Just prior to the two-month anniversary of Hurricane Ike’s arrival on the Texas Coast, ferry service for passenger cars was reinstituted from Galveston to the Bolivar Penninsula. The primary link between an island and coastal communities that can be awkward to reach even under the best of circumstance, the Galveston ferry is both luxury and necessity. Prior to the storm, every trip across Bolivar Roads carried a combination of residents, fishermen, tourists and sightseers. Most came in cars, but many walked onto the boat just for the pleasure of crossing the water, feeding seagulls from the after deck and hoping for a sight of pelicans or dolphins playing off the bow.
After the storm, ferry service stopped, but not only because of damage to the boats. There was storm damage to the ferry landings themselves, and sand and silt deposited by surging water had to be dredged out of the channels. When it became possible to operate the first ferry, the convenience of commuters and pleasure of sightseers was the last thing on anyone’s mind. The first priority was getting heavy equipment and emergency supplies to communities like Crystal Beach and Port Bolivar, where the devastation ranged from unbelievable to horrific.
But now, anyone can use the ferries. It takes patience, because full service hasn’t been restored. But the fish are biting, dolphin are swimming, and the seagulls seem delighted to find occasional popcorn and bread crumbs in their air again. When a woman mentioned to a grocery store checker she’d made a special trip to take the ferry, I asked her why. “Because I could”, she said, looking at me as though I were a bit dim. “It sure felt good.”
There’s a lot that feels good these days. Of course, piles of debris lying on curbs aren’t so good, and neither is the occasional boat snuggled up against a power pole or house. There’s nothing good about empty slabs appearing as homes nearly demolished by Ike are finished off by machines with an appetite for shingles, siding and studs. There’s nothing good at all about families still displaced from their homes with no arrangements for acceptable temporary housing. The bureaucracy of it all is driving everyone crazy, and more than a few people are convinced their insurance adjusters (or FEMA officials, or State insurance pool administrators, or the in-laws they’re living with) are the Devil Incarnate.
But the mountains of debris are gone. The waterways are clear and marina slips have been sounded. There are shrimp boats working the Bay, and fresh fences appearing everywhere. Young, wind-bent trees in the esplanades have been straightened and staked, and Flood District employees are cleaning and grading the ditches. Power poles continue to be replaced, one by one, just as blue roof tarps are beginning to disappear, one by one. Individuals continue to suffer, and suffer grievously. But for the communities of the upper Texas Coast, the time for relief efforts are over. The road to recovery has begun.
Portofino Harbor ~ September 15
Portofino Harbor ~ November 15
When I returned home after Ike’s landfall, I was so shocked by the level of destruction around me I hardly imagined recovery would be possible. On September 24, I wrote,
When Hurricane Ike blew through my neighborhood (and he did, quite literally – the eye went over my house), he swept away much of the area’s history. The TopWater Grill in San Leon is gone, as is the shrimp fleet that supplied the best restaurant in the area with fresh catch. Never mind the Boardwalk, that generic tourist trap that locals rarely frequent unless relatives come to town and demand the tour. The Classic Cafe is flooded, and Portofino. Skipper’s (breakfast 24 hours a day), Okie’s Liquor (do they really still sell Everclear out the back door?) and Joe Lee’s (never give in to the developers, damn it!) are nothing but shells. Even Maribelle’s, an honest-to-goodness waterfront bar with a history of dead bodies in the restrooms and live bodies competing for the title of “Miss Wharf Rat” is gone, swept away by the back side of the storm into the shallows of Galveston Bay.
Today, I’m amazed how much has changed in two months. Okie’s Liquor is closing, as are other small businesses that couldn’t survive the blow from Ike. But the Classic Cafe has been open for weeks. The TopWater Grill plans to reopen, and their shrimp boats are afloat. Joe Lee’s is open, and the Kemah Boardwalk. Work has begun toward the reopening of Skipper’s, and T-Bone Tom posts regular progress reports on their marquee.
Galveston’s seawall has been cleared for weeks, and restaurants began opening in early October. One of the Island’s traditional holiday events, Dickens on the Strand, will take place as usual – but during the day, rather than at night, so people can see the progress being made toward restoration of the famous historic district.
Galveston’s historic buildings not only are standing, they are shining, beautiful reminders of a city’s history and pride. Even in San Leon, Bacliff, Crystal Beach, and Galveston’s West End there are restaurants open, and gas available. Foundations may have become piles of concrete slab, and high-end Bed and Breakfasts may have been traded for rows of mattresses with granola bars tucked under the pillows, but time and tremendous effort are stitching life back together.
As in any movement from relief to recovery, the community as a whole has a role to play. Texas communities began playing that role from the first day restaurants and shops began to reopen. Unorganized and unplanned, a grass-roots economic recovery movement took hold as people started putting dollars available for hurricane relief back into the local economy.
