Recovery visible a month after Ike

October 12, 2008 7:55:02 AM PDT
A month later, piles of sheetrock, appliances, furniture and family mementos dot most streets in this island town. Electronic road signs in Southeast Texas flash, "Watch for cows next 20 miles," a reminder that few fences remain to hem in livestock. Blue tarps cover 11,000 roofs for 100 miles from Houston to the Louisiana line. ROAD TO RECOVERY: How you can help | Person locator | Important phone numbers | Assistance from FEMA | Filing a claim

And then there are the 37 found dead so far in Texas and hundreds still unaccounted for one month after Hurricane Ike barreled ashore on Galveston Island, leveling trees onto power lines and temporarily crippling the nation's fourth-largest city and the center of the U.S. energy industry.

The storm is the most expensive in Texas history, with an estimated pricetag of $11.4 billion -- so far.

The monster storm -- 600 miles wide when it hit land -- was felt as far away as Illinois, killing another 35 people on its drive across the country. And the shutdown of Gulf refineries caused gasoline shortages in Atlanta and elsewhere in the Southeast.

Galveston County Judge Jim Yarbrough offered a refrain often repeated by officials when discussing recovery efforts from Ike, which blasted ashore Sept. 13.

"It's a marathon. It's not a sprint," he said. "It's going to take at least a couple of years before we fully recover. It's going to be a long haul."

The county for which Yarbrough is the top elected official took a one-two punch from Ike on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, two communities dependent on the income from fishermen and beachgoers.

About 75 percent of the homes on Galveston, about 50 miles Southeast of Houston, sustained some damage from Ike's 110-mph winds, rain and 12-foot storm surge. Residents who evacuated were kept off the island for 10 days. Most have returned and continue cleaning out their homes, salvaging what personal property wasn't drenched or ruined by mold and mildew.

Jon Charon, a carpenter on the island, still hasn't had a chance to open his workshop and assess the damage. As one of the leaders of Galveston Bible Church, he's been too busy helping others to fix his shop or home, which was flooded by 4 feet of water.

"We've still got a lot of people that need help," Charon said as he and others installed bunk beds in one of his church buildings to house recovery volunteers.

While utilities, water and sewer service has been restored to most of the island, about 10,000 households still have no electricity and about 400 people still live in a tent shelter. Some residents also still stand in line for free food and ice.

Galveston County is receiving more funding for housing assistance and other personal needs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency than any other affected Texas county: more than $51 million so far.

Galveston officials are also working to reopen hotels and restaurants and restore its beaches -- the lifeblood of its tourist-dependent economy. Hotels are full, not with tourists but with residents whose homes are unlivable. City leaders scrapped hopeful plans to host a popular annual biker rally at the end of October because the island still wasn't ready. It was rescheduled for December.

Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc acknowledged some residents think recovery is too slow or not meeting all of their needs. At a recent city council meeting, residents raised concerns about temporary housing, debris removal and how or if some residents will be able to rebuild their damaged or destroyed homes.

"As far as our efforts to get back to our feet, we're doing excellent," LeBlanc said. "But we've got two more years of this. We've got to pace ourselves. What's really nice is that the community is pulling together. They are being tolerant and understanding."

On Bolivar Peninsula, just northeast of Galveston, residents continue the cleanup on the spit of land were most homes were flattened or sustained catastrophic damage. Residents can visit to do repairs but are still not being allowed to live there.

Access to Bolivar, population 4,000, remains a problem as both repairs to a ferry that connects it to the mainland and a bridge on the peninsula are still 45 days away from completion, Yarbrough said. Full restoration of power and water to the peninsula probably won't be completed until mid-to-late November.

Debris continues to mount on Bolivar but can't be removed until officials are certain none of the hundreds of missing are in any of the piles, Yarbrough said.

But the county judge said he is confident Bolivar will rebound.

"We are going to build them back better than they ever were," he said.

Insurance losses from Ike are expected to be at least $10 billion, said Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas.

"It will be the costliest storm in Texas history," Hanna said.

And in some regions, Ike's devastation hit an area that hadn't fully recovered from 2005's Hurricane Rita.

In Southeast Texas, a happy housing shortage was created by job growth at area refineries. But that now is causing problems as new homeless families were created by Ike.

More than 3,000 homes in Jefferson County were damaged, said Greg Fountain, emergency management coordinator for the area that includes the oil-dependent cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur.

Next door in Chambers County, County Judge Jimmy Sylvia said his communities have at least $450 million in damage and more than 1,000 homes that are either gone or unlivable.

"We're recovering but it's slow," he said, citing a massive debris field 30 feet high and a mile long in the southern part of the bayfront county. The field, one of many in the area, is composed of the homes that once sat on Bolivar Peninsula and are being searched for bodies.

Agriculture, the other major industry in Jefferson County, was damaged by the saltwater contamination of land. Several thousand head of cattle were killed and the survivors are roaming free with no fences to keep them on their own land.

"The people of Southeast Texas are resilient. We've been through this more than our fair share of times," Fountain said.

Even Houston, despite suffering relatively little damage, is still recovering.

Houston's costs due to Ike are expected to be more than $2 billion, said Frank Michel, spokesman for Mayor Bill White. The hurricane damaged more than 10,000 homes and will force the city to spend about $100 million just on debris cleanup.

Damage in Harris County, which includes Houston, is also expected to be in the billions of dollars, said County Judge Ed Emmett.

But "for the vast majority of the county, things are back to normal," he said.

In Seabrook, a devastated waterfront suburb, Wanda Wilkes' home was flooded by 18 inches of water. Earlier this week, she and her husband Charles rummaged through boxes stacked in their front yard, some of the few personal belongings they could salvage.

"It's tiring, especially at our age," the 77-year-old Wilkes said of the 12-hour days the retired couple spends cleaning up their home. "We'll be back before you know it. That's one thing we didn't learn in life, we're not a quitter."

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