Hurricane Ike!

Storm devastates Galveston, disrupts local electric service, water, schools, events, games

HOUSTON — A huge Category 2 Hurricane Ike changed everyone’s life in Southeast Texas starting last Friday, and continuing through most of this week. The massive storm, almost 500 miles wide, originally aimed at the coastal area around Freeport, but eventually changed its path and hit Galveston directly, causing severe flooding and structural damage to West Beach, Seawall, the Strand area, East Beach, and Bolivar Peninsula to the east. The storm had winds as high as 110 mph, and surge tides up to 20’ tall.

Amazingly, unlike the Great Hurricane of 1900 that destroyed Galveston, which was at that time the largest and most thriving city in Texas, Ike did not cause a lot of deaths. In 1900, estimates of the dead were between 6000 and 12,000. To date, Ike has been attributed with only about 26 deaths in Texas, and about 61 total along its path through other states.

Part of this minimal loss of life is due to the fact that warnings were issued for days prior to its landfall around 2 a.m. on Saturday morning, Sept. 13. A major mandatory evacuation of all of Galveston was ordered on Wednesday, and of low lying areas of Harris County by the end of the week. Eight zip code areas in Harris County were told they had to leave.

Most school districts, businesses, and other institutions decided to be safe, and closed either Thursday noon, or all day Friday, so that people could prepare, or leave the area. Because the evacuation was spread over several days, and other lessons about traffic control and fuel supplies had been learned from previous Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the mass evacuation did not cause gridlock traffic jams. It is estimated that almost one million people left their homes, in Galveston, Houston and Harris County, and other areas that were on the “dirty” side of the hurricane, in other words Beaumont, Orange and other counties to the east of Galveston Bay.

The Hurricane hit early in the morning of Saturday, and Houston had relatively quiet weather up until the actual coming ashore of the storm. Most of the wind and rain associated with this type of storm occured during the night, and homeowners awoke Saturday morning to discover their neighborhoods floods in the southern parts of the county, but only wind damage to trees, building, signs, fences and other similar structures in northern Harris County and surrounding areas.

However, some notable exceptions included two structures in the city, the Brennan’s New Orleans style restaurant downtown, which burned completely, and some fire damage to the Magic Island restaurant, an unusual structure and magic venue on the Southwest Freeway near Greenway Plaza. Firemen were dispatched to fight these fires, although high winds and heavy rain made the response less than ideal.

Galveston did not fare well. Most of the central city was inundated with flood waters, as much as 8’ high in streets of the Strand. Water breached the Seawall, destroying part of it and all the souvenir shops and restaurants built on piers out over the Gulf. Fires destroyed one major boat house in the waterfront area downtown, and many homes in the affluent western end of the island.

Hundreds of homes on Bolivar Peninsula were completely washed away, with barely any evidence that they had ever been there. Some loss of life was projected both on Bolivar and Galveston, because as many as 15,000 people had refused to heed the mandatory evacuation, and they may have been killed by the force or waters of the storm. However, as of press time, only 9 deaths have been attributed to the storm in Texas.

Since the storm has passed, media reports and photos have shown the complete devastation on the islands, but reporters say it is hard to appreciate unless you are on scene. Authorities have kept the public from returning, and it is not known when Galveston might begin to recover or repopulate as a resort city. It is obvious that a massive rebuilding program will be necessary.

To this end, representatives of the state government, including Governor Rick Perry, and the federal government, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, FEMA head David Paulson, and President Bush, have given the area superficial tours and promises of quick relief. However, in actuality aide has been slow to arrive, and there is some evidence that the effort is disorganized. Mayor White and HC Judge Emmett have shown frustration at the lack of results, and expressed it in their news conferences. Congressman Nick Lampson told the Star-Courier that poor performance would bring an investigation by Congressional authorities, and other local congressmen have echoed this sentiment.

Promises from the leadership team have included 10,000 power company workers from CenterPoint Energy, and 7500 National Guard troops from the state. CenterPoint said that they had extra workers coming from states far away, including California, Colorado, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In reality, recovery has been slow, the public and community leaders complained.

Rain hit the Houston area on Saturday, after the hurricane had passed to the north. This rainstorm was a separate storm, coming from the West. It dropped several inches of water, which contributed to extensive flooding seen throughout the area on Saturday and Sunday. Many roads were closed, including I-45, I-10, and feeder roads on most of the Freeways. Authorities have said this contributed to the slow delivery of some FEMA supplies. In addition, bayous could be seen overflowing their banks, including White Oak Bayou, Greens Bayou, and Halls Bayou. The latter had extensive flooding for a while in the area where the bayou crosses Jensen Drive and US59. Due to the severity of the storms, and flooding and power problems, the city closed both airports on Saturday and Sunday to all commercial and private flights. Limited service was resumed on Monday.

Power outages were the greatest problem for most Houstonians. At one point, CenterPoint reported that almost 2 million of their customers were without power, and that it would be weeks to restore full service. Likewise, Entergy reported 97% of their customers without power, and since they serve rural areas, including the Woodlands, they thought it might take 4 weeks to restore everyone to full power. This lack of power has contributed to other problems for most residents: no gasoline, because stations don’t have power to pump gas, and no ice or refrigeration and therefore only a small amount of food that can be stored to eat. Related to this is the fact that most food stores were closed for lack of power or personnel on Saturday and Sunday and Monday.

FEMA and State authorities had promised prior to the hurricane that they would preposition supplies of food, water, and gasoline so that an orderly return to normal would be possible. Part of the plan is to set up P.O.D.s, or Points Of Distribution, throughout the city, county, and Galveston area, to serve the population until full services can return. These P.O.D.s are being manned by volunteers and federal employees. Red Cross, Salvation Army, church and civic volunteers, and TSA (Transportation Security Agency) have been involved.

In the East Harris County area, several P.O.D. locations are now active: In Highlands, at the San Jacinto Community Center; in Baytown, at West Town Mall, 4100 Decker Drive; Baytown Courthouse Annex, 701 West Baker; and in Channelview, Fonteno Courthouse Annex, 14350 Wallisville. Provisions that are being handed out include 2 bags of ice, 2 gallons of water, and a box of MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) per car or family. These PODs are currently set up, but may change in the next few days, so check. By Monday, about 19 locations were actively distributing food and water.

In addition to the official PODs, there are a number of “shelters” that were established the first night for evacuees or those who otherwise found themselves unable to defend against the oncoming storm. Many of these were in churches, schools, or community centers throught the region. The Red Cross reported that Friday night they had established 75 shelters, serving about 9500 persons. One of the first shelters was set up at Crosby High School Friday night.

Many municipalities have instituted curfews, in response to an expected increase in crime because of the areas with no power. The city of Houston had a curfew from midnight to 6am every night, according to Police Chief Harold Hurtt. On Monday, however, he reported that actual crime and arrests were down from the normally expected amount.

Almost all school districts and college districts suspended classes, most from last Friday until the end of last week. This included Goose Creek, Huffman, Crosby, Dayton and Barbers Hill as wellas San Jacinto College and Lee College.. As of presstime, most districts were planning to reopen, with different schedules announced. Most districts rescheduled football games that had been planned for last week, too.

As of Monday about 87,000 of 2.1 million customers had power restored by CenterPoint, according to the company. FEMA reported that a steady convoy of trucks with supplies was entering the Reliant Stadium staging area, where they were then redeployed to the PODs for the public to pick up supplies.