Groups with regularly-scheduled lunch dates traveled to Galveston, and ate in the newly-reopened restaurants. People headed to the Island for weekend recreation, buying gas in little towns along the way or in Galveston itself. Needing a few things from the store, friends and I would run down to the “Mom and Pops” in San Leon or Bacliff, instead of going to Target. Families taking their kids to Moody Gardens and fishermen heading to San Luis Pass or the lower Bay stopped at local convenience stores for drinks and snacks instead of taking them from home.
Now and then, someone criticizes the emphasis on re-opened restaurants, bars, and shops by saying “That just benefits people with plenty of money to spend.” But you won’t hear the merchants and business owners saying that. Everyone knows what it means to get “back to business”.
The first weekend Benno’s on the Seawall opened in Galveston, a friend and I drove down for dinner. A few other customers showed up that night. Every time the door opened and someone else stepped in, you could see pure joy on the faces of the owners and staff. Customers meant dollars, and dollars meant hiring, and hiring meant independence and stability for even more people. As the owner of another restaurant said, “Don’t give me a thousand dollars. Come pay me $10 to eat in my dining room. When you bring me that ten dollars, you’ll park your car out front,and let other people know I’m open. When you’ve finished a good meal, you’ll tell someone else they can eat here, and I’ll have another customer. I don’t want a hand-out. I want business.”
Buying “local” has its costs, of course. It’s a fact that gas is more expensive in Galveston. A sandwich there can be a dollar more than in my own neighborhood, and prices at that Mom and Pop store in San Leon are certainly higher than at Wal-Mart. But if those businesses can hire, meet their payroll, and pay their suppliers, it brings benefits to the entire community. When it comes to helping a community recover, cheaper isn’t always a bargain. Sometimes, more expensive has terrific side benefits for everyone in town. Businesses know that, and they’re helping one another in every way they can.
Recovery, of course, is far more than reopened businesses and rebuilt houses. At its core, recovery is the human spirit, taking a deep breath, giving a sigh, and finally sensing there will be a future and new life. As the movement from relief efforts to true recovery begins, there are ways to trace its progress.
In a recovering community, people talk about more than storms and loss. The storm is there, the losses are part of life. But life goes on, and begins to shape itself in new ways. A woman whose San Leon home was damaged but not destroyed provides shelter for a homeless San Leon family – but also goes to party at the Renaissance Faire. A man whose fishing boat was carried away by the surge signs on with a demolition crew, works a 60 hour week, and then goes fishing with a buddy down at San Luis Pass. The ladies of a church group spend days repairing the landscape around the church, but take time to exchange cuttings after lunching at one of those re-opened restaurants. None of these people has forgotten Hurricane Ike, but they understand there is a time to move on.
Another mark of recovering communities is a burgeoning sense of pride. While the water still is receding from the piles of debris, one question hangs in the air, phrased a thousand ways: “Now what?” With so much to do, initial confusion and a sense of helplessness is understandable. But after thousands of people who never knew Varnish John take his advice, starting where they can start and doing what they can do, things change. Today, listening to conversations at Lowe’s or Home Depot or in the cafes, you hear people saying, “There’s still a lot to do, but we can do it. We got a lot of help, and we were given a hand when we needed it. But now we can go on, and build on our own success.”
The final mark of a recoving community is simple gratitude. Driving through my neighborhoods and towns, I see it everywhere. Thanksgiving banners are flying in Kemah. Thanksgiving dinner was served at the Clear Lake Shores Community Center and dozens of local schools. There will be Thanksgiving services in San Leon, Bacliff, Bayou Vista, and Galveston, and community gatherings up and down the coast. In Dickinson, a woman whose trees caved in her roof, allowing water to destroy her home, is driving to Houston to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. In Bacliff, a couple living in an RV are smoking turkeys and briskets for whoever wants to come by. It’s just the way it is.
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 remains. There is pride, and a sense of community. Palpable hope rises with each day’s sun and fears ebb away like the tide. A sofa sits in a ditch at the base of the Kemah-Seabrook bridge, where a dollhouse waits to be plucked from the seagrass. A Mercedes or two is buried in beach sand, and occasional pieces of pink siding still wash up from Maribell’s bar. But now, those are sidenotes, scarcely noticed or remarked.
On this Thanksgiving, it’s the signs of recovery that count. My favorite is a row of hilarious “surfer turkeys” holding a sign that says, “Thanks to Ike, We Finally Got Our House Cleaned”. But there are many, many more. There are inviting signs that say, “Now Hiring”. There are optimistic signs saying, “Open Soon”. And best of all are the simple signs – hand-lettered or spray-painted, vibrant on fences or nearly hidden in debris – that invite celebration.
“Thanksgiving’s Coming,” says one. “Give Thanks for Whatever’s Left.”