocery, people patronized the smaller Mom-and-Pop stores that were trying to survive, rather than going to Target.
Now and then, someone would criticize the emphasis on reopened restaurants, bars, and shops by saying “That just benefits people with money to spend.” But no one heard the merchants or their employees saying that. Everyone knew what it took to get “back to business,” and what it took was customers and their money.
September 14, 2008
November 3, 2008
The weekend that Benno’s on the Seawall opened, a friend and I drove to Galveston for dinner. As we waited for our meal, the door opened again and again. Each time another customer stepped in, pure joy washed across the faces of the owners and staff. Customers meant dollars; dollars meant hiring; and hiring meant independence and stability.
As the owner said, “Don’t give me a thousand dollars. Eat in my dining room, and pay me ten dollars. While you’re bringing me that ten dollars, you’ll park your car out front, and other people will know I’m open. When you’ve finished a good meal, you’ll tell someone you enjoyed eating here, and I’ll have another customer. I don’t want a hand-out. I want business.”
Buying “local” has its costs, of course. For some months, gas was more expensive in Galveston. A sandwich there could be a dollar or two more than in Houston neighborhoods, and prices at the Mom-and-Pop stores certainly were higher than at Wal-Mart.
But as those businesses met their payroll and paid their suppliers, the entire community benefited. When it comes to recovery, cheaper isn’t always a bargain. Sometimes, more expensive has terrific side benefits for everyone in town. The businesses knew that, and they helped one another in every way they could.
Still, recovery is more than reopened businesses and rebuilt homes. A deeper recovery begins when people are able to take a breath, give a sigh, and finally sense the stirrings of new life.
In recovering communities, people talk about more than grief and loss. A woman whose home was damaged provided shelter for a homeless family — but also partied at the Renaissance Faire. A retiree whose fishing boat was carried away by the surge signed on with a demolition crew, worked sixty hour weeks, and returned to wade fishing at San Luis Pass. After days spent repairing the landscape around their church, a group of women stopped to exchange cuttings for home gardens yet to come. None had forgotten the storm, but they understood there is a time to move forward.
While water still surrounded piles of debris, confusion and a sense of helplessness were understandable. But in time, people began to say, “There’s still a lot to do, but we can do it. We got help. We were given a hand when we needed it. But now we can go on, and build on our own success.”
The Beached Whales Boat ~ Clear Lake Shores
By the time Thanksgiving arrived, holiday banners were flying in Kemah. After services of Thanksgiving, dinners were served at community centers and schools around the area. In Dickinson, a woman whose home had been destroyed drove to Houston to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. In Bacliff, a couple living in an RV smoked turkeys and briskets for anyone who wanted to stop by.
Even in the midst of so much pain – even with houses swept out to sea, businesses destroyed, families separated, jobs lost, lives disrupted and dreams destroyed — much remained. Hope rose with each day’s sun, and fears ebbed away with the tide. Was a sofa sitting in a ditch at the base of the Kemah-Seabrook bridge? Did a dollhouse still wait to be plucked from a bed of seagrass? Was that a Mercedes buried in the beach sand, or a piece of pink planking washed up from Maribelle’s bar? By Thanksgiving, such oddities often went unnoticed and unremarked.
Instead, it was the signs of recovery that counted: literally as well as figuratively. One of my favorites, a row of plywood turkeys with surfboards, proudly proclaimed, “Thanks to Ike, We Finally Got Our House Cleaned.”
Other signs were less humorous, but more significant. A restaurant marquee posted the longed-for phrase, “Now Hiring.” Optimistic signs tucked into windows promised, “Open Soon.” But best of all were the simple signs — hand-lettered or spray-painted, vibrant on fences or nearly hidden in debris — that invited celebration.
“Thanksgiving’s Coming,” said one. “Give Thanks for Whatever’s Left.”