Where Gratitude Abides

Hurricane Ike innundates the Galveston Seawall Memorial to victims of the 1900 Storm

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.”

Comments always are welcome. I’ll be traveling later this week, so my responses may be a little slow, but I will respond. In the meantime, a happy Thanksgiving to all.
Published in: on November 22, 2015 at 8:03 pm  Comments (49)  
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Galveston Rising – The Light

Nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum.  Confronted by any sudden or unexpected absence she rises, turns and looks about, seeking remedy, overcome by her own irrepressible urges to fill, replenish and restore.

Ironically for coastal dwellers, it’s Nature herself who often empties out their lives by means of great, unpredictable weather systems that arrive complete with names and histories. The storms are spoken of so often and with such familiarity they could be members of the family: Carla. Andrew. Gustav. Hugo. Ivan. Gilbert. Opal. Katrina. Rita.  Some are massive, maintaining their destructive momentum for hundreds of miles. Others are smaller, with more localized effects, but all arrive as harbingers of emptiness, desolation and loss.

Galveston’s most recent losses came courtesy of Ike, a storm apparently determined to consume not only a city but an entire coastline.  In some places, he left great piles of debris – homes, boats and businesses splintered and collapsed, heaped up and tumbled down, a beach-comber’s horror. (more…)

Published in: on July 22, 2010 at 7:06 pm  Comments (20)  
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Galveston Rising ~ The Trees

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. (more…)

Raise High the Floor Beam, Islanders….

The very definition of “heart-tugging”  is a toddler or young child standing in front of an adult, arms outstretched, begging to be picked up.  Confused, frightened or hungry for attention, they’ve already learned a key to unlocking the resistant adult heart: the single word, “Up!?”   Spoken with authority or pathos, it’s a word that brings big, strong arms down to a child’s level, enfolding the needy little bundle of humanity into a blanket of security, raising it in a flash and ensuring its safety “up there”.

The urge to flee upward seems as instinctive as our impulse to run from danger.  On my third birthday, our neighbors decided I should have a pet.  Invited to share cake and ice cream, they appeared at the back door with a tiny black puppy in a box.  It may have been a cocker spaniel ~ I remember black, glistening curls of fur and long, floppy ears.  The pup wriggled in paroxysms of pleasure as Mr. Ramey rubbed its belly and scratched its ears.  I was entranced, until they put the puppy on the floor.  Turning a few quick circles, the creature produced a cascade of wild yips and headed straight for me.     

I don’t know what I was thinking, but what I did became the stuff of family legend.  In two bounds I was onto a dining room chair and up on top of my mother’s prized mahogany dining table, shoes and all.    Down below, the puppy tumbled and jumped, trying to follow.  I screamed in terror, refusing a chorus of entreaties to “be quiet”, “come down” or “pat the nice puppy”.  Eventually, the well-meaning neighbors collected the pup and made their way home.  I came down from the tabletop after being promised more ice cream, and eventually received a turtle for my birthday. (more…)

Published in: on September 12, 2009 at 2:00 pm  Comments (26)  
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After Ike: A Surge of Gratitude


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.” (more…)


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